Over the years, what actress was Carole Lombard's principal rival for movie roles, sometimes winning, sometimes losing? Was it Claudette Colbert, her cohort at Paramount? Good guess, but no. How about Constance Bennett, the actress whose arrival at Pathe led to Lombard's departure? No, not her, either.
The actress who vied with Carole more often than anyone else isn't all that well remembered today, even though she had a solid career with a number of hit films. She worked with many great co-stars and directors, and in fact played the title role in the first three-strip Technicolor feature.
Her name was Miriam Hopkins, like Lombard an attractive blonde. And while she was undeniably talented, she soon won a reputation (perhaps not entirely deserved) for being not the easiest of actors to work with. She and Lombard would intersect at a number of points throughout the years.
Nearly six years old than Lombard, she was born Ellen Miriam Hopkins on Oct. 18, 1902 in Savannah, Ga. Her mother moved Miriam and a sister to Bainbridge, Ga. in 1909, and a few years later they relocated to New York City. While several biographies of Hopkins state she attended Syracuse University, where an uncle headed the geology department, the university registrar has no record that she ever went there.
In 1920, Hopkins auditioned for several Broadway plays, but she didn't get her big break until she won a part in irving Berlin's "Music Box Revue" the following year. Her first speaking role didn't occur until 1923, and from then she made steady progress up the stage ladder. In 1926, she was fired from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," reportedly for being too intelligent for the part, but later that year acted in the stage version of Theodore Drieser's "An American Tragedy." By now, she was a leading lady, and remained that way on the New York stage for several years.
In 1928, Paramount recruited Hopkins to appear in a talking short, "The Home Girl," filmed at its Astoria, Queens, studios in New York City. It was there two years later that she made her feature debut as the leading lady in "Fast And Loose" -- a film in which Lombard had a supporting role (it was the only movie she would ever make in the east).
"Fast And Loose," with Preston Sturges providing dialogue, was somewhat of a critical and commercial success, and Hopkins decided to go west when Paramount shifted all its feature film work to Los Angeles. Her first film in California was a good one -- Ernst Lubitsch's "The Smiling Lieutenant," co-starring Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert.
Several actresses on the Paramount roster tried in vain to be assigned to the film...including Carole Lombard. She instead was given a film initially planned for Hopkins -- "Man Of The World," opposite future husband William Powell.
And so it continued. Due to her stage background, Hopkins was deemed higher than Lombard on Paramount's totem pole, and so she won a lead part in Lubitsch's "Trouble In Paradise" -- a movie whose script Lombard loved, but didn't even apply for, knowing Hopkins had it in the bag. But when Miriam proved diffident or wanted to get back to Broadway theater work, Carole was usually plugged into her part. So it was with a late 1932 film called "No Man Of Her Own," especially after Hopkins bailed out when she learned that co-star Clark Gable, loaned out from MGM, was guaranteed top billing as part of the deal. (Earlier that year, Hopkins had the leading lady role in Fredric March's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.") Like Lombard, Hopkins was under consideration for the film that became "It Happened One Night" at Columbia, but turned it down.
The Hopkins-Lombard dance for roles continued. In fact, Hopkins was initially Paramount's choice to star opposite George Raft in "Bolero," but when she backed out, Lombard became her replacement. Eventually, Hopkins cut short her Paramount contract and becane a free agent, but not before acting in another Lubitsch pre-Code gem, "Design For Living."
In June 1935, Hopkins made history when she played the title role in "Becky Sharp," the first three-strip Technicolor feature and an adaptation of Thackeray's "Vanity Fair." (Earlier versions of Technicolor were unable to film shades of blue, so that color figured prominently in the film.) Here she is in a still from the movie with Nigel Bruce:
Other films followed, including "These Three" in 1936, a bowdlerized adaptation of "The Children's Hour" in which the lesbian aspect was heavily downplayed. (Hopkins had a supporting role in the 1961 remake called "The Children's Hour.") Like so many other actresses of her era, Hopkins desperately wanted to play Scarlett O'Hara, although she was never a serious candidate.
Lombard and Hopkins intersected one final time. In mid-1941, Hopkins was set to star in another Lubitsch production, but her planned co-star was cool towards her and Lubitsch was having difficulty securing finances for this independent production. Lombard, who had long wanted to appear in a Lubitsch film, contacted Hopkins, who agreed to withdraw. Carole's participation in the prokect enabled Lubitsch to get the financing he needed. The film? "To Be Or Not To Be," co-starring Jack Benny. One wonders how history might have been changed had Hopkins not deferred to Carole.
Hopkins didn't have very many friends in the industry, although Kay Francis was a notable exception. She made a few films with Bette Davis, with whom she feuded (Davis reportedly had an affair with Hopkins' husband, director Anatole Litwak). She married four times, all ending in divorce, and the only child in her life was a son she adopted in 1932, in between marriages.
After World War II, Hopkins spent much of her time in the infant medium of television, acting on an array of anthology programs. In fact, she portrayed Norma Desmond in a 1955 "Lux Video Theater" adaptation of "Sunset Boulevard." In the sixties, she guested in episodes of three wildly different series -- "Route 66," "The Outer Limits" and "The Flying Nun." She died of a heart attack in New York in October 1972, nine days short of her 70th birthday.
In recent years, Hopkins' work, especially on pre-Code material. has become better appreciated. But one senses she'd have a more lasting legacy today if she had played the Hollywood game a bit better.