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Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood

The close-up begins on the stairway. Forgotten silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) has been lured into police custody for the murder of screenwriter/kept man Joe Gillis (William Holden, the dead narrator in the pool) with the promise of cameras. Trailing her like movie extras are several LAPD officers and an attractive older woman. She and her wide-brimmed hat are the only bright objects in the frame. Moments ago she was pleased landing the exclusive on this Hollywood cougar murder, but her demeanor crumbles watching the demented Norma walk towards the newsreel cameras until her face blurs, then fades.

The close-up begins on the stairway. Forgotten silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) has been lured into police custody for the murder of screenwriter/kept man Joe Gillis (William Holden, the dead narrator in the pool) with the promise of cameras. Trailing her like movie extras are several LAPD officers and an attractive older woman. She and her wide-brimmed hat are the only bright objects in the frame. Moments ago she was pleased landing the exclusive on this Hollywood cougar murder, but her demeanor crumbles watching the demented Norma walk towards the newsreel cameras until her face blurs, then fades.

Somehow in 1950 Billy Wilder got past Paramount censors to direct Sunset Boulevard, his brilliant, bitter look at Hollywood. Playing herself complete with trademark hat was gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. That Hopper appeared in a film loaded with plot devices she despised (sex…murder…unhappy ending) and most likely did not approve of (the pet monkey) is one of the great ironies of this acerbic masterpiece. Like Norma, Hedda became a relic but as Jennifer Frost chronicles in the insightful Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism, she was a force to be reckoned with.

Hedda Hopper (1885-1966) came to Hollywood as an actress. In addition to Sunset Boulevard, the former Elda Furry appeared in Alice Adams (1935), The Women (1939), and an episode of I Love Lucy. She became a gossip columnist in 1935 when she lost her money in the Depression and, then as now for too many actresses, roles grew scarce because of age. Parlaying her typecasting as a “classy, flamboyant, and bitchy older woman,” gossip became the role of Hopper’s career that at its height included syndication in 85 newspapers, 32 million readers, a radio show, and a $100,000-a-year salary.

Frost does an exceptional job reminding contemporary readers and cineaphiles how powerful Hopper and the Hollywood studio system were. From the 1920’s to mid-1960’s, studios like Paramount controlled everything from contracts to final cut and distribution. Hedda was the “in between” who “put gossip in the same category as news” reporting sanctioned, occasionally fictionalized, information to the public. When the studio system started falling apart in the 1950’s due to television and actors taking charge of their careers and lives, Hopper’s influence fell too.

Movies and their stars were not the only topics of Hopper’s reports. Her columns were forums for her conservatism. She opposed The New Deal and U.S. involvement in World War II prior to Pearl Harbor. Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan were all enthusiastically endorsed in print. Vehemently anti-Communist, Hopper encouraged the taking of loyalty oaths and “naming names.”

While it can be argued that Hopper’s opinions were not unusual for the time, in hindsight a few are naïve, Hopper insisted that Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 visit to Hollywood was “to sell her picture!” and considered Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe “leftie.” Another of Hopper’s ridiculous declarations is rather prophetic. Despairing over the number of British Oscar nominees in 1964, she suggested creating a “tea party of our own.”

Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood makes an extremely valuable point noting the relationship between Hopper and her public. It is what separated her from rival columnist Louella Parsons. Long before social media, Hedda’s fans created a film community built on avid letter writing, and Frost makes extensive use of correspondence Hopper saved from her readers.

The connection between reporter and reader/writer derailed and destroyed careers. Several examples are provided but close attention is paid to Hopper’s hounding of Charlie Chaplin. Bad enough for Hopper that Chaplin was an iconoclast; he didn’t do interviews. His British citizenship and preference for much younger women led Hopper to repeatedly condemn his “political subversion” and “moral perversion.” The attacks worsened in 1943 when Chaplin was named in a paternity suit (proved false) and again in 1947 when Monsieur Verdoux was released. Hopper labeled the unapologetic bourgeois Bluebeard comedy “Red-bait.” Thanks to her friendship with J. Edgar Hoover, reader outrage, and support of Catholic and Veterans’ groups, the smear campaign reached its zenith in 1952 when Chaplin was denied re-entry in the U.S. He would not return until 1972 when Hopper was long dead.

With very few exceptions, pre-civil rights Hollywood was no different than Hopper. Frost demonstrates this discussing Walt Disney’s Song of the South. This 1946 adaption of Uncle Remus stories has always been controversial. (The original cut is unavailable on DVD.) Hopper described Remus as a “lovable old Negro philosopher” and groups such as NAACP who denounced Song as “Commie.”

More telling is Hopper’s 1958 interview with Sidney Poitier. She doesn’t bother asking about his emergence as the first black leading man but rather:

HOPPER: Did you sing? So many of your people do.

POITIER: I couldn’t sing for beans.

HOPPER: You’re the first one I’ve ever met who says he can’t sing. I’ve never known any of your people who couldn’t sing.

POITIER: (smiling): Sorry to be the exception, but here I am.

There is enough material in Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism for Frost to explore in future books. Readers may be curious enough to watch the films mentioned in the text. Those seeing Sunset Boulevard for the first time are to be envied.

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