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Monday, September 03, 2007

Back On Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard harked to a past in movies as it looked to a future in exploitation, being early instance of TV spots used to promote a feature. 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 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 as 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 eager 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 had arrived and flourished with talkies no doubt saw it as accurate 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. Louis Mayer’s wrath likely came of an early career spent in silents, and sentiment he felt for that period. Could Mayer have sensed the Hollywood scrap heap laying in wait for him? Perhaps symbolic, if not coincidental, was Sunset Boulevard being a 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 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 their feeling 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 that of other silent stars who kept prints of past work. 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. Clerks in a Hollywood bookstore told me 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 sat 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.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Great post!!!!!!

That poster in Spanish, is from Spain. In Argentina the title was (and still is) "El ocaso de una vida".

Here is something related to what you wrote in your entry.

Here is an element of what seems to be an unidentified Gloria Swanson film for Paramount. Is it lost? Has survived? I don't know; I am not in Argentina to verify the title of the following tango with contemporary papers in order to get an answer:

And here is the actual score:

Back in 1925, both the Fray Mocho magazine and Paramount Pictures Corporation set up a tango contest to get a musical theme for one of the studio productions. The winner was a tango by Cátulo Castillo (which took the title of the film, in Spanish).

Here is Cátulo receiving his award from the magazine and Paramount:

The tango eventually got lyrics, so Carlos Gardel could record it the following year. And here is that version:

Music by Cátulo Castillo
Lyrics by José González Castillo
Performer: Carlos Gardel
With Guitars: (Ricardo and Barbieri)
Recording label: Disco Nacional Odeon
"Manufacturado exclusivamente para Max Glücksmann por
la Argentine Talking Machine Works Buenos Aires"
Record number: 18174
Master disc: 4100
Recorded in 1926

And here is a treat, which has never been available in more than 80 years (which I myself restored): a parallel instrumental recording of the tango by Francisco Canaro and his orchestra. In fact, this version is a bit earlier (from the previous year), probably from before the tango got its lyrics.

Music by Cátulo Castillo
Lyrics by José González Castillo
Performer: Francisco Canaro y su orquesta típica
Recording label: Disco Nacional Odeon
"Manufacturado exclusivamente para Max Glücksmann por
la Argentine Talking Machine Works Buenos Aires"
Record number: 4107
Master disc: 3077
Recorded in 1925

8:33 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

Did you ever read A Cast of Killers, about King Vidor's investigation into the Wm Desmond Taylor murder? The final scene where he visits Mary Miles Minter is as creepy as anything in Sunset Blvd., 15 or more years later--a time when the studios were literally being torn down and selling off their assets.

The more I learn about Swanson, though, the more I like her--it's not surprising she had the guts to dive into the role.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

There's yet another postscript to this story. Long before the recent Broadway version, Swanson hired a songwriter to score a musical stage production of "Sunset Boulevard." She invited him to live with him during this time, where they lived an arrangement awfully similar to the movie. Maybe Swanson was closer to Desmond than anybody knew.

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of my favorite films. I can watch this one over and over and it still entertains. Films like Wizard of Oz and Casablanca have to be put away for a while, but never Sunset Boulevard. I guess it's depiction of silent era stars was harsh but probably closer to the truth than not. Who among us has not encountered someone who was living in the past; those existing upon the remants of a time period that was much more rewarding to them than the present? I guess that as I get older and am now no longer "young", I have much more empathy for Norma than I did when I was younger and simply fascinated by her mannerism and scene chewing. I know how it feels to think how much more fun it was 20 years ago.

Another great entry. Thank you so much for having this blog.

2:08 PM  
Blogger Anna said...

Great post as always and the best way to dig into this one - by looking for other Normas (ab-norma hee hee!)

Funny though how it seems to mainly be women. Most of the men seemed to die early of alcohol-induced heart attacks. It was the poor women who lived long enough to really go nuts...

3:42 PM  
Blogger The Siren said...

Wow. My hat is off to you, for both these posts. Brilliant job, sir. Even now, the acid bath of Sunset Boulevard tends to obscure the genuine tragedy of what happened to the silents and those who made them. Thank you for the research, the reality check, and the empathy.

Your observations on Wilder and De Mille are particularly astute. It's true, De Mille essentially took the same techniques he had employed in silents and applied them to talkies, once the technology caught up. (He also cleaned things up a bit after the Code kicked in and things like Sign of the Cross's implied ape rape were no longer possible). And I too have always thought Wilder's "Fuck you" was highly unlikely. Though I do hope the story about his pitching the Nijinsky story to Samuel Goldwyn was true: "But it has a happy ending! in the end, he wins the Kentucky Derby!"

10:42 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

That's a fascinating factoid about Sunset B. being shot on nitrate.

There are just some periods when history seems to really move; here we are with mostly the same stars we had in the 80s, and nobody finds them decrepit or gothic, yet in 1950 Gloria Swanson was closer to, say, The Loves of Sunya than Tom Cruise is to Risky Business or John Travolta is to Urban Cowboy.

It's an interesting thing that even of the silent stars who managed to have successful sound careers at first, nearly all of them were out of the business by about 1940. (A few late-period rising stars like Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford hung on, so did comedians, but otherwise, Ronald Colman was about it.) Yet stars who were created in the 30s and 40s were often still stars into the 60s and 70s-- Tracy and Hepburn, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, etc. (Not to mention the ones who were dead but key cultural touchstones in that era, like Bogart and W.C. Fields.) There was a real cultural shift in the early 30s which lasted a good half-century, and made everything before it seem as if it belonged to the gaslight age, even when it was literally from just a couple of years before.

6:51 PM  
Blogger Erica Simpson said...

Great posting once again. I recently read the book "Close Up On Sunset Boulevard" and found it very interesting. I really love this movie and watch it probably every 6 months of so. I would have to say it was a brave choice for Gloria Swanson to take on the role because I would say that people get Gloria and Norma confused, and really they were like chalk and cheese. I read that Mae West was offered the role, my that would have been interesting.

7:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a question from someone absolutely clueless about box office. What is the "negative cost"? And what is it significance? I find it interesting that so many films that are considered classics today weren't very sucessful when originally released. On the other hand many financial blockbusters of yesterday are literally unwatchable now. TIA.

3:46 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Negative cost refers to the money spent producing a film, before additional expense of prints , advertising, and distribution. It's the actual cost of producing the feature (or short) itself.

6:36 AM  

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