"The Racketeer," released in autumn 1929, was the last of three talking features the up-and-coming Carole Lombard made at Pathe. Among her castmates was an actress well into her forties whose tall (5-foot-7) frame made her ideal playing dowagers and society types.
Her name was Hedda Hopper, born Elda Furry in Hollidaysburg, Pa. The now-divorced wife of stage actor DeWolf Hopper had been acting in films for more than a decade by 1929, but would gain her greatest acclaim -- or strike the most fear -- in a far different field.
The actress turned acerbic Hollywood columnist is the subject of this entry in the 2019 "What A Character!" blogathon, hosted by "Outspoken And Freckled" (https://kelleepratt.com/), "Paula's Cinema Club" (https://paulascinemaclub.com/) and "Once Upon A Screen" (https://aurorasginjoint.com/).
Hopper, daughter of a butcher, ran away from home at age 18, found stage work and married DeWolf in May 1913. (Their one child, William Hopper, would gain fame as investigator Paul Drake on the "Perry Mason" TV series.)
Seeking film work, the Hoppers headed to Hollywood in the late 1910s. There, she found steady supporting work in films such as John Barrymore's 1922 "Sherlock Holmes" (William Powell's film debut) and the 1925 "Raffles." Hopper's calling card were her outrageous hats, a comparatively subtle example of which is below.
Before making "The Racketeer," Hopper appeared in another 1929 movie, the original "The Last Of Mrs. Cheyney." She was a reliable character actress, recognizable enough to appear in a stylish fashion spread (mostly sans hats) for Movie Mirror in February 1932:
But time was working against her, and she knew it. (Hopper, born in 1885, shaved five years off her age for professional purposes.) While she still found work as the '30s went on, she looked for other fields...and one of them was journalism.
The rapid growth of the film industry and public interest in its workings led some actors to pursue side jobs covering Hollywood for newspapers. Eileen Percy moved into that role for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/946397.html). Hopper followed in 1935, writing a weekly column for the Hearst-owned Washington Herald.
While that gig lasted but four months, Hopper made an impression on a rival newspaper with a far more influential forum. The Los Angeles Times, seeking to compete with Hearst's Louella Parsons, hired her and the column kicked off Feb. 14, 1938 -- not long after she filmed an uncredited bit part in Lombard's Technicolor comedy "Nothing Sacred."
Lombard is featured in this behind-the-scenes bit in September 1940 (https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/1033341.html):
From all accounts, Carole and Hedda got along, but as Hopper grew into a legitimate rival to Parsons, Lombard and other filmland notables had to tread carefully between them. Had Carole lived past January 1942, one wonders whether their relationship might have changed, as Hopper's far-right views became more strident. (Lombard already saw some of that in her lifetime, as Hopper lambasted Orson Welles for his portrayal of an ersatz Hearst in "Citizen Kane.") Later in the forties, Hopper was an enthusiastic supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Nevertheless, Hopper had many friends in the film industry regardless of ideology. Lucille Ball was one, as was Claudette Colbert. She called the latter "the smartest, canniest, smoothest eighteen-carat lady I've ever seen cross the Hollywood pike. She knows her own mind, knows what's right for her, has a marvelous self-discipline and a deep-rooted Gallic desire to be in shape, efficient and under control."
One of Hedda's later targets was blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, but she didn't always feel that way about him. In 1939, she interviewed him in the wake of his anti-war novel "Johnny Got His Gun," a book Lombard endorsed (https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/466092.html).
Many others felt Hopper's vitriol, including Joan Bennett (who sent her a skunk as a gift), Ingrid Bergman and Charles Chaplin. Hedda also unleashed her typewriter at Joseph Cotten and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., while actress Zasu Pitts -- as staunch a Republican as Hopper -- compared the hat-loving columnist to a ferret.
Like Adolphe Menjou, Hopper rarely concealed her racism. Interviewing Sidney Poitier in 1958, she asked him if he could sing, since "so many of your people do." He said no, and Hopper added, "You're the first one I've ever met who says he can't sing."
By this stage of her life, when Hopper appeared on screen or TV, it was as herself, such as in the 1950 Billy Wilder classic "Sunset Boulevard":
Like her gossip contemporaries Parsons and Walter Winchell, Hopper fell out of favor with a younger generation. In 1965, Hopper attended the premiere of "The Sandpiper" with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and loudly complained when seeing Trumbo's screen credit. Taylor turned around and yelled to her, "Hedda, why don't you just shut the f--- up?"
Hopper still wrote a syndicated column several times a week, but came down with double pneumonia and died on Feb. 1, 1966 -- the same day as silent comedy legend Buster Keaton.
For her work in print, she received an honor denied most character actors...a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.