Women’s History Month: Gloria Swanson

By Joan Amenn

  “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces.”

-Norma Desmond, “Sunset Boulevard” (1950)

Gloria Swanson literally created the concept of a “movie star.” She lived as large and dramatically as the heroines she portrayed. In her career, she saw the birth of film, the introduction of sound and the invention of television. She fearlessly embraced them all, and inspired women around the world with her style and ambition.

Gloria grew up as an Army brat traveling the country with her parents but fell into acting as a teenager when she tried out for work as an extra. She moved to California after her parents divorced and found herself working for Mack Sennett along with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand. Gloria didn’t care for comedy and moved on to work for Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount Pictures. This was the beginning of her transformation into a fashionable trendsetter that captured the imagination of silent film audiences.

Jewelry, furs, feathers and lace were standard Swanson attire adoringly photographed for magazine covers. Her collaborations with DeMille made her Hollywood’s biggest moneymaker and Paramount’s most precious asset. Gloria’s flaunted sexuality in the pre-Hays Code era of production helped make her a sensation in such films as “Male and Female” (1919) where her shipwrecked heroine shared scenes with a real lion. She went on to star opposite another sex symbol, Rudolf Valentino in “Beyond the Rocks” (1922) but Paramount was beginning to feel confining.

beyond the rocks
Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks (1922)

While filming a historical drama, “Madame Sans-Gene” (1925) in France, Gloria married her interpreter who happened to have a noble title. The Marquis and Marquise de la Falaise returned triumphantly to the US where she was hailed as the first American actress to marry European royalty. Soon afterwards, Gloria left Paramount for United Artists where she was promised her own production company and total creative control of her projects. Gloria set up filming her first independent film, “The Love of Sunya” (1927) at William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Studios in New York. The production was a disaster with cost overruns and problems with finding a competent crew. She broke even, but just barely. This lesson taught Gloria to return to Hollywood, but she would not shy away from controversy.

“Jewelry, furs, feathers and lace were standard Swanson attire adoringly photographed for magazine covers. Her collaborations with DeMille made her Hollywood’s biggest moneymaker and Paramount’s most precious asset.”

She decided to bring an adaptation of a Somerset Maugham short story about a prostitute struggling to reform through prayer and love to the screen. There was a firestorm in the press when the news hit that Gloria’s new film would be “Sadie Thompson” (1928). Among those outraged at the film’s plot was William Hays, the new chief of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and the future head of Hollywood’s unofficial censorship board, the Hays Code.

love of sunya
John Boles and Gloria Swanson in The Love of Sunya (1927)

Many film distributors drafted a warning to United Artists that they would refuse to show it. Among those was the owner of Pathe Studios and Orpheum Theaters, Joseph Kennedy. Despite his initial objections, Kennedy and Swanson were soon smitten with each other even though they were both married. Swanson’s husband the Marquis was given a job at Pathe Studios, but their marriage soon ended. “Sadie Thompson” would become a smash hit and earn her a Best Actress nomination. It also cemented her affair with Kennedy who would finance her next two films.

“It wasn’t until “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) that Gloria Swanson played her greatest role as Norma Desmond. In a lot of ways, she was playing herself as the faded silent film queen who lives in a dream of regaining her adoring audience.”

Sadly, her next film, “Queen Kelly” (1929) was a complete financial disaster. It also ended her relationship with Kennedy. Her career had taken a blow but there was a new technological innovation taking over the film industry, sound. Eager to become part of “talking pictures,” Gloria joined her friends Mary Pickford, John Barrymore and others in searching for appropriate projects to show the public they were still box office draws. She found herself back on top with the hit film “The Trespasser” (1929) which earned her another Oscar nomination.

Ironically, the film was also a tale of a “fallen women” redeemed by love but was not found to be objectionable since she was not a prostitute but the mistress of a wealthy man who only maintained the relationship for the sake of her child. Gloria went on to make several more films, but none were as successful as “The Trespasser.” During World War Two, she turned to performing on the stage and helped pay for the travel expenses of several Jewish scientists fleeing the persecution of Europe.

sunset
Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. (1950)

It wasn’t until “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) that Gloria Swanson played her greatest role as Norma Desmond. In a lot of ways, she was playing herself as the faded silent film queen who lives in a dream of regaining her adoring audience. The film was nominated for Best Picture and she was nominated for Best Actress. Both were perfection. “Sunset Boulevard” is justifiably considered one of the greatest films ever made, especially one of the best in depicting Hollywood in all of its dark and ephemeral glory. It is the film that Swanson is chiefly remembered for, although she was a trailblazer for women in film for decades previous. Swanson was a stunning enigma of a woman; glamorous yet vulnerable, pragmatic yet frivolous. She remains fascinating, iconic and “big”, even if the pictures have gotten small.

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