Friday, December 14, 2012

Stubs - Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard (1950) Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Produced by Charles Brackett. Run Time: 110 minutes. U.S.  Black and White.  Film Noir, Drama.

One of the great films of all time, Sunset Boulevard is perhaps best remembered as a comeback vehicle for actress Gloria Swanson. While her own life in some ways mirrors that of the film’s star, Norma Desmond, Swanson is herself anything but a caricature. Swanson, during the silent era, was one of cinema’s biggest stars. Even though Charlie Chaplin didn’t feel she was leading lady material, Swanson had a meteoric rise in movies, from appearing as an extra in Essanay’s The Song of the Soul (1914) to working in Mack Sennett comedies in 1916 to working with Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount where she became a romantic lead in dozens of films.

From 1919 until she left to join United Artists in 1927, Swanson made about thirty films at Paramount Pictures. Over the course of her career, she acted with Rudolph Valentino (Beyond the Rocks, 1922) and was directed by Raoul Walsh (Sadie Thompson, 1928) and Erich von Stroheim (Queen Kelly, 1929).

And while she transitioned to talkies, her film career was definitely on the decline. Her only big talkie success was her first, The Trespasser (1929), which was released in both silent and sound versions and she garnered an Academy Award for her acting. But after that, her films were flops; she made only six films between 1930 and 1950. After having lived on Sunset Blvd in an Italian palace, she moved to New York City in 1938. There she starred in radio and on television with her own live-show, The Gloria Swanson Show (1948).

But despite Swanson seeming to be the obvious choice to play the part, she wasn’t the first actress approached about the role. While director Billy Wilder first thought of Mae West, he never approached her. However, he did call Pola Negri, but she was too difficult to understand with her thick Polish accent. Norma Shearer turned down the part; so did Greta Garbo. Wilder and Brackett went to visit Mary Pickford, but decided against asking her before bringing up the idea. Wilder asked George Cukor for advice and it was he who suggested Swanson. But even then, she had to do a screen test before Paramount would hire her.

Swanson’s co-star is William Holden. After starring in Golden Boy (1939), the story of a violinist turned boxer, at the age of 21, Holden’s career had stalled. World War II didn’t help matters in which Holden served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. While he had gone back to Hollywood in 1947, his films were less memorable until he was cast as Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd. After that point, his career took off. He followed up Sunset with such hits as Born Yesterday (1950), Stalog 17 (1953), Executive Suite (1954), Sabrina (1954), Picnic (1955) and peaked with Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

The film opens with our narrator, Joe Gillis, face down in a pool, shot three times by actress Norman Desmond. Joe is an unsuccessful screenwriter who has fallen on rock hard times. Two guys from the finance company (Larry J. Blake and Charles Dayton) have come for the car. Gillis owes about $300 on it. He tells them that a friend has borrowed it, when in reality he’s stashed it across the street. When the repo men leave, Gillis tries to get some money. His best is to follow up on an original script he has at Paramount with a producer there named Sheldrake (Fred Clark). While Sheldrake shows some interest, it is the reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) who gives him a bad critique. Sheldrake won’t buy the script and he won’t loan him enough money to keep his car, either. Neither will his golf-playing agent Morino (Lloyd Gough), who thinks Gillis being destitute will lead to better writing.

On his way back to his Hollywood apartment, Gillis sees the repo men and they see him. A chase down Sunset ensues, with Gillis blowing a tire. He limps into a driveway of what appears to be an abandoned mansion. After the repo men drive past, Gillis pulls the car into the garage. But his is not the only car being stored there. There is a 1929 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A, a rare Italian luxury car, about the size of a small bus.

But Gillis still thinks the house is empty until he is called over by Max Von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). Max thinks he is there to tend to the deceased chimpanzee of the lady of the house Norma Desmond. Gillis recognizes Norma as a long-forgotten star of silent films. This is where you get the famous “I am big it’s the pictures that got small” line, one of the many quotable lines from the screenplay. Norma is mounting a comeback and has written her own version of Salome, the biblical tale, which had previously been made twice as silent films: Salome (1918) with Theda Bara and Salom√© (1923) with Alla Nazimova. When she finds out Gillis is a writer, she hires him to pull her script into shape, though she doesn’t want him to make any radical cuts.

Gillis spends the night in her guest room over the garage, but when he awakes the next morning, he finds all of his belongings had been moved overnight by Max. But while Gillis at first rails against the move, he quickly decides that Norma is someone he can use to get back on his feet. He sells himself to the devil so to speak.

Norma still thinks she’s famous, after all she still gets fan mail, which we later find out is sent by Max. Max tells Gillis that Norma is in a fragile shape mentally and has tried to commit suicide before, hence there are no locks on any door in the mansion. When it rains, Joe is forced from the leaky guest room and takes up residence in what had been the husband’s bedroom, next to Norma’s. For entertainment, Norma either watches her old movies or plays bridge with other silent actors, whom Joe dubs the Waxworks.

This group includes the great Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson. Keaton, who is a favorite of this blog, needs no introduction. He is one of silent cinema’s greatest comedic talents. H.B. Warner has already been mentioned before on this blog for his part as Mr. Gower in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). His career goes back to the 1900’s short English Nell and he appeared as Jesus Christ in DeMille’s 1927 The King of Kings. He would make the successful transition to sound and appear in several Frank Capra films as well as DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). Nilsson, a Swedish-born model, was once considered the most beautiful girl in the U.S. She started appearing in films in 1911. Her career would last until the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Many of her appearances are uncredited, which was not unusual for the time.

Norma begins to lavish gifts on Gillis, buying him new clothes, jewelry and even a tuxedo that he wears to her New Year’s Eve party. It is there he finds out they are the only guests. When Norma makes her feelings for Joe clear, he rejects her. She slaps him and storms off to her room. Joe leaves the mansion and goes to Artie Green’s (Jack Webb) party. Artie is an Assistant Director, who, like everyone at the party, is struggling. It is at the party that Gillis runs into Betty again. She is Artie’s finace√©. She is excited to see him because she’s found a passage in one of his stories that she thinks might be worthy of making into a script. Joe is willing to hear her out. He calls Max to tell him to pack his old clothes. Gillis is informed that Norma has slit her wrists with Joe’s razors. Joe hurries back to the mansion and to Norma’s bed.

When Norma thinks her script is ready, she sends it to Cecil B. DeMille (Cecil B. DeMille). DeMille had been one of Hollywood’s first directors with The Squaw Man (1914) for Paramount Pictures. He would go onto direct The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927), the former which DeMille would remake as a technicolor epic in 1956. He was one of the first directors to use Technicolor, even using the two-strip process during the Exodus scene of the silent Ten Commandments. DeMille would also make a name for himself as a celebrity, hosting the Lux Radio Theater from 1936 to 1944. He even directed Gloria Swanson in Male and Female (1919).

But while she receives phone calls from Paramount, they are not from DeMille, but rather another executive named Gordon Cole. Norma refuses to talk to anyone who isn’t DeMille. Finally fed up with not hearing from him, Norma, with Joe in tow, heads to Paramount to confront him. DeMille, who is shown filming the biblical-looking epic Samson and Delilah (1949) on Stage 18, is surprised to see her. He sits her down in his chair to see how films are made now. While she sits waiting there is a delicious shot of a boom microphone which swings in low by her, even ruffling her hat as it passes to her obvious annoyance. Sound literally passes her by. But when the extras and production techs recognize Norma, they fawn all over her.

Meanwhile, Joe goes to visit Betty in the reader’s room. She begs him to write the script with her, but he gets called away by Max. It is Max who has found out about the calls from Gordon Cole (Bert Moorhouse) are only because he wants to rent Norma’s Isotta Fraschini for a Hope/Crosby road picture. But Norma doesn’t know that and leaves thinking DeMille will call her when he wraps up his current project.

This causes Norma to take up a strict health and beauty regime. Joe starts to think about Betty and the two of them meet late at night in her reader’s office to work on their script. When they get writer’s block they walk through Paramount’s old back lot. Ultimately, the two fall in love. Artie, who’s on location. wants Betty to come marry him, but now Betty’s reluctant. When Joe asks what happened, she replies with the famous “You did.” When Joe returns to the mansion, Max is waiting for him. Joe learns that not only is Max a devoted servant, he was the one who discovered and directed her and was even her first husband. He gave up his own film career to serve and protect her.

But Norma finds out about the script and makes late night calls to Betty to tell her Joe isn’t the man she thinks he is. Joe overhears one such call and invites Betty over to see for herself. Even though it is early in the morning, Betty and her roommate Connie (Gerry Ganzer) drive to Norma’s mansion. Once Betty is there, Joe coldly breaks up with her, letting her believe that Joe would rather live off of Norma than write or be with her. She leaves in tears, one imagines to Artie’s arms.

After she’s gone, Joe starts to pack to leave, planning on returning to his native Ohio. He is finally tired of the rouse. But Norma is not so willing to let him go. When she tells him she’ll kill herself if he does, Joe is willing to call her bluff. He tells her that there will be no comeback, that there are no fans writing her letters. When he storms off, Norma snaps and shoots him three times. After all, no one leaves a star.

When the police arrive, along with the press, including Hedda Hopper (Hedda Hopper) and a Paramount News crew, Norma is unresponsive. When she learns there are cameras downstairs, she turns to Max to direct her. Thinking this will at least get her downstairs, the police go along with the deception. Max directs the cameras one more time as Norma makes a grand descent down her grand staircase. She even addresses the room, telling everyone that she’s back and will never leave them again. After which she speaks the now famous line “All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

There is so much to recommend this film. Billy Wilder is one of the great writers and directors in the history of Hollywood. I’ve already fawned all over his Double Indemnity. Like that film, Sunset Boulevard is dark. This is not a happy Hollywood film and could have been melodramatic in a lesser director’s hands.

Swanson’s acting may look over-the-top, but it is not campy. Norma Desmond thinks she is living in a silent movie and acts in the exaggerated manner employed by many of the actors and actresses of that era. Without words, they had to emphasize with facial and hand gestures. This is not a comeback for Swanson, but as her character prefers a return to the spotlight.

The film offers a look at the underside of the studio system, which itself was already disappearing by 1950. For every star, there were hundreds of struggling writers, assistant directors, above and below the lines talent. But even against all odds, someone like Betty Schaefer could rise from the mailroom to be a reader with ambitions to write.

Nancy Olson, who played Betty, was at the beginning of her career, which would include appearances on dozens of TV shows as well as the occasional Disney movie: Pollyanna (1960), The Absent Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963). She was about 22 when she made this film and holds her own with Holden and Webb. Webb was only a few years away from his own stardom on the radio and then TV series Dragnet.

Erich Von Stroheim is perhaps best remembered for his role as Max, but he not only acted in films, as far back as Birth of a Nation (1915), but also directed. The Austrian-born Stroheim only directed about a dozen films, but he left an indelible mark. His Foolish Wives (1922) which he wrote, directed and starred in was billed by Universal as the first film to cost a million dollars to produce. But Stroheim is perhaps best remembered for his faithful adaptation of Frank Norris’ novel, McTeague as Greed (1924). Originally started as a film for Goldwyn Studios, it was caught up in the Loew’s merger that resulted in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Greed originally clocked in at 10 hours, which was too long even by the director’s own standards. But even the director’s cut down to 264 minutes was too long for MGM’s new head of production, Irving Thalberg. Eventually Stroheim was removed from the project and another director cut it down to two and a half hours. It proved to be a financial failure at the box office. But the uncut version was and for some is still considered to be the greatest film ever made. We’ll never know, since footage cut from the film was destroyed. But a legacy is a legacy. Stroheim would go on to direct The Merrry Widow (1925), The Wedding March (1928) as well as Queen Kelly with Swanson. The last film he directed was Hello, Sister! (1933). 

If you’ve never seen Sunset Boulevard it is definitely worth a viewing or two. And it is one of those films that might require a second viewing to take it all in. This is one of the greatest Hollywood films about Hollywood ever made. It is also one of the best films ever made period.

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