Posts Tagged ‘Gloria Swanson’

“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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Yesterday I was on the phone with an actor from Minneapolis for a project I am shooting next week. It’s not an elaborate shoot, but I am casting three actors for a shoot I am doing in Des Moines which is doubling for San Francisco. (Not as hard as you think since many of  the older San Francisco Victorian houses were built by Midwesterners for relocated Midwesterners.)  No matter your budget, you always have schedule and budget issues when casting a project. It’s the nature of the beast when you try to bring a group of people (cast & crew) together for a production.

And it’s easy to think when producing lower-budget projects that more money and time would solve your problems. But listen to difficulties and last-minute solutions that the great director Billy Wilder had in casting the classic Sunset Boulevard:

“I wanted to make things a little harder for myself, I wanted to do that thing which never quite works—a picture about Hollywood. Originally it was a comedy, possibly for Mae West. The picture became about a silent star and a writer. And we could not find the person to play the great silent star. Mae West did not want to do it. Mary Pickford, no. We were about to sign or not sign Pola Negri for the movie. Then we came upon the idea of Gloria Swanson. She had already been abandoned; she was a death knell—she had lost a lot of money on the Paramount lot. But I insisted on her. A wonderful idea, that carried with it the great value that she had been a silent star, and had made a picture with Erich von Stroheim called Queen Kelly, which we could also use on the projection screen in her home. We did a screen test, she did a few lines, where an angry Swanson maintains that she’s still the greatest. Now we had a picture.

Montgomery Cliff was to play the writer. Three days before, he pulled out. It so happened Mr. Clift had had an affair with an older woman in New York. And he did not want to make his first big picture, playing the lead, the story os a man being kept by a very rich woman twice his age…Leading men at that time we all under contract to the studios. And I had to start shooting on Monday, right? So I went through the list Paramount had at that time. And they had a young actor named William Holden. Beedle was his name really, and he had changed it. He made a picture I enjoyed, it was very good, Golden Boy, I gave Holden the script to Holden at one o-clock, and at three he was at my house, and he said, “Absolutely, I want to do it.”‘
Billy Wilder
Conversations with Wilder (interviews with screenwriter Cameron Crowe)
Pages 47-48

Scott W. Smith

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Did you know the Midwest had a big part in the success of Sunset Boulevard? Not only was Gloria Swanson born in Chicago and William Holden born in O’Fallon, Illinois (just east of St. Louis) but Nancy Olson who received and Academy Award nomination in her supporting role in the film was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

But it was a preview screening just north of the city of Chicago that first signaled there was a problem with the opening scene.

While few have seen the original opening of the movie since 1949 there are scripts kicking around with the original open. The opening scene takes place in a morgue where William Holden’s character Joe Gillis lies dead with other dead bodies of men, women and children. Then things get funky when the voices of the dead people begin to talk.

                                                           A MAN”S VOICE
                                             Don’t be scared. There’s a lot of us here.
                                             It’s all right.
                                             I’m not scared.

And then they all continue talking about how they died and one asks if “Satchel Paige beat the White Sox yesterday?” to which the Gillis voice-over replies, “No I wouldn’t. I died before the morning paper came.” The tone Wilder was after was missed by that first audience in the Midwest.

“Because of the touchy subject matter. Paramount sought a venue far from Hollywood to preview the picture. Evanston, Illinois, seemed distant enough. After the opening credits, when the story moved down Sunset Boulevard and into the L.A County Morgue, the audience stunned Billy Wilder. Years later he recalled, ‘When the morgue label was tied on Mr. Holden’s toe, they started to scream with laughter. In the mood of hilarity I walked out of the preview, very depressed.’”
                                                    Sam Staggs
                                                    Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard
                                                    Page 151

Paramount got the same negative reviews in Poughkeepsie, New York  and Great Neck on Long Island. The release was delayed as Wilder took six months to make changes.  When the film was released with changes in 1950 it was generally well received in the larger cities with some reviews having a clear understanding of the lasting value of the film. But the film was not a blockbuster hit. But it would go on to become what many have called the greatest film about Hollywood and in 1998 AFI would list Sunset Boulevard  as #12 on its top 100 film list.


Scott W. Smith

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