FILMS… Sunset Boulevard (1950)

#1950s

 

She’s Norma Desmond. She used to be in silent pictures. She used to be big…

 

A strapped for cash screenwriter is asked to revamp a reclusive and silent movie star’s big comeback script after they meet by chance.

 

Sunset Boulevard (1950) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers, Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers

 

OK, I’ll admit it, as the My Fair Lady (1964) song title says I Have Often Walked Down This Street Before. Not in real life though… I’ve seen this West Hollywood street in scenes filmed for the movies and on TV. I’ve heard about it in the passing in relation to celebrity news. Yet, I have never seen this film, Sunset Blvd / Sunset Boulevard (1950), a satire on the film industry.

Billy Wilder and one-time writing partner, Charles Brackett wrote this mesmerising masterpiece which was improved on by a writer friend and critic, D M Marshman Jr. In the guise of their character Norma Desmond, Brackett and Wilder wrote about their thoughts on the film industry going from silent to talkies. It’s also a much-touted must-watch movie if you loved Fedora (1978) by at least two of my blogging friends. It was also praised by many critics including Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael.

Sunset Boulevard stars two acting talents I once knew more for their 1970s careers in my much loved disaster movies. Back in 1950, they were a 5ft 10.5, strapping and rugged 31 year old, William Holden – later star of The Towering Inferno (1975) – and the diminutive, 51 year old, Gloria Swanson – later star of Airport 75 (1974). Both come together in this atmospheric black and white noir movie from 1950 which won 11 Oscar nominations, including all those acting categories and surprisingly only won 3. Finnish friends note, that it also won a Jussi award for Gloria Swanson as Best Foreign Actress.

It’s only after reading about this film, that I connected – and quickly disconnected it – with the musical of the same name. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that I rarely like musicals made from films. But that’s at least, another two posts… So let me take you back to this film version of events… made nearly 70 years before Selling Sunset (2019) made this street screen famous once again for the office with those bitchy real estate agents…

The film starts with the noise of sirens and cars – containing homicide cops and the Press – tearing down Sunset Boulevard like there is no tomorrow in the wee small hours. We then meet the reason for this urgency, as the narrator, a man, Joe Gillis (William Holden) is seen floating face down in a swimming pool. He has been shot dead…

Gillis continues to narrate this tale we then flashback to those events six months before which brought him to his now untimely death… It seems Gillis was a screenwriter and strapped for cash. He was originally from Ohio, and in the flashback, he is now trying to make it big in Hollywood. But his work doesn’t sell.

He goes to plug his new screenplay at a big studio to a film producer, Sheldrake (Fred Clark). His work is derided by a pretty script reader, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). He’s a desperate man as he needs to pay off his car, and is behind in his rent. He fobs off those money collectors telling them he lent his car to a friend.

Gillis then picks up his car from a hidden parking place and goes for a drive. He spots those money collectors and they give chase. After a scene from Fast and Furious but 1950s style, Gillis blows a tyre, so he turns into a drive of a mansion on Sunset Boulevard. He parks his car in the garage of this apparently deserted gothic mansion and discovers a neglected vintage car is parked there…

Then as he leaves, an old man called Max (Erich von Stroheim) approaches him and it seems a visitor was expected… so Gillis plays along. It’s only when he goes into the house, that he realises that Max is a butler and that he believed that Gillis was a funeral director. The woman owning the house is in the process of arranging a funeral for her dead friend. When the corpse is revealed, it’s a chimpanzee. This isn’t Gillis’ only surprise… or dark moment in this house, where in time he becomes like a prisoner (as the eerie shadows convey).

It dawns on Gillis, that this woman is Norma Desmond, a one-time famous silent movie star and now an apparent recluse. But it seems, she is still clearly loved judging from her piles of fan mail. After she discovers Gillis is a scriptwriter, she asks him to read her handwritten script for a film, Salome. She – of course – will take the titular role and this film is where she will make her big comeback. This film she hopes will be directed by Cecil B DeMille… and Gillis senses an opportunity to make some quick cash. And he’s desperate.

After working on her script into the wee small hours, Gillis stays overnight and he notes the dried out swimming pool from his room over the garage. He wakes to discover that Norma has moved all his belongings from his flat including his typewriter. As money is no object for her, this one-time silent screen starlet has also paid off his debts. Gillis assists in ghostwriting her screenplay but finds her a tough client. The flamboyant, always edging on dramatic – and melodramatic – Norma demands to be centre stage in every scene, hovers over him as he writes and insists that every scene she has written is utilised in the final screenplay.

Norma apparently still has a big fan base and she answers piles of fan letters daily, happily signing her studio photographs, which were taken from years before. The house is littered with zillions of pictures of her from her early films and the house is crammed with other memorabilia from her on-screen and off-screen life. She also invites her old acting friends from those silent films to play bridge with her, Joe affectionately calls them “the waxworks”. Gillis is moved to what was her husband’s room, and this room adjoins her bedroom.

Norma clearly lives in the past and she watches films on a cinema screen, but only her old silent movies. Gillis dutifully watches these films with her, Norma often linking arms with him and putting her head on his shoulder as they watch. She detests talkie movies and shuns more modern films and filmmakers. She talks fondly about her film friend, Valentino who recommended the flooring for her ballroom.

After talking to the butler, Gillis discovers that Max is the man who writes to her as her “fanbase” with all those letters having the same postage markings. Max tells Gillis, that he was also her first husband, yet it seems Norma only sees him as a butler. Max was also her one-time director who still believes in her talent, and again Norma doesn’t seem to acknowledge this fact.

Norma buys Gillis a new expensive wardrobe, including a top hat and a tuxedo with tails. At first, Gillis doesn’t like this pampering but he is encouraged to let the lady buy him things by the more money-grabbing salesman. She buys him expensive watches, gold cigarette cases and much more including a wee pair of swimming trunks, for the now refurbished and water-filled swimming pool.

On New Year’s Eve, she has New Year’s party, complete with an orchestra. The tux-wearing, Gillis discovers he’s the only guest. They dance, she puts her head on his shoulder and then this woman of 20 years his senior, makes a pass at him. Norma slaps him when he doesn’t return her romantic feelings.

After this incident, Gillis leaves the house to join a friend Artie’s party. There he bumps into Betty again and she wants to work with him on one of his scripts. They have a wee bit of romantic chemistry despite the fact she is dating his friend. Then the phone rings, and it seems Norma has attempted suicide and cut her wrists. After Gillis returns to support her, they become lovers..

I easily immersed myself in this black and white film, which was quite fitting for the themes of now and then, and no in-between as seen in this film. I grew accustomed to the intensity of the plot and then increasing claustrophobia of the story after Joe Gillis involuntarily moves into the gothic mansion of Norma Desmond. This film really would lose a lot of its ambience in colour.

It is a place where until he moved in, she was cocooned from the truth by her doting ex-husband, Max. Her only friend, til Gillis arrives, who can’t answer her back or contradict things is a pet chimp, now silenced in death. The truth is she has been forgotten and so she is in her own somewhat delusional world, a world where she is still loved and remembered.

Norma is in turn blissfully ignorant and grotesquely scathing of the current film industry and its filmmaking styles and acting talents. She is waiting in anticipation for her big return in a Biblical epic movie, written by her and directed by DeMille. She surrounds herself with friends from the silent movie days, with cameos from Buster Keaton, H B Warner, and Anna Q Nilsson. The four real-life silent film stars sit playing bridge in silence, naturally. Norma surrounds herself with mementoes of her past and signs studio photos from her younger days.

Little clues tell of her suicidal nature and vulnerability. Her gothic house and its contents also tell a story of clear mental health problems. These problems are perhaps sometimes psychotic in nature as she has clear delusions and a fluctuating dissociation from reality. There are no locks on her doors and Max states she has been suicidal before. She’s horrified when she sees her reflection in mirrors using tape to stretch out her wrinkles and a number of beauty treatments.

Her narcissism is seen in rooms strewn with photographs and portraits of her from her heyday. Her hoarded belongings tell of her life in the past, and her beliefs about her standing in Hollywood. These thoughts are pandered to by Max in his professional (but caring) dealings with her. Max never contradicts her and lets her believe, perhaps in fear of a successful suicide bid. He clearly is still in love with her having left showbusiness to be her butler, and stayed with her in subsequent two marriages and now relationship with the much younger Gillis.

Norma is clearly upset when confronted by the then Hollywood reality and this is seen at its most dramatic during her visit to the studios, as she travels by vintage car. Once there, she swans in, oblivious to those cruel comments about her – like Escape from New York (1981)’s Snake Plissken, many thought she was dead – and she flicks new equipment out of her vision. Yet she is more at ease when buying clothes for her new lover.

On seeing Cecil B DeMille (playing himself), she is super animated and acts like they’d just wrapped a film the day before. Others pander to her obsession with the past for their own, a scheming clothes seller is keen for her to buy anything in the most expensive fabrics and fashions, even when they are clearly out of date.

After Gillis tells her the truth about those lies she is being fed, she doesn’t believe him and shoots Gillis. He falls dead into her swimming pool. She does not acknowledge Gillis’ death or admits to killing him as the police and homicide squad cars arrive. Gossip column writer, Helda Hopper (also playing herself) is given priority to the phone and the outside world. It is then that her descent into the denial of the world in 1950 is seen to disintegrate quickly.

But for Norma, she makes a slow-motion, dreamlike walk down the staircase to the front door. However, gliding past the flashing bulbs – as photographs are taken by the press – Norma believes that they are there purely to document her Hollywood comeback. This delusional thought is reinforced by Max.

Max sets up the scene, taking on his one-time directorial role as he directs the cameras like his film crew, in those famous ending screen moments. The film ends with a scene that will haunt you forever. Max convinces Norma she is on a DeMille film set, and Norma believes and then says with an inappropriate flourish… yet apt in her mind,

All right, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up…

One can but wonder if life had followed art what would have happened to a poor old Joe… if his story was set in the real-life 1970s. If as a struggling screenwriter he had driven into the more gregarious, mentally well and still active actress Gloria Swanson’s drive and her monkey had died. If he had read her handwritten script for her role in Airport 75, he would have seen her prized Jussi Award for Sunset Boulevard, then maybe even got a signed photo and a peck on the cheek before he left.

Very much alive, he would have told a different story of this brush with fame and his encounter with a one-time silent screen star. A true tale about her real-life links as a writer and actress for her role as herself in that 1970s airport disaster film. But one thing is for sure this true story wouldn’t have ended on a musical note. Or would it?

 

Weeper Rating: 😦😦 😦😦 😦 😦 /10

Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂🙂 🙂  🙂 🙂  🙂 🙂 /10

Hulk Rating: ‎  ‎mrgreen  ‎/10

 


The Silent Movie Day Blogathon 2022, No 20

This film was added to Silentology and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood’s Silent Movie Day Blogathon. Other reviews with this cast include Buster Keaton in Beach Blanket Bingo. Fred Clark in Move Over Darling. Gloria Swanson in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Airport 75. Hedda Hopper in Nothing Sacred. Nancy Olson in Airport 75, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Streets of San Francisco. William Holden in Fedora, SOBThe Bridge on the River Kwai, Omen II and Network.


 

 

 

 

 

Advertisement

22 thoughts on “FILMS… Sunset Boulevard (1950)

  1. The ending, as you say, is tragic and haunting. I adore all the performances in this film, especially Gloria Swanson’s. I’m glad you were finally able to see this film!

    P.S. I didn’t realize Swanson won a Jussi for her work in this film. Bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great film, and what were the odds of having two of the most iconic female leading performances ever in the same year? Oh to be alive in 1950 and watch a double feature of Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve at the cinema!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent review of an exceptional film, Gill!
    Visually arresting and haunting, withholden and Swanson giving brilliant performances! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this one, so I need to revisit it again soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is the sort of thing that Billy Wilder did so well. I find his comedies unwatchable but I love SUNSET BOULEVARD and DOUBLE INDEMNITY and (to a lesser extent) ACE IN THE HOLE). They’re so deliciously venomous. In his comedies I always get the impression that he despises his characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m glad you caught up with Sunset Boulevard. Your review was intriguing, I particularly liked your analysis of Norma’s behavior and her relationship with her image. And you’re right: there is no way this movie would be the same if it was made in color.
    Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is one of my top ten all-time favourite movies, so glad you covered it for the blogathon! It really is a riveting, Gothic masterpiece. The party scene where Joe finds out he’s the only guest is certainly “hall of fame” cringeworthy–I always wonder what the musicians were thinking, lol!

    Side note: love that you’ve covered Selling Sunset, that’s totally my guilty pleasure show. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

Love you to leave your thoughts on this... but I will only allow comments that are spoiler free and no personal attacks please regarding cast or crew members! Offenders may be blocked.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.