One of the things I miss most about Classic Hollywood are screen teams. I feel like I don’t go to the movies any more for stars, it’s usually for the latest remake or franchise. We can criticize the studio system for MANY things but one of the things I love are screen teams. They were so many frequent pairings, it’s easy to sing the praises of Doris Day/Rock Hudson, Joan Crawford/Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn, and ignore countless others.
In this new series, Double Takes, I’m looking at some of my favorite screen teams that I think are worthy of another look. This year, I started on a big Joel McCrea kick after catching The More The Merrier for the first time. While him and Jean Arthur are magnetic together (that stoop scene!), I devoured more of his filmography and found myself in love with the films he made with Miriam Hopkins.
McCrea and Hopkins were paired in five films together and each of them are very different. Much has been written about Hopkins and discussions about her these days tend to lean into her feud with Bette Davis and Hopkins’ reputation as a difficult woman. Colleen, the writer of the blog “An Appreciation of Miriam Hopkins,” once wrote to McCrea about his experiences working with her and McCrea couldn’t have been nicer in his note he sent her, saying,
“She was a professional gifted young lady – she was never difficult with me – and seldom with anyone that treated her with the respect she deserved. . . . She was a fine actress and I was an unproven actor – she was adorable to me (a former cowboy) trying to make good.”
I start with this quote because it gives insight behind the chemistry these two shared onscreen. The first film the two made together is the romantic comedy, The Richest Girl in the World. McCrea plays Dorothy Hunter, the richest girl in the world, but nobody actually knows who she really is because she’s spent her life hiding herself for fear of gold diggers. She switches places with her secretary in hopes of finding a man who will love her for who she is. During her quest, she meets and falls hard for McCrea’s Tony Travers. It’s easy to see why Warner Brothers decided to pair the two again. They made a great team and a scene in a dark den with the two by a fire sells it. The two match in wits and their glances bring the heat more than the flames in the fireplace.
The physical contrast between the two draws you, as a viewer, in. At 6’2, McCrea towered over his leading ladies including Hopkins who was just 5’1. There’s an added sensuality to this. When McCrea embraces Hopkins, his movement gives an aura of protectiveness to his love for her. His characters are crazy about her but want what’s best for her.
They would reteam the next year for Barbary Coast, an adventure film directed by Howard Hawks. It takes place during the Gold Rush in San Francisco with Hopkins as a tough gold digger (actual gold, not men) and McCrea is a naive poet. The first scene they share together is a sweet moment where Hopkins’ character escapes from Edward G. Robinson’s crooked saloon keeper during a rainy evening into McCrea’s house. McCrea hasn’t seen a woman in years and is instantly smitten by her presence. Their sparks are instant and set the romance of the film in motion.
Their next film Splendor has McCrea playing a man from a once wealthy family who falls in love with Hopkins, a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. In this film, McCrea’s family faces bankruptcy. They’re not happy about McCrea marrying Hopkins and treat her like the dirt they think she is. This family is so terrible, the matriarch blackmails Hopkins into sleeping with a wealthy man that could jumpstart McCrea’s career. What will she do? As a young couple, Hopkins and McCrea are perfect and you root for them because their chemistry is so good. Hopkins is put through the ringer and she is so good at conveying her character’s pain being in the middle of her love for her new husband and his horrible family. McCrea is charming as ever and you feel for him too. He’s oblivious of what’s actually going on, thinking his hard work and talent are the reason for his success.
The fourth McCrea/Hopkins pairing is in These Three, an intense adaptation of the play, The Children’s Hour, however, this film changes the homosexual theme into a heterosexual one and focuses mostly on the lie. The love triangle involves Hopkins, McCrea and Merle Oberon. Hopkins is the standout in this as the doomed Martha (Fun fact: she would appear in the film remake as Martha’s aunt). In this film, McCrea gets engaged to Oberon but it’s in his moments with Hopkins where the real sparks fly. These two are just an undeniable pairing.
Their final film together is the screwball comedy Woman Chases Man. Hopkins does a great job at handling the rapid fire dialogue of the genre. The five films in which they were paired also mirror the versatility these two had as actors. Hopkins has often been criticized as too theatrical or wooden perhaps that’s due to her voice but I think she’s far from that. Hopkins plays an ambitious architect trying to get millionaire McCrea to fund her project. On the whole, this is probably my least favorite of their films, but their scenes make up for it. Watch out for Broderick Crawford in an early role.
Each of these films, except for Splendor, are available on DVD via Warner Archive.
Do you have a favorite screen team? Let me know in the comments!