Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to recall once again the bygone era of Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, notably in relation to perhaps the greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane.
As mentioned in our April 18 blog (Hedda and Louella — a ‘Don’t Invite ‘Em’ if there ever was one), these two gutsy women were at various times called vindictive, semi-literate, often inaccurate and ‘silly women.’
Perhaps, but the competing Hollywood columnists — Hopper’s flagship paper was the Los Angeles Times; Louella worked for the Hearst publishing empire and its Los Angeles Examiner flagship — also wielded extraordinary power long before working women ever heard of “the glass ceiling.”
Hedda and Louella influenced movie making and mores for nearly three decades. It only needed one of these ladies to hint that an actor or actress was ‘box office poison’ for contracts to be terminated and studio doors to be slammed, wrote actor David Niven in his very entertaining 1975 memoir, Bring on the Empty Horses.
Niven also noted that they loathed each other.
Be that as it may, Hedda and Louella enjoyed unparalleled access to both stars and studio moguls. How easy that access was can be inferred from Hopper’s 1963 book about Hollywood mores, The Whole Truth and Nothing But, coauthored by James Brough.
What makes one of her recollections so chilling is that it figured in the near suppression of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
In 1940 when the RKO classic was being filmed, Welles had persuaded Louella that the story was something entirely unconnected with her boss (William Randolph Hearst), wrote Hedda. I wasn’t convinced so easily, and Orson finally agreed to let me see the first screening of the finished product in a private projection room of RKO. What I saw appalled me.
W.R. had been a friend to me for years. So had Orson…. After the screening Orson asked how I liked it. ‘You won’t get away with it,’ I said. But he arrogantly insisted that he would. It was his arrogance that decided which of two friendships had to come out ahead.
Hopper proceeded to tip off a Hearst lawyer to tell him about ‘Citizen Kane’ and what Orson was up to. Hearst then phoned Parsons.
When she heard I’d seen the picture already and that, contrary to the assurances she’d given him (Hearst), it had a great deal to do with his affairs, the sky fell in on her, gloated Hopper.
The upshot was a full-scale battle launched by the Hearst forces to have Citizen Kane suppressed. The pressure was so intense at one point that MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and other studio moguls actually made an offer to reimburse RKO if the studio would destroy the negative.
Hopper writes that Parsons was enlisted to contact Nelson Rockefeller in a battle royal to keep ‘Citizen Kane’ out of (New York City’s) Radio City Music Hall, which is part of Rockefeller Center, and every other movie theaters.
The movie survived, of course, and opened in New York and elsewhere in 1941. It was not an immediate box office success. Citizen Kane is now widely considered the greatest film of all time.
The respected British movie journal Sight & Sound has been polling international critics every 10 years since 1952, asking them to identify the best movies of all time. In 1952, the first-place choice was Italian director Victoria DeSica’s moving 1947 film, The BicycleThief. But Citizen Kane took over as the critics’ No. 1 choice in all the polls since, from 1962 through 2002. (The magazine is currently preparing its 2012 poll.)
One wonders if classic movie history would have turned out differently if Hopper had been less eager to outpoint Louella, and had simply kept her trap shut.