Friday, June 5, 2009

Guest Blogger Jonas ~ Sunset Blvd.: A Semi-Documentary in Disguise

I am so incredibly delighted to have the Talkie King himself Jonas, from the excellent blog All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!, contribute to this month's Guest Blogger series. Jonas is a premiere expert on the early days of cinema and he's taken this opportunity to write about Sunset Blvd. (1950), a seminal film that bridges two very different eras of film history; the forgotten days of silent film and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In 1911, Hollywood was not much more than a big, quite sleepy, orange plantation when the first movie studios settled down on Sunset Blvd, this almost 40 km long winding road that is actually quite far from a classic Parisian boulevard. In the 1920’s with the arrival of the star system big villas were built for the stars along this mighty boulevard, close to the studios. Some of these mansions were incredibly luxurious, almost baroque in style and didn’t leave the spectator indifferent. The rule of thumb was: The bigger the star – the more overblown and grotesque the palace. It was one of these houses that Billy Wilder saw and got fascinated by in the late 1940’s. Wilder had also heard that old forgotten stars from the silent era still lived in some of those houses.

Wilder and fellow writer Charles Bracket started to write a scenario about a young writer who is chosen to help write on a comeback script for Norma Desmond, an old eccentric film star living in a seemingly abandoned mansion located in a remote area of Sunset Blvd. Wilder and Bracket had Montgomery Clift in mind for the role of Joe Gillis, the young writer. But who would agree to play an aging forgotten film star who was to be totally out of touch with reality? Everyone wants to play a winner and look great on screen. The ideal would be to find a real forgotten silent film star, but who would agree to being forgotten and out of circulation? Wilder discussed the idea with Greta Garbo who had deliberately ended her career some years ago. But Garbo wasn’t interested, she wanted to be forgotten. Then Wilder and Bracket approached Mae West who just frowned and told them she was far too young to play a silent film star… Next! Mary Pickford was interested but was rejected when she wanted to change the script from dark and doom to a picture that was nice and lame. Pola Negri was offended by the offer as she was by no means forgotten and had no intention to play someone who was. One day George Cukor showed up and said “Why don’t you try to get Swanson”. Wilder and company was convinced that Swanson would be as impossible to get as landing a man on Mars. But very surprisingly Swanson was indeed interested but refused to do screen tests. Cukor then told her that if Paramount asked her to do ten screen tests she should just do them, otherwise he would shoot her. Swanson then understood how important she was to the film and agreed to the part.

When shooting was about to begin in May 1949 Montgomery Clift got cold feet and checked out. Clift had a private relation with an older woman at the time and was afraid that this was to be used against him in some way. William Holden was thus more or less thrown in at the last minute. With only a third of the script ready when shooting began it is my firm belief that Gloria Swanson was instrumental for the plot and that she agreed to share many details from her real life and career. The fact that so many things, lines and even props seems to come from Gloria herself, at least I believe it does, gives the movie an eerie documentary feel. I am also quite sure that Erich von Stroheim who plays Max, Norma Desmond's butler was chosen because of his earlier relation to Swanson and that it was Swanson herself who came up with his name as some sort of gesture, because she once had fired him from Queen Kelly, effectively ending his career (and her own). It is no coincidence that the movie that is projected in Norma Desmond’s private cinema is the infamously unfinished Queen Kelly from 1929 the only film that Swanson starred in that was directed by Stroheim. I know that the inclusion of the images from it definitely came from Swanson. Every single reel of Queen Kelly was property of Swanson's. The images from it shown in Sunset Boulevard are the first that were ever seen by a large audience in the US since the movie only had been released in a severely shortened European version in 1931. Another interesting detail worth mentioning occurs when we get a good glimpse of Cecil B. DeMille at work at the Paramount lot. He was the director that more or less discovered Swanson and his nickname for her in real life was “Young Fellow”, a nickname he naturally use when he meets Norma Desmond on the set in the movie.

The Bridge game is often mentioned in the reviews of Sunset Blvd. This is natural because the bridge players are the real old silent film stars Anna Q Nilsson (Swedish), Buster Keaton and HB Warner playing themselves. Many reviewers also state that they were forgotten like Norma Desmond was in the picture. This is not entirely true. Those veteran bridge players had done about twice as many movies as Swanson had done at the time. Anna Q. Nilsson made a staggering 200 movies between 1911-57, 39 of which are talkies. HB Warner did 134 movies between 1914-56, 90 of them were talkies. Buster Keaton have almost the same score, something like 145 films made and about 90 of them were talkies or TV work. Anna Q. Nilsson was one of the very first movie stars who became a well used bit player with time. HB Warner was never out of work during his career, he made about three pictures a year almost without skipping a beat. Buster Keaton was far from the star he once was, but his face never disappeared from the screen. He made lots of films during the 1940's. Contrary to other assumptions I have made I think their participation in Sunset Blvd. was planned before Gloria Swanson was considered for the movie because they had very little to do with each other in real life back in the days. In 1923 Gloria made a film called Zaza for Famous Players-Lasky Corporation in which she played against H.B Warner but that's it. H.B Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson did two movies together in the 1920's and were both contract players at First National for a long period of time. Buster Keaton was his own quite early on and never did anything with Swanson apart from Sunset Blvd.

The true forgotten stars of Sunset Blvd. are of course von Stroheim and Swanson. Remember that It was Gloria's second film since 1934 and merely her eighth talkie. She had made an unsuccessful attempt at a comeback (or return as Norma Desmond would put it) in 1941 in RKO's Father Takes A Wife but it was no success and made the company lose $100.000.

von Stroheim's history is very speckled. When he got kicked out in the cold from Queen Kelly in 1929, he had directed his last big picture and was from then on degraded to acting only. His talkie career consists almost entirely of strange parts as Germans or bizarre evil characters in movies made all over the world during the 30's and 40's. His best role from those years is without hesitation his brilliant Captain Rauffenstein in Renoir's La Grande Illusion in 1937.

All these details makes Sunset Blvd. a very strange and beautiful Film Noir and with its documentary references it becomes a multi faceted black diamond that will never fall out of fashion. Sunset Blvd. is cynical about everything to do with the movies, the business, fame and the cynicism of William Holden’s hard boiled narration. Everywhere it looks, it sees the damage that stardom can do and how people are willing to exploit each other to get it. That’s probably what makes it one of very few timeless movies, as relevant to the present day film industry as it was in 1950. You can’t leave Sunset Blvd. without mentioning Gloria Swanson’s superb performance. The role as Norma Desmond demands a broad performance, even alone within the walls of her mansion she's over the top. But using big gestures and broad manners and not going past the line where acting descends into unintentional comedy is a delicate balancing act which she pulls off almost effortlessly, especially when you consider that she really hadn’t worked since the early thirties. The role as Norma Desmond is without a doubt Gloria Swanson’s finest achievement, possibly also Billy Wilder's.

Please make sure you watch Jonas' blog All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! for a follow up post on Gloria Swanson's Queen Kelly.


  1. I love this analysis of "Sunset Blvd" as a documentary in disguise. Excellent, Jonas.

  2. This is wonderful, Jonas.

    Great job. :)

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Raquelle,
    Thank you so much for having me!
    It was a pure pleasure writing this post for your excellent blog.

    Jacqueline and Ginger,
    Thank you ladies!

  5. Always like to read a fresh angle on this movie, which I view around once a year. I could nitpick and say the film would've been even eerier if done in 1960 when the time gap was more pronounced, but then we wouldn't have had DeMille! As it is, Swanson did a crazy circa 1963 TV cameo in BURKE'S LAW in which I swear she must have studied Disney's Cruella DeVille image beforehand, given her appearance. It would have provided an even wackier spin on HBLVD.

  6. I love the idea of big, grotesque mostly abandoned mansions. I think that's why I like Sunset Blv. so much! That house, and Gloria Swanson's wonderful performance, give it a great creepy vibe. I've always been impressed by that shot of William Holden floating in the pool. It seems like a very typical shot today, but pretty strange and disturbing for 1950.

    Jonas, I love all the background information you have provided here. It's simply excellent. Kudos to Gloria Swanson for being able to poke fun at herself when all those other stars downright refused. I like what you say about Buster Keaton and the other stars, who had longer careers and were less forgotten than Swanson. Plus this really made Swanson a film icon! I think the saddest character of them all has to be von Stroheim! Poor guy.

    I'm looking forward to your Queen Kelly post!

  7. That's a fantastic in depth look that I'd not noticed before, except for von Stroheim, and that's only because Ebert touched on it.
    Thanks for an excellent read about one of the great movies.

  8. Nicely written.

    I've always wondered about von Stroheim - his history and career border on the very unusual.

    I've watched "Greed" a few times and I think it hints at von Stroheim's values and POV. Either he was a throw-back to Germanic decadence of the early 1900s or he simply had a good eye for moral corruption.

  9. Great post Jonas! I can't wait to read more about Queen Kelly! :)

  10. Wonderful post. Sunset Boulevard is one of my favorite films because of all the Hollywood references - plus, the backstory of this film, which you so greatly detailed, is equally as interesting. Nice job.

  11. Great post, really interesting... but am I alone in not agreeing with the final line?
    I don't think it's anything like Swanson's best, or Wilder's, and I've always found its cynicism overdone. It has an attitude of fifties cinema looking down on silent cinema, and laughing at it, and expecting us to laugh too. I certainly don't think it's any kind of elegy.
    Am I wrong? I mean, I do like it, basically... and Wilder's wit is always savage - I just prefer him when he goes after bigger, braver targets.

  12. I just watched and reviewed SUNSET BOULEVARD last week (about the 10th time I've seen it) and I have a slightly different take on the final line. I see it as a sad demise of a human being, a woman who has become a thing of camphor and nitrate, her flesh and bone only real when viewed upon the silver screen. Look at Stroheim's eyes, he's crying, not for the loss of silent cinema but for a doomed woman he loves. This transcends simple and blunt sarcasm and becomes a sublime insight into human frailty.

    Great write-up Jonas, THANK YOU!!

  13. I meant the last line of the post - about it being Swanson's and Wilder's best film... I can't actually remember what the last line of the film is...

  14. wow i didnt know about Clift being first choice for that role! but i cant even imagine anyone else but Holden playing that part, he was so great! nicely written overview!

  15. Thank you all for insightful comments!

    King Of Jazz,
    Gloria - Cruella DeVille Hahaha! You are probably right! I bet that In a few years Madonna will look like Swanson did in her later years.

    The pool shot was apparently very tricky to obtain, they had to use extremely cold water to get the right effect.

    Bill Stankus,
    I think both Stroheim and Lubitsch were extremely European when it comes to conception of the human morale. Where von Stroheim explored the dark side of it, Lubitsch went for the light. There will be more about von Stroheim in the Queen Kelly post I'm working on.

    Matthew Coniam,
    Oh no... Sunset Blvd doesn't look down on the silent pictures as a genre at all I think. To me it's only Norma Desmond who is pathetic on a personal level. How many famous people haven't turned out pathetic in the end, refusing to lose the glow of fame...Look at those actresses who were offered the role. It says it all I think.

    The other really great movie Billy Wilder did must be Double Indemnity? Or did you mean another one? Which is a better Swanson picture according to you?

    Alex DeLarge,
    Very beautifully explained!

    Artman 2112,
    Oh yes, Clift had rehearsed the role and everything but jumped off. Apparently the script is said to be loosely based on the life of Mae Murray.

  16. Jonas - Yes, Double Indemnity is great, but there are many, many others. The Apartment is my favourite.
    As for Swanson, I like her when she's being effervescent - any of the DeMilles, really: Male and Female, Don't Change Your Husband, Why Change Your Wife?...
    As I say, I do like Sunset. I just think that most of Wilder's films have this intense love-hate thing going on with America and American culture, and that this time he's going after a soft and somewhat undeserving kind of target. I think Norma Desmond is beautiful... far better than anyone around her in the film.
    But I really enjoyed your post!

  17. As a long time tournament bridge player, I enjoyed the references to the game in your piece. Bridge in films are always middle-aged ladies and cups of tea, when it is one of the most cut-throat and tough games that can be played, when played well that is. I love this film and the actors and director involved and enjoyed your writing...very much

  18. Thanks, Jonas, for giving such a lovely analysis of what I feel to be Wilder's finest hour--and one of my top 5 favorite all-timers.

  19. Hey Jonas,

    Excellent post! Very interesting and informative... Thanks!

  20. Hey Jonas,

    Excellent post! Very interesting and informative... Thanks!

  21. I was just talking to an old Hollywood friend about missing the good ole days of Hollywood (1991-2003 for me that is)... and all he said was "We rode that Shit Wave from Sunset Blvd on to the Valley long enough and I don't miss it!"

    And it just got me thinking about this movie and I LOVED your blog!.... great read....

    I think I'm gonna have to start writing my book on my days in Hollywood now.
    Craig Amabello


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