BOOTLEG FILES 716: “Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood” (1960 all-star TV special).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No perceived commercial reissue value.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
By the time 1960 rolled about, the film industry was in a very strange place. The studio system had mostly crumbled and many of the major Hollywood productions were being shot overseas. The movie studios learned to grudgingly live with television and a few figured out how to profit from the small screen medium.
Lacing her way in and out of this mix was Hedda Hopper, a one-time minor actress who somehow found a bigger and better career as a Hollywood gossip columnist. Hopper did not inspire indifference in the film world – either you loved her when she lavished glowing coverage on your career or you hated her for her extremist right-wing politics and her often vituperative targeting of stars she disliked. With her trademark extravagant hats and air of self-importance, she invited ridicule – and she even gladly self-parodied herself in the classic film “Sunset Boulevard” when she angrily commandeers a telephone line from the police at Norma Desmond’s mansion to dictate her column to her staff.
In 1960, Hopper still possessed enough clout to helm a television special featuring an array of current and former movie stars. The resulting “Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood” was a mildly interesting time capsule that featured rare appearances by some iconic personalities.
The show opens with a severely overdressed Hopper sitting on a cliff ledge overlooking Hollywood while extolling its glories. “There’s no town like it on the face of the Earth,” she exclaims. “Because it’s business is make believe.”
From that point, the show makes stops at the workplaces and homes of many of Hopper’s famous friends. The first celebrity is Lucille Ball, arriving in her car at the Desilu Studios. She talks for a few minutes about the theater company she has at the studio before hopping into an electric cart to head off for the set of “The Untouchables” and a show starring Ann Sothern – sadly, we don’t get to follow her further.
Next, a genial Bob Cummings shows up to recall how Ernst Lubitsch helped to launch his career. He is followed by a somber Anthony Perkins complaining about how actors with offbeat personalities are ridiculed by the industry for being “eccentric, difficult, ungrateful publicity seekers.”
After a brief introduction to the Westmore brothers who dominated the studios’ make-up craft, TV actor Jody McCrea discusses working on small-screen Westerns before a tired-looking Gary Cooper recalls the highlights of his career and laments, “Every now and then, I like to get back into the ten-gallon hat.” Cecil B. DeMille’s editor Anne Bauchens shows up to discuss how she landed her assignment with the legendary director.
Up until now, the stars looked into the camera and spoke to the viewer – Hopper doesn’t share screen time with her guests. This is switched up in a restaurant setting where the two stars of the 1926 silent “Ben Hur,” Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, talk about filming chariot races with Stephen Boyd, a star of the then-current remake playing in theaters while Hopper sits at an adjacent table and pretends to eavesdrop.
The next segment of the special focused on celebrity homes. James Stewart and his family are shown getting into a car to drive off for a trip, which is followed by then-marrieds Don Murray and Hope Lange doing a puppet show for their youngsters. The couple’s relatively modest home is replaced by a trip to Harold Lloyd’s mansion – the silent funnyman waves from a balcony without speaking a word to the microphone.
But the next segment is deeply poignant. Hopper informs the viewer, “There was a time in this town when you hadn’t made it socially unless you had an invitation to the home of Miss Marion Davies.” Davies had not been seen on camera since 1937, and by the time this special was shot she was recovering from a stroke and suffering from stomach cancer. Hopper worked hard to bring Davies out of retirement for one last appearance, and the star looked glamorous, if somewhat frail, gingerly leaning against a column in her living room. “It’s so nice to have you here,” she says in a somewhat halting voice. “Welcome to my home.” The camera pans away from her to the room’s art collection.
Hopper then takes her viewers to the set of “Meet Me in St. Louis” on the MGM set. Teddy Rooney, the son of Mickey Rooney, points out where his dad shot the Andy Hardy films. She then turns up, oddly, in a balcony of the set of the Lon Chaney “Phantom of the Opera” before John Cassavetes (of all people) asks her to leave because his TV show “Johnny Staccato” is being shot there. Director King Vidor pops up to discuss the production of epic films overseas, followed by Gloria Swanson recalling when “pictures were made for the adult woman.” Debbie Reynolds follows to talk how tired she is after making five films over the past year. Starlet Venetia Stevenson jumps out of a car in tight-fitting casual clothing to run to her film set.
Hopper could not snag Greta Garbo to return to the camera, but Garbo’s cinematographer William Daniels and co-star Ricardo Cortez recall the Swedish star’s mystique. Walt Disney follows to reminisce about his early days, and a 14-year-old Liza Minnelli gets her turn to sing “Over the Rainbow” (badly, unfortunately). Janet Gaynor shows off her Oscar, the first ever given in the Best Actress category, and Bob Hope wraps the show with his rat-a-tat-tat delivery of one-liners on Hollywood’s vices.
On the one hand, “Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood” is like an ADD-fueled trip around Tinseltown. Segments rarely flow into each other smoothly and very little of the celebrity talk is insightful. Outside of Mexican-born Ramon Novarro, there are no minorities on camera. (Hopper was reportedly not the most progressive person when it came to equal opportunity for nonwhites.)
But on the other hand, it is interesting to see the silent era luminaries like Swanson, Davies, Lloyd, Novarro, Bushman, Cortez and Gaynor being treated like royalty in a town where their star wattage had mostly dimmed. Cooper would be dead a year after this was shot and Davies would pass away two years later, which makes their appearances particularly important.
“Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood” was broadcast on NBC on January 10, 1960, opposite Ed Sullivan’s popular variety show. (Sullivan was reportedly angry that Hopper dared to go up against his program.) The show was not rebroadcast and has never been made available for home entertainment release. Unauthorized postings can be found on YouTube and these are in surprisingly good condition. Any fan of bygone Hollywood might find this entertaining, but I am afraid that many people with no knowledge of yesteryear’s movie world will rely heavily on the fast-forward option when viewing it online.
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