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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

MV5BMTc3NDYzODAwNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODg1MTczMTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Sunset Boulevard defies categorization. It’s a film noir, gothic, horror, melodrama, suspense, tragicomic romance. It’s surreal, but properly grounded in reality. You laugh, you cry, you cringe, but you never look away. It’s absolutely spellbinding. And has there ever been such a weird, yet utterly compelling ending as when Norma Desmond descends the staircase, now completely lost in her delusions, believing that the media cameras are really the cameras of Cecil B. DeMille and that he is shooting her as Salome, descending the stairs of the palace? When watched in isolation on youtube, the scene looks melodramatic, but when seen as the climax of the film, it is shiveringly effective.

I’m gushing a bit. I had very high expectations for this film and in one of those rare instances they were actually met. I even went out of my way to prepare for watching this. I wanted to see Gloria Swanson when she really was a big star in the silent era. I wanted to see some of the movies that Erich von Stroheim had directed during the silent era and also some of the movies Cecil B. DeMille made during the same time (some with Gloria Swanson). Fortunately, since the film is so iconic and most people have a general idea of the plot, it still feels fresh even though you know what’s going to happen. The drama is not in what happens, but how it happens.

Sunset Boulevard is often called a critique of Hollywood, which it certainly is, but this film is not limited to that. It’s about individual people more than monolithic Hollywood. It’s about obsession and ambition, wanting love (intimate love and also the more general and all embracing love of fans, people you don’t even know). It’s about wanting to be someone important, to be acknowledged, to earn money, to have a career that provides meaning and identity. These are universal themes that have meaning anywhere, it’s just that Hollywood magnifies these things, so it is an ideal setting.

Gloria Swanson and William Holden

Gloria Swanson and William Holden – surrounding by pictures from her lost glory days

The film manages the unique feat of having both an unforgettable beginning and an unforgettable end. The movie opens with the body of Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating in a swimming pool, shot three times with a revolver. We then hear his voice narrating throughout the film, telling the story of how he got there, how Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter, became involved with the fading, forgotten silent movie star who cannot accept that her time has passed.

On a side note, it seems incredibly cheeky of director Billy Wilder to have a corpse narrate our story, but somehow it doesn’t come off as macabre unless you think about it too much. There is a sharp, biting humor that pervades the entire film, especially in Joe Gillis’ narration, wryly commenting on the action in hindsight.

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is borderline insane throughout the entire film and one of the things that impressed me is how Swanson never goes over the top. It seems like she does, multiple times, but it is believable and not just theatrics. It is like the character Norma Desmond is acting all the time. She cannot behave normally and naturally. She is always putting on a show for some invisible audience, using the people she interacts with as her props.

It is amazing, however, how much sympathy both she and William Holden garner for their extremely flawed characters. She is imperious, arrogant, commanding, childish, and manipulative. She has attempted suicide several times and is quite willing to threaten it if she thinks it will get her what she wants. But this fact is also tragic. Even if she is incapable of killing herself without grand gestures, she is still unhappy enough to be willing to die. If she can’t be Norma Desmond, a beloved and needed movie star, then she isn’t anybody at all.

Nancy Olson and William Holden

Nancy Olson and William Holden

William Holden’s Joe Gillis is also a flawed character and capable of a little manipulation of his own. When he first meets her, he thinks he can manipulate her into giving him a job to brush up her ridiculous script of Salome that she believes she will make her comeback with (though she hates the word comeback; “It’s a return!”). He doesn’t mind taking advantage of an extremely vulnerable and deluded woman. He also doesn’t seem to have a problem flirting with his friend’s fiance, Betty Shaefer (Nancy Olson).

Erich von Stroheim is fascinating as Norma’s inscrutable butler, Max. Max was once a promising director in the silent era who discovered Norma Desmond when she was sixteen and made her into a star. When her career was wrecked by sound, he asked her to take him on as her butler/jack-of-all trades – he can even play the organ like a regular cliched horror villain. It is not clear what his motivations are. Does he feel guilt over how he made her into a star and set her on the path that has so crippled her emotionally? Does he still love her madly, does he share in her obsession over her own greatness? It is never clear. The only thing that is clear is that he made things worse by feeding her delusions that she is not forgotten. He writes fake fan letters and requests for her autograph, confirming to the end her own image of herself. Is it the image he gave her at the beginning? Is he perhaps her evil genius? But he doesn’t play it like a moustache-twirling villain. There is pathos in his unwavering devotion to her.

Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille

Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille

Joe Gillis’ love interest, the aspiring screenwriter Betty Shaefer, is played by Nancy Olson. It was only her second movie, but Wilder chose her because she could bring a breath of fresh air into a very gothic and cynical film. Cecil B. DeMille also does a fine job playing himself, the director who made so many pictures with both Gloria Swanson and, in the film, Norma Desmond. I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised at how natural he seems; he did start his career as an actor on Broadway, though he quickly turned to directing plays and then silent movies.

Reality meets art so often in the film, it is astonishing, once again, how cheeky Billy Wilder was. Gloria Swanson’s career really did deteriorate after the coming of sound and when she made Sunset Boulevard she hadn’t made a movie in nine years, though she was not sitting around in a ruined home bemoaning her glory days. She was evidently a very busy woman, starting businesses, acting in summer stock, promoting health foods. Erich von Stroheim was also a promising director from the silent era, but because his movies always went massively over-budget, over long, and because he wasn’t a ‘team player’ and pushed the censorship envelope, his career was ruined and he was reduced to acting in bit parts, often as Nazis.

William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson, Erich von Stroheim

William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson, Erich von Stroheim

When Norma Desmond shows Joe Gillis footage from one of her silent movies, it is footage from a 1929 silent film called Queen Kelly, that was never completed. It was directed by Erich von Stroheim and starred Gloria Swanson, but owing to censorship concerns and huge financial issues, Swanson and her backer, Joseph P. Kennedy, pulled the plug on the film. It was the end of his directing career and hers petered out soon after.

According to an interview with Nancy Olson, in one of the documentaries on Sunset Boulevard: Centennial Collection, Billy Wilder told her the movie was about people who were on the make, which makes sense with my idea that it is not a film exclusively about Hollywood, despite how often reality meets art in the film. These are people who are willing to sell themselves to achieve their goals.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2015 in Drama, Film Noir

 

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The First Movie You Saw in Theaters and Reap the Wild Wind (1942)

download (1)Do you remember the first movie you saw in theaters? Mine was The Secret Garden in 1993. I had already seen the 1949 version with Margaret O’Brien and that was my preferred version, so I recall discussing the new film with my sister and deciding that we didn’t like the new version as much. Unfortunately, I recall this discussion more than I recall the movie. My brother’s first movie was The Jungle Book. It was re-released in theaters in 1990 at the same time that it was released on VHS. Supposedly, I was there, too, but I have no memory of it. My cousin tells me his first memory is when he was two years old, which is very impressive. He saw Toy Story 2 and ate Smartie and we were wondering if they still sale Smarties in theaters. I can’t recall seeing any.

When I asked my Nana what movie she first remembers, she said Lassie Come Home in 1944. However, she’s also told me the story of another movie that she didn’t remember the name of. She thought it was a Cecil B. DeMille film and starred Paulette Goddard. But that was more of a side-memory. What she always remembered was one specific scene, that stood out like technicolor. There was a ship with sails and a woman stows aboard it and hides in a trunk, but her scarf partially hangs out. There’s a storm or a wreck and the ship goes down and she remembered seeing the trunk underwater with the scarf floating in the water and thinking “Oh!” and realizing that the woman was dead. She never forgot that moment. She also recalled a squid.

downloadSo I thought it would be really fun if I could find out what the name of the movie was so we could watch it together. I looked up Paulette Goddard’s filmography and found that she made three movies with Cecil B. DeMille, but only one had ships in it: Reap the Wild Wind, released in 1942. In watching the trailer, there also appeared to be a squid attack.

The cast is impressive, as all DeMille’s cast are impressive: Paulette Goddard, John Wayne, Ray Milland, Raymond Massey, Lynn Overman, Robert Preston, Charles Bickford, Susan Hayward. When I read the cast list to Nana, she was quite impressed at how many names were in there, because as far as her memory of the movie goes, the men were quite negligible. It was all about Paulette Goddard, the squid and the lady drowning in the trunk.

And when we watched the movie together, we agreed with her early assessment. It is Paulette Goddard, the squid and the lady in the trunk that you recall. And the moment when Milland tries to spank Goddard. Golden Age Hollywood had the unfortunate quirk of thinking that it is amusing for a man to spank a women, but in this case it kind of was. I’d never seen anyone try to spank somebody in a hoop skirt before and it’s quite the visual. The skirt poofs out and I couldn’t help thinking he must be hitting more hoop than her. I also couldn’t help thinking that with a little imagination, a woman could really make a hoop skirt excellent protection, or even a weapon against men: perhaps with a few well-placed pins or some spiky whale-bone. If a man gets too close, you could always skewer him.

wild_wind

John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, Ray Milland

The plot occurs in the 1840s in the Key West area and concerns Paulette Goddard as Loxi Clairborne. She runs a salvaging business. When ships get stuck on a reef, salvagers come out in their boats and rescue them, getting paid for their efforts. But in competition with her is King Cutler (Raymond Massey), more pirate than salvager. He helps to arrange wrecks, as well as rescue people, and takes an exorbitant sum for his efforts. Fighting for Loxi’s affections are two men, rugged sea captain Jack Stuart (John Wayne) and dandy lawyer Steven Tolliver (Ray Milland), though Tolliver does turn out to be tougher and more wily than he initially appears. The lady of the trunk is Susan Hayward. She plays Goddard’s cousin and is in love with Cutler’s brother, played by Robert Preston.

Reap the Wild Wind is not a movie to be watched seriously, though it was made seriously. Perhaps that is why it was entertaining. Nana and I enjoyed ourselves immensely. All the stuff that Nana recalls occurs in the last twenty minutes of the film, which must speak volumes for DeMille’s capacity to craft an unforgettable finale. We’ve now determined that as a 1942 movie, it is indeed the earliest film that Nana saw.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2015 in Movie Thoughts

 

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