This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. It runs Feb. 1 – Mar. 3, in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar.
Sometimes the movies teach us distasteful life lessons.
You know the lessons we’re talking about: life isn’t fair; the rich live by a different code; the only way to get ahead is to cheat. Sound familiar?
All these joyous virtues are celebrated in the 1936 drama Becky Sharp. This movie, set during the Napoleonic Wars and loosely based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, is about a selfish, ambitious woman who climbs over everybody to advance in society.
“Life owes me many things and I intend to get them,” says Becky Sharp. “All it takes is the least touch of wit.”
(Did you notice another life lesson here? By stating that life owes you something, you have license to grab it. And you don’t even have to be that clever. Whee!)
Now, there are few people who could portray Becky as thoroughly unlikable and unsympathetic as Thackeray originally intended. Really – only one person could pull it off, and that would be Miriam Hopkins.
Don’t get us wrong. We love movies about ambitious women because Hollywood usually portrays them in an amusingly bad way. We also love how the supporting cast is usually filled with morally-outraged citizens who decry the heroine’s behaviour. But Hopkins succeeds in making Becky Sharp so odious, by the end of the movie you’re weary of the character, and weary of Hopkins too.
The rest of the cast is fantastic. Look at this list of talent: Francis Dee, Cedric Harwicke, Nigel Bruce, Alan Mowbray, and the criminally underutilized Billy Burke. The minor characters here are quite interesting, and it makes one wonder what the movie would be like if the story were told from their point of view.
The male characters in this movie are used, then discarded, by Hopkins in her pursuit of the more rich and more powerful. They all seem mesmerized by Hopkins, which we fail to see, but that is the plot so we must accept it.
(Oops – nearly missed another life lesson here: Other people are to be used up and punted aside so we can get what we want. Life is a cabaret, old chum!)
Hopkins received an Academy Award nomination for this film, which is another puzzling thing. Her acting seems to be from the Look-At-Me School of Dramatics. In each scene, we are acutely aware of Hopkins’ acting: Look at me! I’m fake-crying! Look at me! I’m twirling!
In the end, what we are left with is another disappointing life lesson: If you display ambition and an annoying personality, you can get anything you want – including an Academy Award nomination.
Academy Award Nominations (1936):
Becky Sharp – starring Miriam Hopkins, Frances Dee, Cedric Hardwicke. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Written by Francis Edwards Faragoh. Pioneer Pictures/RKO Radio Pictures, 1935, B&W*, 85 mins.
*Becky Sharp was billed as Hollywood’s first feature-length colour film, but the version we screened was black & white.
I dunno. This one is a tough one to call. Judging by your review, I wouldn’t bother with this film. But it’s Billy Burke! How can I say no to Ms. Burke? I’ll pin this movie and watch it when I need me some Billy. 🙂
I adore Billlie Burke which is why I’m grumpy that she doesn’t have more lines in this movie. I mean, they had her on the set, for pete sake! Give her a real part!
I loved this — so funny! ‘Specially enjoyed your aside — “Did you notice another life lesson here? By stating that life owes you something, you have license to grab it. And you don’t even have to be that clever. Whee!”
Ha ha – thanks, Sandy. I really do like Miriam Hopkins but not so much in this movie.
Future first lady Pat Nixon was an extra in this film and did a “walk on” in the party scene.
Well, I did not know that. Thanks for the info, and for dropping by! 🙂
I love Thackeray, and have seen other versions of ‘Vanity Fair’ but haven’t caught up with this one yet – must do so very soon! As a fan of Miriam Hopkins I’ll be intrigued to see her take on Becky, though I’ll bear your warnings in mind… and you have me keen to see the rest of the great cast.
Yes, I’ll be keen to hear your thoughts, Judy. I am a Miriam Hopkins fan, but found her a bit overbearing in this film. But the supporting cast, set and costumes are fantastic!
Miriam Hopkins is an acquired taste apparently, movie buffs I know either love or hate her style. I like her and found her right for this for all the reasons you mention. Nice post! Trivia: I recall from my readings that Lowell Sherman started directing this then got a “chill” walking outside after getting all heated up under the spotlights and died of pneumonia, Mamoulian took over. So the story goes anyway. Best!
NO WAY! Yikes!
Normally I like Miriam Hopkins, but I grew tired of her in this film. Maybe if she weren’t so prominent in so many scenes, then we (as the audience) could have a little breather.
I adore pre-code Miss Miriam. She is a tough act to follow and hard to beat when she is at her scheming best. I loved this post!
Thanks, FlickChick. Hopkins really is a tough act to beat, and is completely credible as a first-class schemer.
Yes! I think you have pegged Miriam Hopkins in this. There are few people who could play as nasty, hateful a character as Miriam Hopkins.
“The dramatic school of Look-At-Me!” haha so true! Love it!
Yes, I suspect Miriam Hopkins LOVED to be in front of the camera. Thanks for dropping by!
Reblogged this on Outspoken and Freckled.
I LOVED MIRIAM HOPKINS IN VANITY FAIR SO MUCH, “IT IS THE ONLY MOVIE I HAVE BEEN WATCHING FOR AT LEAST A WEEK”! I HAVE THE COLORIZED VERSION. I’VE READ THERE IS ACTUALLY AN ENHANCED VERSION. I SAW A CLIP OF IT , AND IT IS VIBRANTLY BYOOTFL! I THINK EVERYONE PLAYED THEIR PART (S) EXCEPTIONALLY WELL. I HAVE TO ADD NIGEL BRUCE PLAYED “ONCE AGAIN” A “BUMBLING IDIOT” AND OTHERS TAKING THE “FAT THING” A LITTLE BIT TO FAR! I LOVE NIGEL BRUCE, EVENTHOUGH HE PLAYS HIMSELF IN EVERY MOVIE I HAVE EVER WATCHED HIM IN. I AM NOT A BIG FAN OF HOW THE ORDER OF THE CAST(S)/PLAYERS NAMES APPEAR . I DONT THINK THE ORDER ARRANGEMENT WAS FAIR, IRREGARDLESS OF STARS VS. BIT PLAYERS. I WOULD LOVE TO FIND A MIRIAM HOPKINS MOVIE SET. I HAVEN’T RESEARCHED. I HOPE I WON’T BE DISAPPOINTED. I AM HONORED TO GIVE MY TIME TO A MOST TALENTED AND BEAUTIFUL
Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts. I would love to see the enhanced colour version of this film!