One of the effects of the Production Code, intended or unintended, was its changing of how women were portrayed onscreen. Because of course there’s a hypocrisy in the Code; a man could be a ladies’ man still, as long as they were careful about what they said he did with all those ladies, but no woman was allowed the same latitude. A lot of actresses had made their careers playing bold, dynamic women who were confident in their own sexuality, and those characters pretty much just weren’t allowed anymore. Often, that meant the actresses’ careers went into eclipse. So, I feel, it was with Miriam Hopkins.
One of the things she did extremely well was play carefree Lubitsch heroines. Her casual flair in Design For Living really sells the movie, even if you can’t quite buy Gary Cooper in it. Which, you know, fair—it’s really more a Maurice Chevalier sort of part. But where the movie really succeeds is with Hopkins, who is openly sexual. She loves both men, and she’s fine, and it’s not her problem they’re jealous of one another that way. Which is impressive, given how jealous Bette Davis said Hopkins herself tended to be.
Hopkins made about as many movies in 1932 and ’33 as she would all through the ’40s, and I do not think that was a coincidence. The roles she’d excelled at simply weren’t there; even today, you’d be hard-pressed to find many of those roles. It’s not just the sexuality. It’s that the confidence in general was sapped out of a lot of movie women. You wouldn’t get Miriam Hopkins; you’d get Doris Day dithering. And I like Doris Day, and a lot of her early roles weren’t exactly what people think of, but still.
I’ll admit I haven’t seen a ton of her movies, but she definitely deserves to be better known than she is. She was charming and entertaining as hell, and made any number of movies well worth watching. Unlike Barbara Stanwyck, she didn’t make the leap to television much, either, having appeared on just seventeen shows in a twenty-year period. But one of those was Lux Video Theatre!
I would also mention here that she was one of the Actual Southern Belles considered for the most famous pre-Code role in a Code-era movie, Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett was for the most part ridiculously naive about sex, I grant you, but one of the reasons I like the movie more than a lot of other people is that Miriam Hopkins would not have been an entirely wrong choice for the role. Certainly she would’ve been great at Scarlett’s moments of confidence and flair, which were already fading from the screen by 1939.