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Miriam Hopkins stars as the famous turn of the 20th century stage actress Mrs. Leslie Carter in The Lady With Red Hair (1940), a Warner Bros. biopic based on Mrs. Carter's own memoirs. Following a scandalous divorce from her wealthy Chicago businessman husband in which she loses custody of her son, Mrs. Carter decides to become a famous actress despite having no theatrical training. Against all odds, she manages to align herself with famed Broadway writer/producer David Belasco (played with delicious panache by Claude Rains) and enjoys a great run of success in the American theater.
Though Mrs. Leslie Carter was very famous in her day, her contributions to the American stage are all but forgotten today. That makes it all the more interesting to learn the story of this fascinating actress known for her Titian red hair. Mrs. Leslie Carter, who used her married name professionally to spite her ex-husband, was from a school of "emotional" stage acting. This style had actors emoting with hysterical abandon, using wild behavioral mannerisms and gestures to visually convey internal feelings. Mrs. Carter's own style of acting was considered by her contemporaries to be an extreme version of this method.
Under the direction of David Belasco, Mrs. Carter enjoyed her greatest successes in plays like Zaza (1899), DuBarry (1902) and Adrea (1905). Belasco himself was known for his innovative contributions to the areas of stage lighting and design. His work showed how stage design and lighting could be manipulated to create an atmosphere depicting the emotional themes of the play. Unfortunately for Mrs. Carter, the partnership with David Belasco was shattered in 1906. Without telling Belasco, Mrs. Carter secretly eloped with fellow actor Louis Payne after a whirlwind romance. Belasco felt so betrayed that he cut himself off from her forever despite her numerous attempts over the years to contact him. Subsequently, her career suffered greatly without his guidance. As her lavish lifestyle enmeshed her in debt and her histrionic acting in second-rate plays became anachronistic, Mrs. Carter's career never regained its former glory.
For Miriam Hopkins, taking on the juicy role of Mrs. Carter in The Lady With Red Hair was a chance to breathe some life into her own fading film career. The role was a good fit for her, as many of her peers saw Hopkins' contentious temperament as not unlike that of Mrs. Carter. After top-notch work in films like Becky Sharp (1935) and These Three (1936), her roles had steadily dwindled. Eventually she was relegated to taking lesser parts, such as playing second fiddle to Bette Davis in The Old Maid (1939). Lady With Red Hair was a film that gave Hopkins a chance to shine on her own. Although the film didn't enjoy the success she had hoped, The Lady With Red Hair remains an excellent showcase for the often underrated actress.
Producer: Edmund Grainger, Jack L. Warner, Bryan Foy
Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Screenplay: Brewster Morse, Norbert Faulkner, Charles Kenyon, Milton Krims
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Film Editing: James Gibbon
Art Direction: Max Parker
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Miriam Hopkins (Mrs. Leslie Carter), Claude Rains (David Belasco), Richard Ainley (Lou Payne), Laura Hope Crews (Mrs. Dudley), Helen Westley (Mrs. Frazier), John Litel (Charles Bryant).
by Andrea Passafiume