Second-tier stars of the 30s, between them they had fewer Oscar nominations in their lives than Bette Davis had wins by 1938. (Hopkins was nominated for Becky Sharp, Francis never.) Yet one cannot live on legends alone, and it is often the more recognizably human stars who earn our love-- or at least, who give us a reason to keep watching old movies after we've seen all the capital-C classics.
To be honest, Francis was not the actress Davis was, by a long ways. She basically had one expression-- a sort of rueful, yet hopeful, worldly resignation. But Hollywood saw two things in her-- one, that that mood could go a long way in the right kind of story, hinting at all sorts of feminine knowledge of what goes on between two people, how men have delighted and disappointed her. Been there, done that, yet willing to try one more time for the romance that will sweep her away, because what else is there to do in this world? She made a great movie about lovers with only a short time to live, One-Way Passage, but all that means is that it's exactly the same plot as all her movies, a little more condensed. I described a quintessential Francis scene in William Wellman's Man Wanted here:"There's a terrific scene, probably the sexiest separate-beds scene until North by Northwest, where Francis is waiting in bed, slinkily attired and positively purring for her hubby, he delays a little in joining her, then she discovers evidence of his adultery-- and sadder but wiser, she leaves it on his pillow and turns to sleep facing the other way."
The other thing Hollywood saw was that she was just about the best thing a designer dress could hope to be hung on. She raises wearing Hollywood costumes to an art form. A greater, more soul-searing performance would get in the way of the couture, make it seem trivial. Her acting was at the level of great costuming, at a moment of particularly glorious geometric Deco stylishness; the architectural compositions Fritz Lang needed an army of extras to produce, Francis could achieve by walking across the room in a floor-length gown. If wearing clothes with grace and style on screen seems like a small thing next to playing Medea, well, it's not so small when we praise Cary Grant for it.
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In my book I prefaced praise for Miriam Hopkins in King Vidor's The Stranger's Return with the words "Ordinarily a brittle and bitchy actress..." The problem is, I no longer know what role of hers I was thinking of when I said that. It fits Becky Sharp, certainly, but I don't think I had seen that then. It's hard to see that it would have fit Dr. Jekyll (in which she's at her pre-Code slinkiest as a whore wriggling her way into bed), or either Trouble in Paradise or Design For Living. Maybe I thought that of These Three then, though I really don't remember anything about it at all now. Or maybe I just held it against her that her near double in looks and Southern voice, Helen Chandler, never really managed to have a career (and came to a very sad end) after very affecting turns in The Last Flight and Outward Bound, no doubt in part because with Hopkins so active, she seemed a bit redundant.
In any case, Hopkins stands out in my memory for two performances in particular. One is the criminally unknown The Stranger's Return, in which she's the Depression-whipped city girl who returns to the family farm and gradually becomes grounded again. It's a beautiful tale of spiritual regeneration and maturation, far superior to Vidor's other back-to-the-land movie Our Daily Bread, and Hopkins completely convinces you that a city gal with good clothes could find deeper satisfaction working the farm than in a married man's arms. If Vidor had directed The Awful Truth, Irene Dunne would have ended up in Oklahoma City with Ralph Bellamy, and liked it.
The other is a lesser Lubitsch than the ones named above, The Smiling Lieutenant. I described the key scene in an AMS post (reposted and amplified here) about Lubitsch's German films, such as The Oyster Princess:
Two bed scenes, a year apart-- Hopkins' erotically yowsa turn as the whore in Dr. Jekyll, and this shy, tender, delicate moment-- two of the greatest moments of erotic desire, frank but not tawdry, ever put on screen.This use of consummation as the motor of a movie's climax recurs in Lubitsch's The Smiling Lieutenant-- Chevalier, whose princess bride (Miriam Hopkins) has been a cold fish, has turned his interest elsewhere; while the frigid princess has finally warmed up (in fact she's rarin' to go) but can't seem to make him realize the fact. There the dramatic climax comes out of marital miscommunication, shyness versus worldliness, distinctly human emotions-- and it's one of the most touching examples of the Lubitsch Touch in action.