Why Hedda Hopper Belonged on the Journalist Blacklist

Hedda-Hopper Hollywood Blacklist Witch hunter.
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The best news about Hedda Hopper is that few remember her. Hedda was a journalist (of sorts), who famously wore exotic hats and devoted herself to destroying the careers of anyone she identified as being communist, gay or otherwise reprehensible. Among her victims were Charlie Chaplin, Dalton Trumbo and numerous writers and artists caught up in the notorious blacklist era.

I met Hopper in the 1960s, when she scolded me for writing admiringly about Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter. Last week I was vividly reminded of Hopper’s dark rhetoric when I saw the compelling new film titled “Trumbo,’ in which she is portrayed in all her bristling nastiness by Helen Mirren.

Directed by Jay Roach, “Trumbo” superbly re-creates the political paranoia that gave rise to the congressional witch hunts, a dark era that ruined the lives of scores of artists, and revealed the hypocrisy of Hollywood’s studio hierarchy. Now, decades later, it is clear that it was all about nothing.  There were a few avowed communists around, there were even communist cells, but at no time did an effective conspiracy take shape to contaminate Hollywood films with communist ideology.

In the film, Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston) comes across as a brilliant but obstinate figure who led fellow writers in defying the witch hunters. After serving jail time, he spent years grinding out B-picture scripts and, later, writing studio films under fake names. It was not until 1960, thanks to the advocacy of Otto Preminger, Kirk Douglas and producer Edward Lewis, that he was aptly credited on “Spartacus” and “Exodus.”

The decision to credit Trumbo spurred threats of boycotts and demonstrations from self-styled patriotic groups, and Hopper kept hammering at the studios in her columns and on radio and TV. In the film, Mirren as Hopper threatens to ruin the careers of stars like Edward G. Robinson and Douglas. She also went after MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who coined the expression “Hedda Hell.” Blacklist supporters like John Wayne and James Arness even co-starred in a film titled “Big Jim McLain,” playing investigators tracking down communist sympathizers.

By the mid-1960s when I left the New York Times to join Paramount, blacklisted writers were still struggling to get studio assignments, even though credit was no longer an issue. I decided to be both opportunistic and idealistic; here was a pool of talented writers available at reasonable rates.

Meeting with blacklisted writers was a challenge, however. These were men who loved writing and loved movies, but who had grown to hate the system. Even though I was a youthful newcomer to the studio structure, and was dispensing work, I represented a symbol of the hierarchy and, as such, was someone to distrust. Further, when the conversation merged into politics — and these were very political people  —  the dialogue quickly became antagonistic.

Not that I cared. I admired their talent, not their politics, and proceeded to hire a few of them. The work was not good. Even though they hated the studio system, they still instinctively wrote studio movies — old-fashioned studio movies. I soon moved on to younger writers, some of whom had never heard of the blacklist, but who understood that the movies of the ’60s were searching for a new sensibility.

I met Trumbo himself a couple of times and he, too, embodied that anger and distrust of the studios, but he also reflected a humanity and dedication to his craft — traits vividly reflected in Cranston’s extraordinary performance. Trumbo would have loved the movie.

But it would have ended up in Hedda Hell.

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  1. Aaron Smith says:

    I’m surprised anyone was still paying attention to Hedda Hacker in the 60s…that whole “studio controlling media and press” thing was pretty much worn down by then, wasn’t it? The God-almighty PR machine that she and Parsons ran might as well have been a cupcake stand at that point.

  2. Wonderful article. Trumbo was truly brilliant as the film points out. I met and interviewed a number of blacklisted screenwriters, including Abraham Polonsky. My book is Shedding Light on the Hollywood Blacklist: Conversations with Participants , foreword by Ed Asner.

  3. I Loved Trumbo…Just saw it!!
    If you saw Trumbo and watched the great Edward G. Robinson naming names on the stand in front of HUAC……THEY GOT IT WRONG!!!

    Below from IMDb:
    In an egregious error, the film Trumbo (2015) depicts Edward G. Robinson betraying his friends by naming them as communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee. In fact, Robinson testified before the committee four times but never named names in the sense of accusing anyone of being a communist or fellow traveler. He stated that he had been duped by Communist front organizations, but he never named Dalton Trumbo or anyone else except as fellow liberals who had on occasion invited him to participate in political rallies, etc.

  4. Leslie says:

    Then and now we need to remember you can’t kill an ideology with a gun, a war, a prison sentance or a blacklist. The issue is the first amendment and free speech. When did we lose the ability to actively listen a variety of ideas and to embrace diversity?

  5. tlsnyder42 says:

    Bart obviously knows little of the real history behind the Communist Party’s activities in Hollywood. Actually, Communists like Trumbo were active behind the scenes, not by inserting communist ideology in movies, which they sometimes did, but actually by keeping any of the truth about Joseph Stalin’s murderous, tyrannical regime in Russia out of the movies and by eliminating pro-capitalist, pro-businessand pro-religious memes out of the movies. In doing so, they themselves blacklisted writers and artists who didn’t tow the Party line, including Robert Rossen, writer and director of ALL THE KING’S MEN, which was seen as an anti-Stalinist parable opposed to one-man rule. They also squashed some Anti-Nazi material when Stalin signed a pact with Hitler in 1939, a pact which lasted until 1941 when Hitler invaded Russia, and suddenly, Communists like Trumbo (the author of the famous anti-war novel JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN) became virulently pro-war. You can find this ignoble history about Trumbo and his fellow travelers in books like Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley’s THE HOLLYWOOD PARTY and “The Truth About the ‘Hollywood Ten'” by scholar Art Eckstein online. As Steven Englund and Larry Ceplair write in THE INQUISITION IN HOLLYWOOD, almost all the Hollywood Communists “defended the Stalinist regime, accepted the Comintern’s policies and about-faces, and criticized enemies and allies alike with infuriating self-righteousness, superiority, and selective memory which eventually alienated all but the staunchest fellow travelers.”

    • kamwick says:

      So, your point is that the anti-communist witch hunt was somehow justified? You’re talking about the communists of the thirties and forties. Not the fifties, by which time many of those ‘traitors’, such as Trumbo, had risked their lives defending this country. Unlike John Wayne, who merely played a patriot on film.

      Some Reagan worshippers really can’t stand the fact that their hero was part of the ‘patriotic alliance’ that wholeheartedly, and shamefully, beat so many people into the ground. So they have to pretend that the witch hunt was justified. Understanding that the witch hunt was an evil and shameful part of our American experience is not ‘political correctness’. It’s simply an acknowledgement that our country at times has not been the perfect place many conservatives seem to want promote.

  6. Chloe Louise says:

    This reminds me of Bill O’Reilly and the problem is that a lot of good people can easily be swayed by his brand of the news, his brand of the “truth” and the worst thing of all–his brand of right and wrong.

    • The blacklist wasn’t just in movies. It was all through the workplace. They were laughing in the Kremlin
      as the USA eliminated half of its talent pool. The point of the blacklist was political: get the liberals. The
      non-Southern Democrats. Right-wingers, hostile to nuance and irony, will never understand that hard-
      line Communists hated liberals as much as they did. For obvious philosophical reasons. Then as now
      the Right offers nothing positive, except in rare collaborations with the Left like the Amash amendment
      to curb the NSA. Blame the victim is a game they always play, and Art Eckstein is a master of it. He
      could have been a propaganda star for Stalin or Hitler but Reagan, a true Mc Carthyite, was a good
      fallback idol. I just saw “Trumbo” this afternoon. It held my interest, but it may have been too star-
      oriented (Cranston, Mirren, Goodman) instead of exploring more deeply the damage to people –
      and to the country – wrought by blacklisting.

      Bret RAUSHENBUSH

  7. TheBigBangof20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    Ah, finally, an intriguing movie article worthy of Mr. Bart’s experience and talents. Given the old school balance of content quality, I find the past far more fascinating than the latest dark dystopian teen flick or superhero tent pole. So rerun the Hollywood time machine and give us a break from modern dreck.

  8. cdhaskell says:

    Hedda Hopper shouldn’t be called a journalist because she discover so many life. She used her pen,and typewriter the way some people used gun and knife to killed people. She didn’t care about the truth and honest. She wanted her name in the press.

  9. Chris says:

    Hedda Hopper was a mean-spirited holier-than-thou bully. I was so disappointed to learn that she was one of Lucille Ball’s best friends in Hollywood.

  10. David S. says:

    So. The movie. Wrote itself, did it?

    • kazy says:

      I was surprised to hear that too about Lucille Ball being close to Hopper because Lucy was staunchly against McCarthy and the blacklist and spoke out against it defending the first amendment.

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