Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Cult Movie Project #15 (of 200): The Difficulty of Proving You're Not Dead, When So Many of Them Are: Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950)

It began life as an old cattle trail in the late 1700s, skirting around the mountains that formed the Los Angeles basin, funneling travelers and stock toward the ocean. In 1877 it officially became a street, and by 1921 they finally finished paving it. Today, Sunset Boulevard runs approximately 22 miles (-- it used to be even longer), beginning near Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium at the east end (-- where it used to begin near Union Station), and as you follow its serpentine path westward, the thoroughfare passes through Los Feliz, Hollywood, West Hollywood -- where it morphs into the fabled Sunset Strip for a stretch, and then continues on through Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, skirting around the UCLA campus in Westwood, then Brentwood to the Pacific Palisades, where it terminates at the Pacific Coast Highway. Along the way you will have passed the Chateau Marmont, the Cinerama Dome, the Hollywood Palladium, Hollywood High, the Hotel Bel-Air, the Whiskey a Go Go, and the Roxy Theater. You'll also have successfully navigated your way around "Dead Man's Curve," where singer Jan Berry almost died in an auto accident, later immortalized in song by Jan and his partner, Dean Torrence.

Some of Hollywood's earliest film studios also cropped up around Sunset Boulevard in 1911. And its burgeoning stars, now long forgotten, built their expansive mansions along it, too. This kind of sad, disposable detritus, and the fact that it pierces through the false-facade-of-a-heart of Hollywood itself, I think, goes a long, long way in explaining why Billy Wilder picked it as a title for his film that skewered Tinsel Town for its callousness on such things; with agents, script-doctors, producers, directors, and moguls taking the brunt of his wrath. For this is a tale of a malignant bond between the victims of these machinations; a "never was" and a "has been." Cast-offs both, and each the answer to all the others' problems. One temporarily, the other permanently. And painted around this framework, where the line between illusion and delusion is nearly non-existent, the film also serves as a funeral dirge for out-dated Hollywood styles that have been kicked to the curb: film noir, Gothic horror, and silent cinema.

Seems while growing up in Germany in the 1920s, Wilder became fascinated with American culture via (silent) cinematic imports, which eventually lured him to Hollywood in 1933. His big break came in 1939 when he teamed up with (his soon to be long time collaborator) Charles Brackett on the script for Ninotchka; a screwball comedy by Ernst Lubitsch, and a career redefining role for Greta Garbo. Wilder and Brackett rode quite the hot-streak after that with Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and Ball of Fire (1941), which earned Wilder a shot at directing their next script, another box-office smash, The Major and the Minor (1942). And then, after churning out an interesting propaganda piece on Why we Fight, Wilder managed the seemingly impossible: adapting James M. Cain's sultry thriller, Double Indemnity (1944), and getting most of its saucier elements past the Breen office, legitimizing and cementing the look of American film noir for the next decade. And his next project landed Wilder his first Academy Award for The Lost Weekend (1945).

But as the 1940s came to a close, Wilder became fascinated by the grand mansions littered throughout Hollywood, still haunted/occupied by the silent film stars he fell in love with in his youth, and wondered what they did with themselves while cocooned-up inside them now that the industry they helped establish had, for all intents and purposes, written them off. And this nugget of an idea, these museum pieces left to molder, an aging starlet who lost her celebrity and her strained and vain efforts to win them back, got the ball rolling for Sunset Boulevard (1950), the blackest of comedies, shot like a horror movie (-- I contend it presciently predicted the Hagsploitation cycle due the next decade, kicking off with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in 1962), wrapped inside a film noir. It shouldn't have worked. And in any other hands, it probably wouldn't have.

Work on the script began in 1948 but neither Brackett or Wilder could get a true handle on it; and so, they brought in D.M. Marshman; a journalist who had impressed them both with his critiques of their films to hash it out. (Erich von Stroheim also contributed to the plot, including the revelation that Max was behind all of Norma Desmond's fan mail.) And thanks to his string of hits, Paramount basically gave Wilder free rein over his projects. Still, with the anti-Hollywood / May-December romantic gist of the story, to keep the studio and the censors in the dark they only submitted the script -- under the nonsensical title, A Can of Beans -- just a few pages at a time. And as the film went into production in 1949 only 61 pages of the script were finished (-- about 1/3rd of the story), and no one, including Wilder, had any idea how the film would end.

Assembling the cast proved just as difficult. The name of Norma Desmond was a combination of "predatory" silent film star Norma Talmadge and director William Desmond Taylor, whose unsolved murder back in 1922 remains one of Hollywood's most notorious scandals. The character also shared traits with several more reclusive silent movie queens like Mary Pickford, Mae Murray, Clara Bow and Mabel Normand; most of whom Wilder tried and failed to coax into starring in the picture. Mae West also said no, and Pola Negri's thick accent was deemed insurmountable. Wilder then turned to George Cukor for suggestions, and he immediately recommended Gloria Swanson, who had been Paramount's biggest money-maker for six-straight years in the 1920s. During her heyday, people flocked to her films not only to see the starlet but to also ogle at her wardrobe. Decked in ornate gowns, with extravagant beadwork, topped off with jewels and feathers, Swanson was the epitome of haute couture, making her one of Hollywood's first breakout stars. (She really was that big, but instead of her pictures getting smaller they got bigger as her career stalled in the sound era. More on this in a sec.) But Swanson almost rejected the role upfront when Wilder asked for a screen-test, feeling she was above such things. Luckily, Cukor stepped in again and encouraged her to do it -- and by 'encouraged' I mean he threatened to shoot her if she didn't do the test.

"The last one I wrote was about Okies in the dust bowl," says Über-cynic and failed screen-writer, Joe Gillis. "You'd never know, because when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat." Montgomery Clift was originally cast for the role but he broke his contract and bailed-out two weeks into production, fearing the film mirrored his own relationship with aging actress, Libby Holman, a little too closely. Needing a replacement, and quickly, Wilder offered the role to Fred MacMurray, but he didn't like the character's motivations and turned it down flat. They approached MGM about the possible loan of Gene Kelly, who was eager, but the studio refused. Paramount then suggested William Holden, whose career had essentially stalled since his smashing debut in Golden Boy (1930). Wilder wasn't too keen on it, but he was desperate enough to hire him -- a gamble that paid off big time here and in future collaborative projects Stalag 17 (1953) and Sabrina (1954).

Another prominent character was located at 3810 Wilshire Blvd. Originally built in 1924 by William Jenkins, who lived in the expansive, Gothic mansion for one year before abandoning it for almost a decade, earning the abode the nickname, "The Phantom." Jenkins eventually sold it to J. Paul Getty, who lost it in a divorce to his second wife, who eventually rented it out to Paramount for the picture, who added the swimming pool, which in typical make-believe land was a total facade, had no filtration system, and so, was essentially useless after filming wrapped. (The mansion and the (empty) pool were re-used briefly in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955) before being torn down and replaced with an office building.) For the interior, Wilder hired set designer Hans Dreier, who had been an interior designer on the homes of silent stars Bebe Daniels and Norma Shearer. Swanson contributed her personal collection of photographs and memorabilia for Norma Desmond's home, blurring the line between fictional past and authentic career. And while filming inside, cinematographer John Seitz would sprinkle dust into the air, which would catch in the lights, adding a surreal, dreamlike effect.

Sticking with the life-imitates-art theme, Wilder cast Erich von Stroheim as Max, the loyal butler. Again, Von Stroheim added all kinds of subtle touches to the film. I just love the meta-moments when Desmond and Gillis are looking at [Swanson's] old films, and the actress starts pantomiming in front of the screen, including a dead-on impersonation of Charlie Chaplin. It was Von Stroheim who suggested they use clips of Queen Kelly (1929), a film Swanson had produced and Von Stroheim directed. It's the bigger picture I alluded to earlier, where the director went way over budget and deviated wildly from the script, causing Swanson to fire him and spend the next two years trying to salvage the project. (Some of the newer sequences were directed by Swanson herself.) In the film, Max claims he discovered Desmond and made her a star. In real life it was Cecil B. Demille who launched Swanson's career, making it only fitting that he play himself for Desmond's triumphant but ultimately heartbreaking return to Paramount Studios; one of the many sizzling examples of verisimilitude in the film.

Sadly, Sunset Boulevard would prove the last co-production for Wilder and Brackett. Seems the two nearly came to blows over the montage sequence where Norma goes through hell to prepare herself for her big meeting. Brackett thought the sequence sad and cruel, but Wilder felt it was essential to show how maniacally driven the actress was to get back into the limelight. The scene stayed in, as it should, I think, but the partnership was over.

Before its release, Paramount arranged a private screening for several studio heads and specially invited guests. As the legend goes, after the film ended, Barbara Stanwyck knelt in front of Swanson and kissed the hem of her skirt. Swanson then looked for Mary Pickford but was told she was too overcome and left. Others were not so kind. Actress Mae Murray was offended and reportedly remarked "None of us floozies was that nuts." But that paled by the tirade put on by Louis B. Mayer, who berated Wilder, saying "You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood and sent back to Germany!" Wilder, whose family had perished in the Holocaust, responded without missing a beat, telling the pompous mogul to either "Go f*ck youself" or "Go sh*t in your hat" depending on which source you consult.

After it was finally released, Time Magazine declared Sunset Boulevard to be "Hollywood at its worst told by Hollywood at its best." And while the box-office was good it was not great. Still, at the time, it was only the third film to be nominated for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress -- it was also up for Best Cinematography and Editing. And while it didn't win in any of those categories, it did win for Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Franz Waxman took home an Oscar for his score. I think Swanson should've won but faced stiff competition from Bette Davis in All About Eve, which cleaned up in those major categories, so much so that the two split the vote enough to allow Judy Holliday to sneak in and win for Born Yesterday.

What amazes me most about Sunset Boulevard is that the viewer becomes so engrossed in this roil of madness and self-destruction that we forget our storyteller is dead. From the get-go we know Joe Gillis is no longer with us, another rat floating in the pool. Although he almost wasn't. Well he was, dead, just not in the pool. That wasn't supposed to happen until the end. Seems in the original cut, the film opens in the L.A. County Morgue, with Gillis posthumously relating his tale of woe to his fellow corpses but this sequence brought so much inappropriate laughter from preview audiences the film's release was delayed nearly six months so the new iconic opening could be shot with our hero face down in the pool. But is he really our hero? Or is he a homme fatale, a dastardly gigolo, leading Norma Desmond down the road to ruin. (He also steals his best friend's girl.) To me, that is the only way this film works as film noir. As a horror movie, obviously, Norma is the villain. As a combination of both, I honestly don't know who to root for; and I've struggled with this ever since I first saw the film and still struggle with it every time I've watched Sunset Boulevard since. 

Other Points of Interest:

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *  
"Speaking of Poe, Sunset Boulevard is another conception of The Premature Burial. As Gloria Swanson wrote about silent movie stars in Close-Ups (1977): 'It has become difficult to prove you're not dead. So many of us are.' And what better locale for a 'ghost' story than Hollywood, a town built on illusion and delusion, where people grow old but stay young on celluloid, where people become has-beens often before they've made it. 'I heard you had talent,' Betty says of Joe. 'That was last year,' Joe declares ... 'I talked to a couple of yes men at Metro -- they said no to me.'"

  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Fine Print: Sunset Boulevard was watched via Paramount's Centennial Collection DVD. Watched as a Fatal Fatale Film Noir double-feature with Detour (1945). What's the Cult Movie Project? That's 15 down, with 185 to go.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) Paramount Pictures / P: Charles Brackett / D: Billy Wilder / W: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr. / C: John F. Seitz / E: Arthur P. Schmidt / M: Franz Waxman / S: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Jack Webb


Unknown said...

Oh, where to begin? First of all this is a great great movie, with an unbelievably good performance by Gloria Swanson. I never knew the story about Stanwyck, her reaction is really a far better tribute to Swanson's abilities than an Oscar. I always felt that Joe was the villian, and Norma (although deranged at the end) the heroine. She truly is the talented one, as Joe only wrecks her treatment of Salome. My favorite moment in the film, is Norma's one-woman play for Joe,which includes her fantastic Chaplin impersonation. Swanson's talent is keenly on display here, and overwhelms the screen. Of course, a close second, is the ending with Swanson descending the staircase, while Max directs his star. As great as Double Imdemnity, Some Like It Hot, and Stalag 17 are, this and Ace in the Hole are my two favorite Wider pictures. A joy to watch everytime. Two small notes, As depressing as this movie is, amazingly Jack Webb plays probably his happiest character ever. Also, about Dead Man's Curve, the song came out 2 years before Jan Berry's accident,so it was more an eerie coincidence than a foreboding. Great work, Chad!

W.B. Kelso said...

I will always have a soft spot for FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO because that was my first Wilder movie, courtesy of Matinee at the Bijou. One of the best things Peary pointed out is if you listen closely to Joe's narration, you realize how big of a hack screenwriter he really was. I think he is the "bad guy" of the piece but failed to realize that Norma wasn't as hapless and pathetic as he thought.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...