Posts Tagged ‘Erich von Stroheim’

“I am big— it’s the pictures that got small.”
The faded from glory silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Blvd. 

“We didn’t need dialogue—we had faces.”
Norma Desmond (Sunset Blvd.

Yesterday it was announced that (mostly) silent film The Artist lead the race for the British Academy Film Awards with a total of 12 nominations. 

So in it seems fitting to continue to glance back at the silent film era. In real life around the time that the fictional story The Artist takes place, the highest paid actress was Gloria Swanson. In a 1957 interview Mike Wallace called her, “One of Hollywood’s most spectacular links with its glamorous heyday.” My introduction to her in film school was not her silent films, but her Oscar-nominated performance in Sunset Blvd. (1950) where she played a faded and forgotten film star.

The Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett/D.M Marshman Jr. written film is one of my all-time favorites. (It’s also #12 on AFI’s list of America’s Greatest Movies.) It’s also one of those film that gets richer over time as I appreciate another layer of the film. Even that line “I am big—it’s the pictures that got small” has a new meaning today as people watch movies on computers, iPads and cell phones. 

A silent movie clip in Sunset Blvd. that is supposed to be a Norma Desmond in her big screen glory days directed by her now butler is actually the 1929 film Queen Kelly staring Swanson and directed by Erich von Stroheim (who plays the butler in Sunset Blvd). If Norma Desmond was a real person and alive today she may at least appreciate that though pictures haven gotten even smaller Queen Kelly has its own Facebook page. Another memorable line in Sunset Blvd. is when von Stroheim tells Norma, “Madame is the greatest star of them all.” A line that newspapers headlines play off of when Swanson died in 1983.

It was wondered if Swanson would make the transition from the silent era to the talkies. Her first speaking role was The Trespasser (1929) for which she earned an Oscar nomination. (And a film the was reportedly written in three weeks by Edmund Goulding who also directed the movie.) 

The backlash for The Artist has already started. I’m glad I saw the film in an art house theater with little expectations. Despite whatever awards it wins, perhaps the greatest value of The Artist is reintroducing people to silent movies. To giving a nod to the creative people of the past whose work is often not simply forgotten, but not even known about in the first place. 

Here is a scene from Sunset Blvd. that featured several silent movie stars that hadn’t been seen on screen in years. It’s been said that this scene made audience gaps when first seen. (Imagine a movie scene in 20 years featuring Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Will Smith and Angelina Jolie—a few years past their prime— sitting around passing time playing cards.)

And as nod to show you how dangerous they kicked it back in the ole’ days here is a Gloria Swanson interview recounting a scene from the 1919 film Male and Female.

Oh, and for what it’s worth—Gloria Swanson was born in Chicago.

Related post: Screenwriting from Sunset Blvd. (Show what happens sometimes to screenwriters from Ohio who struggle in Hollywood.)

Scott W. Smith

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