Back On Sunset Boulevard
Sunset Boulevard harked to a past in movies as it looked to a future in exploitation. This would be the first feature to incorporate TV spots into its advertising campaign. National Screen Service was the distributor of trailer sets made up of two twenty second spots and a pair at one minute each. The package could be rented from NSS for thirty-five dollars. Television was finally recognized in 1950 as a necessary adjunct to publicity campaigns, despite studio abhorrence of the home screen. Talk and panel programs were fertile ground for free advertising. Much of the word gotten out by Gloria Swanson on behalf of Sunset Boulevard came about as a result of her appearances on local chat shows across the country. Previewing, reshooting, and extensive post-production delayed Sunset Boulevard for almost a year, but this was opportunity for Paramount to raise press and critical awareness of the exceptional product they had. This being a Hollywood story, industry screenings were numerous and a hot ticket among movie personnel anxious to see their walk of life dramatized on screen. Wilder wanted authenticity and so used actual names and places. Fictional Monarch and Miracle studio references were jettisoned in favor of the real thing. Big names agreed to lend flattering quotes for use in Sunset Boulevard ads (one shown here), and these weren’t limited to artists on Paramount payrolls. Endorsements from Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, and Gene Tierney were not a commonplace even on their home lots. I suspect industry reaction to Sunset Boulevard cut along generational divides. Those who’d arrived and flourished with talkies no doubt saw it as accurate and honest with regards the silent era, while survivors of that vanished period felt cruelly exploited and put upon. Mary Pickford was said to have left her screening prior to lights coming up. I’d venture that much of Louis Mayer’s wrath came of having spent his own early career in silents, being a decade and a half older than Gloria Swanson. Could Mayer have sensed the Hollywood scrap heap laying in (less than two year’s) wait for him? Perhaps symbolic, if not coincidental, was the fact that Sunset Boulevard would be the last major studio release shot on nitrate negative.
The opening was at Radio City Music Hall. Paramount emphasized critical raves and otherwise relied on a tagline nearly as uninspired as that used to sell Citizen Kane (It’s Terrific!). Many posters simply read A Most Unusual Motion Picture with credits against stark red or yellow backgrounds. Oversized paper beyond one-sheet size omitted picture art altogether. The Style "A" (shown here) is by far the most collectable of otherwise unexciting promotion issued on Sunset Boulevard, being a stunning image of maniacal Gloria Swanson looming over William Holden and Nancy Olson. Paramount’s bigger fish that year was Samson and Delilah. It was a gigantic hit. The pictures merge in Sunset Boulevard when Norma Desmond goes to visit Cecil B. DeMille on the set of his blockbuster. It’s amusing to hear DeMille shun the notion of filming that awful script (Norma and Joe’s Salome), yet here he is in 1949 shooting what amounts to a modern Salome. So entrenched was CB in silent technique and staging for his own productions that differences between Samson and the would-be Salome are negligible at best. No director was as wedded to archaic methods, though DeMille was always up to the minute in terms of showmanship. I’ve no doubt CB could have turned the Desmond-Gillis Salome into another Samson-sized smash had he given it half a chance.
The waxworks label had to sting. Cinematographer John Seitz had been there when Rudolph Valentino played The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. He was fifty-seven when Sunset Boulevard was made, having been in the business since 1916. Would this man have looked in the mirror and seen waxworks? Wilder's caustic vision consigned many a veteran (some not so much older than BW himself) to perhaps premature oblivion. Dim figures you may still remember from the silent days, says William Holden’s narration. For Buster Keaton, it was merely another (single) day’s work, but this was not a man otherwise disposed to sit in a rocking chair, and hadn’t H.B. Warner done fine work as Mr. Gower the druggist just a few years before in It’s A Wonderful Life? A look at call sheets for Frank Capra, John Ford, and, yes, Cecil B. DeMille pictures will reveal staggering numbers of so-called waxworks in both bit and speaking roles. These directors went way back in American film and formed numerous professional attachments along the way. Billy Wilder was a comparatively recent arrival, and had not the sentiment they felt for longtime contributors to the industry. These colleagues might have agreed with Mayer that Wilder was indeed biting the hand that was feeding him.
Norma Desmond’s film archive appears to be better stocked than any silent personality I’m aware of. She and Joe Gillis watch movies three times a week according to Holden’s narration, and all of them Desmond vehicles. This is one occasion where Sunset Boulevard departs well from reality, as few stars owned copies of their work, let alone complete libraries in 35mm. Swanson herself would lament the extinction of most of her films. The memoir she published in 1980 mentioned a then-lost pairing with Rudolph Valentino. Who’d have guessed then that Beyond The Rocks survived, let alone among the holdings of an eccentric loner collector in the Netherlands? Imagine the excitement UCLA archivists would have felt having a go at Norma Desmond’s private stash! Those with home libraries generally owned the negative --- thus DeMille, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd; each maintained storage for practical as much as sentimental purposes. Few working actors took prints home. Colleen Moore had a number of First National features in which she’d maintained some ownership. These were donated to the Museum Of Modern Art in the fifties, but subsequently lost when mistakenly transferred to Warners. All those years Moore safeguarded her prints and now they’re gone. Clara Bow’s family has two of her films --- that’s all --- and both are talkies. These people spent old age with no more idea of how to see their old shows than we had. Most who lived in Los Angeles had to drive down to John Hampton’s Silent Movie Theatre (shown below) to get a glimpse of themselves. Norma Desmond might have made fewer suicide attempts had she known how lucky she was to screen 35mm nitrate reels of Queen Kelly in her living room, and you’d think ongoing access to such viewing treasures would make Joe Gillis’ gigolo status a lighter burden to bear as well, despite his professed indifference to the silent classics. The two of them watching Queen Kelly plays like an excursion to some indian burial ground, yet there was only twenty years between that unfinished feature and Sunset Boulevard. Twenty Years?? That seems like just yesterday to me!
Watching Sunset Boulevard made me wonder about the real Norma Desmonds among retired screen stars in 1949. Did Wilder base his story on fact, legend, or just imaginings he’d had? Surely there was gossip about crazy ex-movie queens holed up in crumbling mansions, but who and/or how many? Sunset Boulevard’s gothic treatment seems right. Wilder had to have encountered fallen stars in their natural habitat to come up with something so authentic as this. I don’t recall any interview where the writer-director actually revealed his inspiration for the character. Certainly there were actresses whose final days evoked Norma Desmond. Mae Murray was said to have engaged in ab-Norma behavior. Kenneth Anger published ghoulish stills of Nita Naldi, Alma Rubens, and others. He’d even get around to taking down Gloria Swanson in Volume Two of Hollywood Babylon. Some guys in a bookstore told me once that Madge Bellamy used to come in doing a Baby Jane number. Mary Miles Minter was said to have been cracked wide open for years. Movies treated former membership pretty shabbily after Sunset Boulevard. Either they were good for laughs, as in fictionalizations like Singin’ In The Rain and Dreamboat, or bio’ed in slow dripping acid. The waxworks melted as Hollywood lovingly dramatized their "struggles." Ones with money remained above it. Harold Lloyd could sit out the ugliness at Greenacres, but Buster Keaton needed a house and let Paramount exploit him (with The Buster Keaton Story) in order to have it. Artists too obscure to see their lives dissected on film were thrown to wolves via Ralph Edwards and This Is Your Life. Check out Frances Farmer’s episode to appreciate just how lucky Norma Desmond was. There were no oil wells pumping and pumping for folks this desperate.
If you revere old movies and chase them long enough, you’ll eventually get your own Norma encounter. Mine took place when Thornhill Entertainment’s Robert Cline and I went to visit one-time starlet Suzanne Kaaren in Salisbury, NC back in 1980. She was the widow of esteemed actor Sidney Blackmer and was living in his ancestral home. The place looked like Twelve Oaks after the Yankees were done with it. We thought it would be a kick to meet Bela Lugosi’s leading lady in Devil Bat. Suzanne had worked with The Three Stooges as well. Billy Wilder could absolutely have remade Sunset Boulevard here and this woman could have starred. The walls were covered with playbills tracking Sidney Blackmer’s Broadway career. These were trappings way beyond spooky, but Mrs. Blackmer had some great stories to tell. Why not live in the past when you’ve got one as fascinating as hers? The same philosophy might apply with any number of loosely defined celebrities signing autographs for ten and twenty dollars at various Burbank (and beyond) weekend shows. Those are chock full of Normas, both male and female.
UPDATE (9-18-o7): Here's some financial info I just got for Sunset Boulevard. The negative cost was $1.759,915.97 million, and the domestic rentals totalled $2.350 million. Depending upon foreign, this picture may or may not have lost money.