Note: The following is an automated transcription of the podcast. As a result, it may contain errors.
Steve: Today on the Useless Information Podcast, my wife Mary Jane will be joining me to discuss the classic 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including all four acting categories, Best Picture, Billy Wilder for Best Director, and it won three of the awards. That was best story and screenplay, best art and Set direction black and white, and best scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture.
Now we both have very different opinions on this movie, so join us as we discuss what we liked and disliked about Sunset Boulevard.
This is the Useless Information Podcast and I am Steve Silverman.
(Transcript continues below movie.)
Steve: Hi everyone. Welcome my wife Mary Jane back to the show.
Mary Jane: Hi everyone.
Steve: And we’re recording this on January 1st of 2022. So, Happy New Year.
Mary Jane: Happy New Year.
Steve: Okay, and we are talking about the movie Sunset Boulevard which I mentioned came out in 1950 and was directed by Billy Wilder. It’s a black and white movie. Some people would characterize it as film noir or a black comedy, and it runs an hour and 50 minutes long.
The movie has four main characters: There’s William Holden, who plays Joe Gillis, who is a struggling screenwriter. Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, who’s an actress of the silent movie era. There’s Erich von Stroheim, who plays Max von Mayerling, who is Norma’s butler, and Nancy Olsen plays Betty Schaefer, who is Joe Gillis’ love interest.
Now there are some other minor parts of the movie. They are played by Jack Webb, who plays Artie Green. And you may recognize the name Jack Webb because he played on Dragnet. And then as themselves are some famous people: There’s Cecil B.
De Mille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q Nilsson, and H. B. Warner. The last three play the “Waxworks” which is referred to in the movie. Basically, they’re like.
Mary Jane: Like they belong in the wax museum. They’re so old, basically. Yeah.
Steve: So, a little summary of this movie is that Joe Gillis is a down on his luck screenwriter and he’s trying to outrun his creditors.
And as he’s racing down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, he blows a tire and pulls into the driveway of Norma Desmond, who’s a silent movie queen whose film career is long over, but she dreams of making a big comeback.
So, Mary Jane, I know you’ve seen this movie before. I had never seen it before, so why don’t you tell when you had seen it?
Mary Jane: Sure. I saw this movie many, many years ago. Actually, in a film class in Paris, at the Sorbonne.
Steve: And what was the class about that there?
Mary Jane: It was mostly emphasizing film noir films, so it’s absolutely a film noir film.
Steve: Well, so this movie fits him perfectly.
Mary Jane: It’s got a twist to it, but definitely it’s film noir.
Steve: Right, it just doesn’t seem like the typical film noir movies that I’ve seen over the years.
Mary Jane: But it doesn’t, because I mean, we’re going to talk about Norma Desmond, who is considered, I would call her the femme fatale, which is supposed to be a woman who’s kind of alluring and mysterious, and in fact, she’s none of those things. The only thing she is is she’s dangerous, which they always are.
Mary Jane: And she is.
Steve: Anyway, you know fairly early on that there’s something a bit off about Norma Desmond. There is no doubt about it because not only is our mansion falling into a, you know, complete state of disrepair, you know that as soon as he pulls his car into the driveway. But her Butler Max, he answers the door and one of the first things he says to Joe Gillis, who mistakes him for an undertaker, is, you know, if you need any help with the coffin, call me. Clearly, this guy knows nothing about a coffin and you quickly find out that they’re referring to the burial of Norma Desmond’s chimpanzee and I’d say from that point on the movie just kind of spirals more and more and more into craziness.
Mary Jane: Yeah, it’s very dark and weird, for sure. Yeah.
Steve: In reality, the movie has two main characters, there’s Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis.
So, let’s start with Norma Desmond, who’s played by Gloria Swanson. And I know Mary Jane you have a lot to say about both Norma Desmond and Gloria Swanson, but let’s start with the character herself. How would you describe Norma Desmond?
Mary Jane: Well, right from the very beginning you see that she has hundreds of photos of herself in her mansion.
Steve: Yeah, and when you say hundreds of photos, you’re not just so about they’re spread out all over the place. You’re talking about; imagine a piano or mantle on a fireplace, and there’d be dozens of pictures of her in frames on those things.
Mary Jane: Right, I mean it, there it’s cluttered all over her mansion, so that that’s obvious. We know she wants to make this comeback. And in the movie they make it seem like it is virtually impossible because of her age and it really is a form of agism and when you watch this movie. I know when we watched it you and I both wondered how old is she? I thought maybe mid-40s and of course, as it turns out she’s fifty exactly. Fifty while she’s making this film. But they make her appear more with her acting than her actual appearance, but that she is incredibly old and almost monster-like. To some extent they the makeup and the way they have her hair. She kind of looks like Frankenstein’s bride, Right. So, there’s just there’s a lot of subtexts there that’s very interesting, I think.
Steve: Yeah, this is a movie that you could analyze from here to the end of your life and just keep discovering new things. You know some movies you just watch them and that’s it. I’ve now seen this movie three times and every time I watch it, I see things that I didn’t see the time before.
Mary Jane: Right, because in a way it’s a bit of a mash-up between a horror flick and a film noir, and that that makes it very interesting. But at the same time, talk about daring. I mean, that’s just unusual.
Steve: Now you mentioned this to me right after the movie was over. That you felt from even the very beginning, right when he pulls into the mansion, it was kind of like her casting her spider’s web.
Mary Jane: Yes, because she says something like, “Hey, you!” and she’s looking through the blinds. She’s wearing black circular sunglasses that make her look spider-like, which is very strange. You know how many people wear sunglasses indoors? So, they definitely were working with that whole look of her being a Black Widow spider. She’s dangerous.
Steve: Yeah, and of course, the second character we’ll talk about is a guy Joe. I mean, she really pulls him in and he sinks deeper and deeper and deeper into this trap she has cast.
Mary Jane: Right. It’s very gradual. He really thinks at first he’s getting the best from her in a way, at least financially, but, in fact, he’s very wrong.
Steve: I mean her character kind of reminded me of Dracula. You know, she gets your teeth into you. And then. And you’d then become, you know, pulled into that whole thing. Of course, he didn’t become a vampire.
Mary Jane: But the way they make her clench her fingers, they look claw-like. It’s, you know, in some ways, it’s funny. In some ways, it’s just strange.
Steve: Now one of the big disagreements we have is on the acting, Gloria Swanson’s acting here. So why don’t you tell me what you think of her acting and then I’ll comment on what I thought.
Mary Jane: Well, I thought she had a really tough role to play, for one thing. I mean she had to take it seriously. The fact that she is playing an actress who wants to make a comeback, who’s very authoritative. I think she does a great job with that, but she also has to be peculiar. She has to be strange with her eyebrows with her, but as I said, like with the way she moves her fingers and makes them claw-like. I think she pulls it off and it’s a tough thing to do, so I thought she did a great job.
Steve: Yeah. Of course, I’m watching this movie for the first time and I have to admit I knew nothing about the movie. Absolutely nothing. In fact, there were only three little bits of it that I knew of. One is at the beginning. It opens with him floating in a pool, and I don’t really want to go into exactly what’s going on there. And then, of course, is that famous scene at the end where she comes down the staircase.
Mary Jane: Right, everybody seems to know that that scene.
Steve: Right, yeah, but it’s just little tidbits that I knew, you know, just I guess because they’re so ingrained in our culture that I knew them.
Mary Jane: Right, Right.
Steve: But I knew nothing about the movie and I have to tell you for the first 45 or 50 minutes I’m just cringing at her acting. I’m just like this is so over the top. I can’t believe people loved this movie. It seemed that bad to me.
Mary Jane: Right, but you learn later on, of course, that she has mental issues.
Steve: Right. Now of course, then I watched it two additional times since then. We actually watched the movie with the intention of recording this, and then we couldn’t and then I had to go back later on.
Mary Jane: Right, had to delay it a bit.
Steve: And I had to go back and re-watch the movie. And now knowing how the story goes, it all makes sense, but I have to tell you the first time through it was pretty painful.
Mary Jane: Yeah.
Steve: Okay, now of course Gloria Swanson was a superstar in her day in silent movies, but when she fell out of favor, she just kind of walked away from Hollywood. And there’s a scene, you know, in the movie where she pulls up and she’s actually being chauffeured by her butler, but they pull up to the gates of Paramount Studios, and she states. And I’ll just play this little clip here.
Mary Jane: Right.
Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson): “And teach your friend some manners. Tell him without me you wouldn’t have any job, because without me there wouldn’t be any Paramount studio.”
Guard at the Paramount Gate: “You’re right, Miss Desmond.”
Steve: Now that statement is partially true and that she was one of those bankable stars of the silent era, and she made the company which was known as Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which would evolve into Paramount. She made them an incredible amount of money. In fact, she was their top star six years in a row. Now my question for you and I always have a question of the day. Are you ready?
Mary Jane: Right.
Steve: And don’t answer it right now.
Mary Jane: Yes, I am.
Steve: You gotta leave it for the end of the podcast.
Mary Jane: I’ll reflect on it.
Steve: How many movies did she make for Paramount? Okay, and, of course, this is one of them. How many movies in total did she make for Paramount? And I’ll let you think about that for a bit, but try and get a number in the back of your head as to how many movies she may have made.
Mary Jane: I’ll, I’ll try to come up with an estimate, OK?
Steve: OK, so while you’re pondering over the answer to that question, let’s move on to the next character, that’s Joe Gillis, the screenwriter who’s played by William Holden. And as a struggling screenwriter, he smells opportunity when Norma offers to pay him to write her screenplay Salomi. And honestly, throughout the whole movie, I just kept hearing salami, salami. And ultimately, and this is what they refer to him as. A lot of people called him a gigolo, but as you pointed out to me there is a better term and that would be…
Mary Jane: Yes, I really feel his character slowly becomes a kept man. He’s almost kept as a, well, financially, he’s very dependent on her, but he’s also almost like a prisoner in that mansion and he’s very dependent on her. And, in fact, he’s supposed to be writing a script for her, but you never see an exchange of money. She buys things for him, but she doesn’t actually pay him and he’s very frustrated by this. And gigolo kind of suggests, which the critics use. You know, that term that suggests he has some control in this situation and he has none whatsoever.
Mary Jane: That’s part of his frustration.
Steve: All I could think is a guy who sold his soul to the devil.
Mary Jane: Right, Right. And in the end, you know, when we do get kind of a little further into the story, you see that he’s very ashamed of his circumstances.
Steve: Yeah, definitely. Of course, we don’t want to give away the movie, but.
Mary Jane: No, not too much.
Steve: Yeah, although I would bet a lot of people have seen this movie. It’s a very… Maybe not among younger people. I think most older people have seen it.
Mary Jane: Right.
Steve: I think I may be one of the few exceptions that hadn’t. So clearly from the minute this movie opens, you know exactly what his fate is going to be. And we’re not giving away anything here because you know it from the second the movie starts.
Mary Jane: Right, it begins with his murdered body facedown in a swimming pool.
Steve: Right, which is one of the few things I had ever known about the movie. It’s just a very famous scene. And, of course, he’s now deceased and he goes back in time and describes how he ends up floating in this pool.
Mary Jane: Right, he’s narrating his whole journey. Yes.
Steve: What did you think about the narration? Was it annoying or did you think it was well done? What did you think?
Mary Jane: Yeah. You know I read that certain critics did not like it. I personally liked that. I like the fact that you are able to know that person’s inner thoughts and you know better than just to see it being acted out. So I thought it was very efficient and good. I like narration like that.
Steve: Yeah, I actually liked the narration also. I have to say, and I had mentioned this before to you in just our discussions, is that right after that scene and I kind of go back in time and he’s in the studio head’s office.
Mary Jane: Right.
Steve: I thought the acting was awful. I mean, it just seemed very. I don’t know, maybe rigid and phony to me. But the narration itself, I thought, was excellent throughout the entire movie. In fact, a lot of the scenes that took place outside of Norma’s home, I just didn’t think flowed very well. Whereas whenever they’re in Norma’s home, I think everything went much better.
Mary Jane: Well, I mean the leads were very good. I think that’s a big part of it, sure.
Steve: Right, I will say I thought, it was very well written. I thought the dialogue, even what he’s just reading, or even a dialogue between the characters was very sharp and to the point. You know, right on the money.
Mary Jane: Right. And it’s aged well too.
Steve: Right, I wouldn’t say the movie itself has aged well.
Mary Jane: Right, some of the scenes.
Steve: This is one of the things we disagree about. But I did think that it was one of the best-written scripts I’ve ever heard.
And I guess we should mention it’s kind of a criticism on Hollywood. You know basically how they chew you up and spit you out. Once they’re done with you. They make you a big star and then when you’re no longer selling tickets or you’re too old or whatever, they just spit you out and move on to the next big thing.
Mary Jane: Now in that area, I do have to disagree a bit. As you know, I was kind of saying I felt that the subtext is just she’s too old. She should know that and she’s crazy. She can’t understand that she doesn’t belong in the movies. Because when she does go to the studio, everyone is very kind to her and they’re very happy to see her, including the director. So I don’t know if it’s such a criticism of Hollywood. I think it’s more on just the fact that she’s aged out of the system.
Steve: I agree with you on that. That is part of the movie. But I do think, especially with the scene with the Waxworks, where these former silent stars are playing cards with her, that’s basically what I thought was the key to the movie; is that when they switched from silent to talkies, all of a sudden there’s no place for these stars anymore. Not only have they aged out, but maybe they had accents or the way you act in a silent movie is very different from how you would act in a talkie. And I think Hollywood just did away with all these people and that’s why they were all brought in to kind of sit around the table to make that point.
Mary Jane: Well, I suppose. I think where you actually see Hollywood being cruel is with the scriptwriter. I mean, they won’t even lend him $300.00, and I know that’s worth more today, but he had a good script or two and now they don’t really want to talk to him anymore.
Steve: Right. It’s something I’ve told you before with other celebrities. Modern celebrities, you know, that the press makes you and they break you and I kind of get that impression from the movie also. You know, they build some of these people up into the greatest stars and they’re super-geniuses, but as soon as they do one thing that’s bizarre or odd.
Mary Jane: Or they age out of the system, which is really the situation.
Steve: Or they age out. They no longer want them anymore, you know?
Mary Jane: Yeah, yeah.
Steve: So anyway, I wouldn’t say we have a disagreement on that, but I think the underlying message that we got from the movie is different.
Mary Jane: Right absolutely.
Steve: Now the next character I want to talk about is Erich von Stroheim, who played Max. von Stroheim was an incredibly successful director in the 1920s. Of course, for silent movies and one of his lines in the movie was, and let me play that:
Max von Meyerling (Erich von Stroheim): “There were three young directors who showed promise in those days: DW Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Max von Meyerling.”
Steve: Many have argued that this line was referenced to von Stroheim himself because he was one of the biggest directors of his day.
Mary Jane: Right. Also that his name is very similar to his character’s name in the film.
Steve: Right, yeah, von Mayerling, von Stroheim. Now there is a scene in the movie and I’m sure you remember this. They’re sitting in her living room, which is this giant room.
Mary Jane: Right, Right.
Steve: Now today everybody would have the big screen TV. In those days she had her own movie projector projecting up onto a screen on the wall and they’re watching a movie and she’s watching herself in her younger days. And it really is.
Mary Jane: Gloria Swanson, yeah.
Steve: Yeah, in her younger days in a movie that was directed by von Stroheim. You don’t know that when you’re watching the movie, but when you find out afterward, it’s kind of a neat little thing they threw in there. It’s kind of a tribute to how popular and how successful she was. And how important he was also. What did you think about his character?
Mary Jane: Well, it’s important. He’s very creepy and he’s and he’s very protective of her. And, at first, you’re not aware of why he puts up with her because he’s very demeaning towards her. She’s not very respectful of him. Uhm, but it’s great. I think he does a good job because he doesn’t say much. He doesn’t have many lines and yet he’s very important to the movie and the ambiance of the movie, which is very creepy.
Steve: He’s clearly a supporting actor, but I really thought he was like the glue that brought it all together. I mean the main story between the two main characters is really important, but him being there. From the moment he opens that door and lets him in. Just everything about him just brought it, you know. As you said, he’s kind of creepy.
Mary Jane: Yes. And he’s everywhere. I mean, whenever you look around, oh, there he is. I didn’t know he was in the room and there he is.
Steve: Yeah. But his devotion to her, you don’t find out until the very end, and we don’t want to give away that little bit…
Mary Jane: Sure.
Steve: …but there is a reason why he’s so devoted to her, even though she lives in this fantasy world where she thinks she’s still super popular. And she’s going to have a comeback.
Mary Jane: And despite the way she treats him because she does not treat him well.
Steve: Yeah, she’s cruel to him, basically.
Mary Jane: Yeah, yeah.
Steve: But he continues to put up with it and there is a reason that’s revealed near the end. But again, we don’t want to give that away. And of course, then there’s the car.
Mary Jane: Yes.
Steve: I mean they couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate vehicle. This kind of over-the-top antiquated vehicle. The car, I believe is pronounced Issota Fraschini and was, I believe, an Italian vehicle. I’m not sure on this.
Mary Jane: Yes, it sounds Italian. Right?
Steve: Yeah, and there weren’t many made but big stars in the silent days purchased these cars. And I believe they were the most expensive vehicle available in its day.
Mary Jane: Right, but to look at it today it almost looks like a hearse. It’s perfect for the movie, but it’s not a very attractive car.
Steve: Yeah, I think it was chosen on purpose again for the creepiness.
Mary Jane: Right, yeah?
Steve: I should point out I don’t know if you came across this as you were doing your reading but von Stroheim couldn’t drive. So when you see him driving, basically he’s either…
Mary Jane: Oh no, I didn’t know that. They’re not really moving.
Steve: Well, not that. The moving the car is on the back of, you know, maybe another vehicle that’s moving and he’s pretending they drive while they film it, which is common in Hollywood.
Mary Jane: OK, so yeah, with the background flying by.
Steve: And I don’t know if this is really true and some people said maybe it’s not, but apparently when they’re at the gates of Paramount Studios and he’s trying to drive in through the gates and they stop him and he starts to move. They’re actually pulling with ropes. They’re pulling the car with ropes through the gate. And this is the part I’m not really sure if it’s true, and I have a feeling it’s exaggerated. Apparently, he still crashed.
Mary Jane: No, like you really didn’t know how to drive. Oh my goodness.
Steve: Yeah, that’s right. Which actually, if you think about it wasn’t surprising. I mean here you are. You know a guy who reached adulthood in the days when people had horses and buggies, you know?
Mary Jane: Not everybody had a car.
Steve: Right. So, you know, pretty common back then, I think, for a lot of people not to learn to drive. And I guess the last character we’ll talk about is Nancy Olson, who was Joe Gillis’ love interest in the movie.
Mary Jane: Right.
Steve: Basically she goes under the name Betty Schaefer. What did you think about her?
Mary Jane: I liked her. Her character I liked very much. I thought it was interesting, of course, to the storyline because she’s the polar opposite of Gloria Swanson’s character. Right? I mean, for one thing, she’s youthful. They mentioned her age. He even asks her age.
Steve: Which is?
Mary Jane: 22.
Steve: Right, which and I believe she was just shy of 22 when that was being filmed.
Mary Jane: Yeah, yeah. And she’s also very driven, and she’s ambitious, you know. And, but she’s supposed to be again that opposite of Gloria Swanson, in that she says she doesn’t want to be in front of the camera. She wants to write. She wants to be behind the camera.
Mary Jane: And so she’s to me she’s kind of the modern, the modern woman.
Steve: Well, I agree. Of course, this is 1950 where a lot of women, I guess when they were young they went to work.
But I’m even thinking of my own mom. I mean, you know she worked until she had children.
Mary Jane: Right, they right they didn’t all work outside the home very much right.
Steve: Now, what did you think about her acting?
Mary Jane: Now see I liked her acting. I think she was kind of showing this young enthusiasm so I thought she did a good job with it.
Steve: Yeah, and I did briefly mention to you at the end of the movie that at the beginning of the movie I thought she was screaming to the microphone. It just seemed very. I wouldn’t say bad acting. It was almost like the microphone couldn’t pick up her voice. Maybe she was too soft-spoken and she had to almost yell her lines. It wasn’t quite like that, but that’s the impression I got and all I can think is what we’re experiencing with this podcast right now.
Mary Jane: Yeah, sometimes we have issues with the microphone.
Steve: Yeah, I mean basically your voice is not picked up well by the microphones. I’ll just describe right now. Your mouth is like one inch from the microphone. If you move even the slightest bit it drops your voice. So that’s kind of what I thought was going on there. But I have to say within a few minutes into the movie I just kind of forgot about that. But that initial time hearing her talk, I was just like holy cow. You know, she’s screaming at the microphone.
Mary Jane: Yeah, I don’t know. I interpret it as like she’s so enthusiastic. She really wanted to write a script with him. That’s part of the storyline, of course.
Steve: Yeah, I will say by the second viewing of this movie I really liked her character so it was just the first time that I noticed that and then the second time I just kind of grew into it, you know.
Mary Jane: And I mean you didn’t really ask me this, but I do think that they had a bit of a chemistry which they’re supposed to in this movie. That William Holden and the actress, yeah.
Steve: Yeah, and we should mention that Nancy Olson is still alive. She’s 93 years old, I actually saw an interview of her from probably about 2014 or so. I’m just kind of guesstimating on the date.
Mary Jane: OK, great.
Steve: A) she looked beautiful. You’d never know how old she was. She looked a lot younger than her real age.
Mary Jane: Good genes?
Steve: And wow! I mean she just her voice. I mean she’s just an incredible speaker. I mean she had a lot to say. She did mention that after this movie and she saw how Hollywood just basically chewed you up and spit you out. She kind of left Hollywood. I mean, she did infrequently do movies and maybe a few TV shows after that. But basically, she separated herself from it and decided not to be part of it.
Mary Jane: Now you know the reaction to this movie by a lot of people. A lot of people were upset by it and some thought that the criticism was harsh. That was people within Hollywood, but some actresses actually were upset also by it. By seeing it, you know. So people took it seriously.
Steve: Yeah, I mean I don’t think anybody likes the focus being on what they do. You know, they like people like to you know, point out the problems in other things but. Not your profession. You know what I’m saying.
Mary Jane: Right, and I think we both were read that two of the characters said, listen, this is not really us that’s being portrayed. And that wasn’t the character of Max and the character of Norma Desmond.
Mary Jane: They both, when they were being interviewed, said you know this really isn’t us because the movie is upsetting to some people.
Steve: Right. OK, so now that we’ve discussed the four main characters, what do you think was your favorite scene in the movie?
Mary Jane: Well, my favorite scene, I guess would be with him and Betty Schaefer, his love interest, where he pretty much explains to her why he is no longer deserving of her love. You know, that he really doesn’t deserve to be with her. It’s very sad. You know, the scene is very sad. But at the same time, it’s quintessentially film noir. He’s never going to be deserving of the life he seeks to get, you know, and that’s the way it is with all of those characters. That’s part of the, it’s almost the theme of film noirs. They never succeed.
Mary Jane: It’s sad, but that’s the way it is.
Steve: Although I have to say after that scene and he then starts packing up and leaving, and in the back of my head I’m like he’s given up the girl and he’s giving up the life that he has. Why would you choose not to have either? Why couldn’t he have given up the life he had with Norma Desmond and then go off with his love, you know?
Mary Jane: I think I think he at least wants to be financially independent. So he is striking out on his own. He’s doing something that is impressive but sad at the same time. Because you’re right, he’s given up the potential for having true happiness.
Steve: Now my favorite scene was when she goes to visit Cecil B. DeMille on the set. And it just happened to be the set – they don’t mention this in the movie – but it’s the set of Samson and Delilah, which oddly was the most successful movie of 1950, and I believe it starred. I mean, I read this somewhere months ago when we were planning on doing this so I may have this wrong, but I believe Hedy Lamarr was the star and they were talking about having her in this movie, but apparently, Cecil B. DeMille demanded that she get like $10,000 or some crazy amount. And, of course, Billy Wilder refused, so that’s why she’s not in the movie. But I did like that scene because A) I thought Cecil B. DeMille was the most realistic actor in the entire movie.
Mary Jane: OK, yeah.
Steve: I just thought he was so real and down to Earth, giving good advice, or even though he, I mean I don’t want to really give too much away.
Mary Jane: Right.
Steve: But he’s trying to not hurt her feelings, protect her. And not tell her that you know basically she’s not wanted anymore in Hollywood. She doesn’t have a future in pictures. But I also just like the fact not only his acting, but she sat down and all sudden these people from her past.
Mary Jane: Oh yeah, they are surrounding her.
Steve: Just gather around. It’s kind of like you know someone who was a star 20-30 years ago. And yet they go somewhere, and people are like, oh, that’s whoever, and you know, they all come around and they want your autograph.
Mary Jane: Right, and they know who she is now.
Steve: Even though your career is probably, you know, the high point of your career is long past. So I really liked that scene. I just thought Cecil B DeMille, who is not an actor.
Mary Jane: Right.
Steve: Just did a fantastic job. Of anything in that entire movie I thought was the most realistic.
Mary Jane: Yeah he did do a good job.
Steve: Yeah. Now speaking of film sets, did you feel like this movie was filmed on a set?
Mary Jane: Well, the mansion, which is very it’s over the top. It’s very garish and all that. Yes, it does seem a bit like a set. That didn’t bother me. I mean, I knew they were trying to make it almost appear like a silent movie scene, or you know, a lot. So, yeah, I mean it seemed like a set, I thought.
Steve: I guess the one thing we didn’t mention about Gloria Swanson, and you know, I mentioned the beginning, how I thought she was overacting. But really, after you watch the movie the first time you realized what she’s doing is how silent movie stars were. They couldn’t speak.
Mary Jane: Had to exaggerate, yes.
Steve: Exaggerate. They really use their faces and their hands and their body language to express what was going on in the scene/ When you go back after watching it through…
Mary Jane: You understand it better for sure, Yep.
Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson): “Still wonderful, isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces.”
Steve: So before we get to answering the Question of the Day, I thought we’d read portions of three movie reviews from the day when this movie came. And we’re not going to read any of them in their entirety. And I should mention all three that we are going to read were published on either August 18th or August 19th of 1950 when the movie came out. So we don’t have to keep repeating the dates for them.
So the first one I have is from the Minneapolis Star Tribune and one of the paragraphs reads, “The fact is ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is a picture that people are going to be talking about for a long time. Its setting is Hollywood, its story is pure Hollywood and its handling is Hollywood with all the stops out.”
And it continues: “Holden finds he has to get away from it all every now and then. Away from the mansion he meets and falls in love with Nancy Olson, a girl his own age. From there, everything, including Miss Swanson – really goes to pieces. She finally goes mad while descending a giant staircase in front of a battery of newsreel cameras.”
And that’s the world-famous scene that ends the movie.
Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson): “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.”
Steve: “In her madness, Miss Swanson, eyes flashing, believes she’s making a movie comeback in the role of a great princess.
“It’s a wonder to watch. It’s also a scene to warm Hollywood’s heart and keep it warm until award time.”
And of course, she didn’t win the Academy Award for this movie. But she was nominated for Best Actress.
Mary Jane: But they’re still talking about it today.
Steve: That’s right, that’s why I read that portion of it.
Mary Jane: So yeah, 70 years later.
Steve: I mean, the fact that we’re still talking about it. Right. So why don’t you read the next one?
Mary Jane: Okay. So this is from the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The plot offers a new sort of daring realism – a barbed satire which does not spare Hollywood and its denizens, past and present. One wonders for a moment whether Miss Swanson’s ability does not disprove the film’s suggestion that an actress can have no glamour at 50. One is also inclined to ask whether William Holden is to blame for becoming entangled in her meshes; many another young man has compromised himself in other ways for less.”
Steve: And so true. Okay. And the last one we have is from the Shamokin News-Dispatch, page 9 if you’re curious. “Sunset Boulevard would be a memorable film if only because it marks the return to the screen of Gloria Swanson. In the role of Norma Desmond, the faded movie star who refuses to believe the public has forgotten her, she is magnificent. And there aren’t enough superlatives to heap on William Holden for his portrayal of the screenwriter. Easily the top performance of his career, it establishes him as one of the film capital’s finest actors.”
Mary Jane: Well, I absolutely agree with what the critics had to say. I think it’s interesting though, to realize that they both were nominated for Best Actor for their roles, and neither of them got it for the Academy Awards.
Steve: Yeah, I read somewhere that, and it’s a while ago again, because we had planned on reviewing this movie many months ago.
Mary Jane: Right, sure.
Steve: So I read that basically, Gloria Swanson was going up against Bette Davis and because they were both, you know, odds on favorites to win they basically split the vote and the person who was in third one won Best Actress.
Mary Jane: Oh my goodness. Okay.
Steve: OK, so earlier in the podcast I had given you a question to think about and I’m sure you’ve been thinking about it the entire time. Right?
Mary Jane: Right. Oh my goodness.
Steve: You thought nothing else since. Okay, soI told you that Gloria Swanson for six years in a row, that would be from 1919 to 1925, was the top star at what would become Paramount Studios. And I asked you how many movies did she make during that time and what was your answer?
Mary Jane: All right, so I’m going to tell you what I chose as my answer and my logic. I’m hoping, or I believe that possibly they made films faster.
Steve: Yes, that is true.
Mary Jane: They were shorter. So in six years’ time, if she’s very popular. Goodness. They may have. Contracted her for, I’m going to go big. I’m going to go 15.
Steve: Fifteen. Well, maybe you should go even bigger.
Mary Jane: Really? In six years? Goodness!
Steve: Yeah. She made 29 feature-length movies. Which weren’t, you know, two hours back then and she made two shorts for them. And of course, later on in her career, she made Sunset Boulevard. So that makes a total of 30 movies she made for Paramount. Plus the two shorts.
Mary Jane: That’s amazing.
Steve: Surprisingly, she was so popular they offered her $1,000,000 per year in her contract and she decided to leave for United Artists in 1925.
Mary Jane: Did she do as well?
Steve: I don’t believe so. I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly. But clearly, she had another problem coming and that was the talkies.
Mary Jane: Right.
Steve: And, of course, nobody stays popular forever. I think was Elton John once said, you know, even when you’re the most popular person in the world, you get your five or six years and then and that.
Mary Jane: Yeah, yeah.
Steve: And that’s that’s the highlight of your career. But she did pretty well. I mean movies were much shorter back then, but to do thirty movies and to be the top billing star for those number of years. Now I should mention, and I don’t think we mentioned this earlier, is that, unlike Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson, when her career dried up in Hollywood, she just left. She didn’t try.
Mary Jane: She knew when to leave.
Steve: Exactly. She was on top or maybe she saw her career dying off that it was time to leave and, I believe, she moved to New York. I could be wrong on that and you know, went into radio and then into TV and she kept her career going. This movie Sunset Boulevard in 1950 kind of gave her a resurgence and of course, everybody said she’s back. But apparently, the roles that she was offered at you know after that were all kind of more Norma Desmond-type roles, and she didn’t want to do those, so she never really had the same success after that.
Mary Jane: Right. Oh my goodness.
Steve: This movie was like one big successful movie and then there were none that followed after that. And of course, there are probably film historians who are going to say that I’m wrong on that because I’m just, you know, doing this from memory.
Mary Jane: Right. But I do know that she was at times interviewed and she said I am not that character. So she got very annoyed with being compared to the character of Norman Desmond. So she probably would not want to continue to play her parts like that. Similar parts I guess.
Steve: Yeah, nobody wants to be typecast. Now this movie makes a lot of best-ever made movie lists. You know, the top ten, top 100 movies, and so on. It’s currently number 16 on the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 Best American films of the 20th century. And I would say if you looked on something like the Internet Movie Database, almost everybody gives it a 10 out of 10.
Now we’re teachers, of course, and we’re going to use that zero to 100. Because that’s, you know, teachers got to pull out their red pen and do that. So on a scale of zero to 100, how would you rate this movie?
Mary Jane: So I’m going to give it a 95. I’m always looking for that 100 or 98. I’m just going to give it a 95. But that means I loved it. I thought it was very good. Yeah.
Steve: Okay. I’m going to give it two scores and there’s a reason for this.
Mary Jane: Oh, okay.
Steve: The first score I’m going to give it is based on my first viewing of it, knowing nothing about the movie.
Mary Jane: Okay.
Steve: And the fact that I really, I’m not kidding, I was checking my watch and like is this movie ever going to end? You know, because I had no idea where it was going.
Mary Jane: Where it was headed.
Steve: I really had no clue she was playing someone who’s basically mentally ill in the movie. And I really saw a lot of bad acting. So I would say based on my first viewing, I’d probably give it a 70 or 75.
Mary Jane: Okay.
Steve: Now after two additional viewings and knowing where the story is going.
Mary Jane: Knowing more about it, sure.
Steve: And being able to sit back and really absorb what’s going on. I’m not going to go as high as you. I’d say it’s a middle B, maybe about an 85. So my score did go up with a second and third viewing. So I guess the question comes, would you recommend that people watch this movie?
Mary Jane: I would absolutely recommend it to a certain type of person, like for someone who likes the history of cinema. One who is interested in what they call film noir. That genre and also gender politics. You know, people really like to analyze, you know the subtext of a movie, because that you could go on and talk for hours about it.
Steve: And I agree with that. I would say this is not a movie for people who don’t like black and white movies.
Mary Jane: Right. If you can’t get over that, you’re not going to watch it.
Steve: Right, and I don’t. I mean I mentioned it to you personally before. I don’t think the movie as a whole has held up cinematically over the years. I think the story is very good. I think it’s very well written. I think, you know, reading into all the details and what’s really going on. It’s incredible what was done in that movie.
Mary Jane: But yeah, while analyzing the gender relations in a way that. That is. It’s very current, actually, I think so.
Mary Jane: In that sense, it’s great.
Steve: Right, but I don’t think the movie as a whole in terms of the cinematography and just how it was filmed and so on has aged as well as because.
Mary Jane: As some movies.
Steve: I mean, as somebody, I mean, we saw the Best Years of Our Lives, which was the first movie we reviewed. And I think, in a sense, that held up better than this movie does. On the other hand, we.
Mary Jane: It’s, uh, well. I’m just going to say it’s a completely different type of movie too, because this is just, it’s playing with two different genres.
Steve: And sure.
Mary Jane: It’s yeah, it’s very different, for sure.
Steve: Right so, but anyway, I mean as you said, if you’re a film buff or you’re really into analyzing movies, I would definitely recommend that you see it. If you’re just a casual viewer and you don’t. I’m just thinking of my students. You know, high school students. I don’t think a lot of them would really like this movie. They may like it when they get older. But when they’re young, I don’t think they would.
Mary Jane: Right, that’s very possible. I think even for some people who aren’t sure, try to watch the first half-hour. I feel you’d have to continue to watch it. Which is important, I think, yeah.
Steve: Yeah, OK, now if you do want to watch this movie, it is available for free on archive.org. Just type in Sunset Boulevard and I think if you put in parentheses 1950 and select the checkmark for movies it will pop up. Now I should point out it has Spanish subtitles.
Mary Jane: At the bottom, yes.
Steve: Yeah, so I don’t think it’s a legal copy, but it is there until someone catches it and removes it.
Mary Jane: Right.
Steve: Otherwise, I think most streaming services have it, but you have to pay probably a couple of bucks or something to watch it.
Mary Jane: But I will say it didn’t bother me at all. I just didn’t pay attention to them, you know.
Steve: And probably a local library has it on DVD. It is that famous of a movie.
Mary Jane: Of course. Yes.
Steve: If they don’t have that one, they probably don’t have most classic movies from that time period. Anyway, let’s bring this to a close. I just want to thank everybody for listening to us talk about this movie. We did have a little bit of a disagreement on our views of the movie and our analysis and how we ranked it. But we both did enjoy the movie, I would say. And I do recommend if you’re a film buff to go out there and take a look at it.
Mary Jane: Yeah so. You should see it for sure.
Steve: Although I would say if you’re a film buff, you probably saw it already.
Mary Jane: Right, of course, yes, mostly.
Mary Jane: See it again!
Steve: Yeah. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with the next story, which I have been working on. I think I mentioned in the last podcast that I had dental surgery. Well, I had two more dental surgeries since then and I’m just getting to the point where I can talk again. And it’s not that I couldn’t write anything, it’s just that I was in a lot of pain and it’s very hard to concentrate. And the story that I’m working on has a lot of documentation to it. Honestly, I stopped printing it out because I was well over 150 sheets of paper. Just different stories. And it’s very repetitive, at least not the story I’m going to tell. This is a woman. She was a Hollywood actress, not a very successful one. But she was in a number of movies during the silent era.
Mary Jane: Oh gosh. OK.
Steve: And she somehow got into this other career of living in what they called a glass house. And she did that for the rest of her life and it’s kind of an unusual story. But what would happen is she’d live in this glass house in town after town after town.
Mary Jane: Oh my goodness.
Steve: It was kind of a publicity thing for different stores. So it gets very repetitious and I don’t want to make the story that I’m writing repetitious, but I have to read through, you know, do all the research you know, and go through all these stories.
Mary Jane: Through all the research.
Steve: Which kind of tell almost the same thing over and over again, and just pull out the meat of it and then put it into some sort of cohesive story. So the fact that was in so much pain and the fact I had so much documentation to go through, I am probably about a week, week and a half away from finishing the script for and then I’ll record it. You know I’m shooting for mid-month to get it posted. So, but it is a good story. I actually like it. I hope that other people will also. Anyway, we’ll bring it to a close here. We’re kind of blabbing on. So, Mary Jane, thanks for joining me again.
Mary Jane: No problem, I enjoyed it.
Steve: And I hope everybody out there has a great New Year. I hope 2022 is better than what was going on in 2021 and everybody is happy. Yeah, and I hope everybody is happy and healthy and they stay safe.
Mary Jane: Me too, by the way.
Steve: Take care everyone bye.
Mary Jane: Okay, bye-bye.
Below: Sunset Boulevard movie trailer from archive.org.