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.