By: Megan McGurk
Among the scenes depicting a woman’s libido on film, Miriam Hopkins lolling around on a bed lamenting the fact that she’s not a gentleman should rank at the top. While she’s remembered for her sexpot role as Gilda in Design for Living (1933), where she plays a woman enjoying a luscious three-way romance courtesy of Ernst Lubitsch, Miriam gets lost in the shuffle in favour of other screen goddesses from the era. She did not announce her desire in the same way that other women did on the screen. Miriam didn’t lower her lids and hug the shadows like Marlene Dietrich; she did not fall into a swoon like Garbo; nor did she adopt a suggestive slouch like Jean Harlow; and she didn’t drape herself in luxe high fashion like Joan Crawford. Miriam, often buttoned up to her neck, with a sober bow laced under her throat, could make a prim skirt suit appear as seductive as a silk bias cut gown. Her trademark used splayed hands across her hips and abdomen, as if to hold firmly in place the seat of desire. Miriam never left you in any doubt when her characters were gasping for it, especially in Woman Chases Man (1937). Posters for the screwball gem label her a ‘she-wolf’ which may misrepresent the romantic dynamic, but she serves as proxy for women (and men) in the audience who want to ogle Joel McCrea. She’s hot-to-trot for him in every scene.
Instead of obvious touches with wardrobe or boilerplate mechanics of allure, Miriam creates a subtle version of a grown woman’s sexual appetite. Miriam also straddles the line between seduction and screwball antics better than anyone, Carole Lombard included. Not many women can shift from a George Raft impression (talking out of both sides of her mouth at breakneck speed) in one scene to salivating over Joel McCrea in the next. Her desire for McCrea knocks against the restraints of a genteel background to obliterate distinctions between a lady and a dame. Miriam’s debutante accent announces cotillions, mint juleps on the veranda, boarding schools, and echoes those familiar rules about what nice girls do and instead blows them a raspberry.
As Virginia Travis, a struggling architect, Miriam conspires with Charles Winninger’s failed entrepreneur B.J. Nolan to take his son through the hurdles, so that Kenneth (McCrea) will shell out from his inheritance and fund an experimental social housing project. But she’s distracted from the plan to eradicate tenements once the tall drink of man-water arrives. Suddenly, the petite blonde looks like a wolf in grandma’s clothing when her eyes land on the son. Joel looks so delectable from his first scene when he’s introduced in a manner that’s usually reserved for a socialite character in film (Claudette Colbert or Barbara Stanwyck, for example). Since we are in woman’s picture territory, our gaze lingers over McCrea lounging ship deck wearing glamorous black sunglasses with all the other gorgeous rich folks. He looks good in a suit, too, when he turns up to lecture his father about fiscal responsibility.
Initially Miriam’s only interest in the house was checking the pillars and the floorboards to evaluate its architectural integrity, but then she latches eyes on McCrea’s exquisite design once he shows up with two sketchy guests in tow. When he boasts about having cured his nearsightedness with eye exercises, Miriam looks him over and sagely observes ‘you must have exercised all over’. Then she takes a large step back and away from McCrea, recognising his proximity may prove troublesome. She doesn’t trust herself to stay too close—she may lose the run of herself. Other people notice. Leona Maricle plays a scam artist who intends to marry McCrea for his money and then feather a nest with a lover (Erik Rhodes) she presents as her uncle. She’s the first to remark that she doesn’t like the way Virginia looks at Kenneth. Maricle’s oily gigolo also notices the look and warns McCrea against the tiny blonde.
Sure enough, McCrea notices and asks ‘say, do you look at everybody like that or just me?’ He tells her that she shouldn’t look at men that way and ‘you ought to do something about your eyes’. When she looks at Joel, her eyes become rounder and seem like they verge on filling with tears. He makes her mouth and her eyes water. Miriam’s face tells you that in her head, she’s already in his arms. With Peter Pan collars and elaborate bow loops, Miriam has no trappings of seduction in the early scenes, which contrasts with the faux heiress in lamé cut down to her sternum. Leona Maricle’s character who’s visibly dressed for seduction fails to entice McCrea or even capture his attention. Meanwhile, Miriam’s prim collar and balloon taffeta sleeves fail to disguise her flaming desire for McCrea.
After dinner the first evening, Joel administers a bit of chiropractic adjustment when she injures herself while watching the parade of crackpot inventions his father frittered away the family fortune to produce. Miriam’s flustered by his manoeuvres, probably because she’s too distracted by what it hints about his boudoir prowess. He rocks her head back and forth before he cracks her neck to the left and right, then massages her neck and shoulders. When he assures her ‘I know exactly what I’m doing’, Miriam liquefies. She moves from behind the desk to the sofa, and he again obliges her with soothing adjustments. Head thrown back in ecstasy, his laying of hands narcotises the architect.
When she’s ready to seduce him, to land both a signed contract for a housing development and have a taste of his bedroom exercises, she improvises a frothy confection from the bedroom chiffon window dressing, a full two years before Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett wore green velvet drapes to petition Clark Gable for money in Gone with the Wind. In the frothy dress with a low neckline, she drinks too much champagne and becomes woozy, so McCrea, being a gentleman, throws her over one shoulder and carries her to bed. Miriam swings her head up from resting against his back as she passes Maricle—she’s not so blotto that she resists the opportunity to gloat that she’s getting McCrea’s personalised turn-down service.
A glorious screwball set piece in a tree that involves a torch lamp and a chair soon follows. Allan Ellenberger’s biography of Miriam Hopkins (Miriam Hopkins: Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel) notes that the cord that was supposed to secure her to the Magnolia tree broke. She fell to the floor and spent four days in bed to recover. Miriam always rallied for a performance. Mishap aside, the finished scene includes a glorious bit of choreography that begins with Miriam meowing outside McCrea’s window for help when her robe gets stuck on a tree limb. Viewers know the two are destined for each other because they use the situation to play instead of doing anything sensible. When he asks her if she’s having fun, Miriam milks it: ‘some trees are fun but this one’s just fair’. She enunciates ‘fair’ as if it has three syllables, a flourish that intensifies the comedic element through such ladylike exaggeration. Miriam also powders her nose for the same bit of business with humour from incongruity. What else should a lady do when you’re stuck in a tree with a gigantic hunk of a man? Gallant McCrea offers ‘tree service’, where he offers a floor lamp and then a chair. Once she lands in his lap on the chair, viewers realise he’s impossible to resist. Tree gymnastics outside his bedroom give us a glimpse of what pleasures a screwball Adam and Eve might enjoy inside. McCrea said of Miriam when they worked together on Barbary Coast (1935) ‘she was adorable to me (a former cowboy) trying to make good’. You can see how delighted Miriam was with him and why they made five pictures together. By the end of the scene, everyone in the cast climbs in the tree or stands at the trunk. Miriam has a great gag where she pulls down one of the branches and whacks her rival on the head. She’s not about to give up McCrea to a woman bent on cuckolding him.
Along with the saucy gusto she exhibits on-screen chasing her man, Miriam Hopkins hits other key notes of woman’s pictures. In her first scene, while she’s cadging a job, she passes out cold in a rich man’s office because she hasn’t eaten in two days. Nearly every major star in the 1930s had at least one scene where she was ravenous and on the verge of collapse (Joan Crawford in Sadie McKee, Dancing Lady, The Bride Wore Red; Sylvia Sidney in Thirty Day Princess; Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face; Garbo in Anna Christie; the entire cast of Stage Door). She pleads for a job with a great speech, one that sparks a fire within every woman watching:
I know what you’re thinking. That I’m a girl. Yes, but I have a man’s courage, a man’s vision, a man’s attack. For seven years, I’ve studied like a man. Researched like a man. There is nothing feminine about my mind. Seven years ago, I gave up a perfectly nice engagement with a charming wealthy old man because I chose a practical career. I left him at the church to become an architect, and today I’m ready and he’s dead.
Adamantine in her resolve, Miriam’s character persists until the entrepreneur relents and agrees to put her under contract and they cook up the plan to persuade his son. Miriam’s speech validates every woman in the audience who at one point in her life had to convince some man that she had brains and talent in spades. What’s also great about her speech is that we don’t question her bona fides,but we do see the folly in a woman who thinks she can cloak herself in the male point of view—it’s a platitude as doomed as Gilda’s ‘no sex’ agreement with two hot dudes. Woman’s pictures define hubris in any woman who believes she can resist Joel McCrea. The picture also shares the same winning dynamic from Theodora Goes Wild, released a year earlier, where Irene Dunne shows Mel Douglas how to resist ties that bind. Here, Miriam enlightens Joel against marrying ‘a lovely thing’. He trades predictability for spontaneity and joy.
Sam Goldwyn may be mocked for his cringeworthy malapropisms, except oftentimes, he was dead on the money, like when he said of John Emerson, Anita Loos’s dead-beat husband ‘lived off the sweat of his frau. Goldwyn had a gift for championing a good story; he stuck to his guns even though the picture appeared doomed from the start. First titled The Princess and the Pauper, then The Woman’s Touch, which eventually became Woman Chases Man Goldwyn assembled a reluctant cast and crew. If not for Sam Goldwyn’s tenacity, the picture would never have been made. The May 1937 edition of Life magazine reports that screenwriting duo Sam and Bella Spewack abandoned the project and refused to have their names in the credits. Eric Hatch, who wrote for the New Yorker took a pass. Dorothy Parker and Ben Hecht are among seven writers who took a stab at reviving Goldwyn’s foray into screwball territory. Ellenberger explains Goldwyn’s trouble finding a director. William Wyler was supposed to helm the picture, except he hated the script so much, he declared it a lost cause and took a three-week salary cut and returned a $25,000 bonus to Goldwyn to get a release. After Gregory La Cava read the script, he immediately left the studio. Despite studio executives telling Goldwyn to cut his losses at $100,000, he dug his heels in and hired John Blystone to direct and Joseph Anthony, Mannie Seff and David Hertz to doctor the script.
Reviews for Woman Chases Man were fairly poor, which seems somehow inconceivable. Miriam is bawdy, hilarious and the one who makes everything happen.
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