Monday, March 22, 2010

Pre-Game Warm-Up: Gloria Swanson Edition

To prepare for this week's Metro Classic, I decided to finally watch some of Gloria Swanson's classic silent films. She started in films at Essanay in Chicago (Charlie Chaplin's studio at the time) around 1914. By the end of the war, she'd moved to Hollywood and starred in a string of films directed by Cecil B. DeMille that by 1921 made her one of the biggest stars in the world. Here's two of those films:

Don't Change Your Husband - Gloria Swanson doesn't get any close-ups in this Cecil B. DeMille film from 1919. This seems a little too early for that kind of thing, at least for him. Most of the scenes play out in two shots, with occasional inserts for close-ups of objects. DeMille keeps it all moving though, so the film ends up feeling as light and pleasant as its story (and there's some wonderful fantasy sequences as Swanson imagines what her new life would be like, they've got the same spirit of spectacle that would eventually take over DeMille's filmmaking). The plot has Swanson dissatisfied with her husband (he's a slob, he appears to eat nothing but onions, he can't dance), so she divorces him and marries the romantic young man who's been wooing her. But the new guy turns out to be even worse! He's a gambler and a drunk and he's cheating on her with a girl named 'Toodles'. Meanwhile, Husband #1 has got himself a rowing machine, shaved his mustache and become even richer as the head of the new Hemp Trust (seriously!). Has poor Gloria learned her lesson? It's really quite a fun film, and it's always good to be reminded that romantic comedy plots haven't advanced one bit in at least the last 90 years.

Why Change Your Wife? - This time, it's the husband (Thomas Meighan, who looks a bit like Joseph Cotton, or a unholy mix of Jude Law and Norm MacDonald) who's dissatisfied, seems his wife is always interrupting his shaving, trying to get him to quit smoking, looks down on his reading movie magazines and turning off his hot new foxtrot music and making him listen to some violin piece called "The Dying Poet". To try and spice things up, he buys her some lingerie, which she's too shy to wear properly, so he goes to a show with the lingerie model (a typical flapper-type). Divorce, followed by the realization that Spouse #2 is even worse, ensues. This is pretty much in the same style as the first film, and Swanson is just as good (still hardly any closeups, though). There's a long, expensive-looking sequence at a hotel pool that features some of the craziest, most impractical swimwear you've ever seen. Swanson I guess was famous at the time for her interest in haute couture, and for being one the first famous fashion stars. Personally, I think most of the clothes are pretty hideous and totally unflattering, but what do I know?

Swanson's success continued throughout the 20s, and by the end of the decade she was still star enough to produce her own films, joining United Artists with Chaplin, DW griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. As a producer, she financed what would end up being Erich von Stroheim's last film as a director:

Queen Kelly - Swanson's first and only collaboration with director Erich von Stroheim, her Sunset Blvd. costar, was this unfinished film. She and her boyfriend at the time, Joseph Kennedy (yes, that one) produced it and she hired von Stroheim to direct. The projected film would have been about five hours long, but she fired von Stroheim about one-third of the way (and $800,000 or so) through. It seems her changed the script without her approval (or the approval of the Hays Office) to have most of the last section of the film take place in a brothel instead of a "dance hall", and knowing it would get censored, Swanson killed it. She went back later (with Gregg Toland) and shot a quick ending to the surviving footage, and Kino's used some production stills to recreate and give a sense of von Stroheim's version of the film. As it stands, neither version is particularly satisfying. The completed section is pretty terrific, with Swanson as a young convent girl (Kelly) whom the Queen's fiancé falls in love with. The Queen herself (Regina V, played by Seena Owen) is crazy and violent and likes to whip people and walks around naked with only a cat covering her breasts. All this is a lot of fun, but in the long version, it would have only been a sort of prologue, with the rest of the film taking place in Africa has Swanson is forced to marry an evil looking guy (an incredibly creepy Tully Marshall), take over her aunt's brothel and become a madam. All that survives of that is the forced marriage sequence, which is suitably horrifying. Swanson's ending cuts out all of that, taking an abrupt conclusion on to the Prince & Queen story.

After that miserable experience, Swanson successfully moved into sound pictures, getting an Oscar nomination for her first one, The Trespasser, which she and director Edmond Goulding (whom Swanson had hired to help her finish Queen Kelly) made in a matter of weeks and was enough of a hit to pay back all the losses on the von Stroheim film. But by the mid-30s, she appears to have lost interest in making movies (she moved to New York at the end of the decade) but instead worked in theatre, early television, fashion, painting, sculpting and writing. The Kino DVD of Queen Kelly has a fascinating special feature of Swanson herself introducing the film and talking about the experience of making and trying to finish it for a showing of it on television. She's totally charming, and seeing just how different she actually was from Norma Desmond reminds you of just how brilliant her performance in Sunset Blvd. really is.

No comments: