Thursday, February 19, 2009

Gloria Swanson (1899-1983)

I have decided that when I am a star, I will be every inch and every moment a star.
- Gloria Swanson

Publicity still from Don't Change Your Husband (1919).

It is now time for me to present one of my greatest female icons and inspiration - Gloria Swanson. Her greatness is hard to describe fairly, but I will try to make an honest effort.
Gloria is not only worth to be worshipped for her sublime acting skills, but also for the woman she was. It is said that she was not easy to work with, and I believe that; she knew what she wanted. And that gave her two Academy Award nominations, one Golden Globe award and her own production company, Gloria Swanson Pictures (distributed by United Artists and financed by Joe Kennedy, father of John and Bobby).
In her later years she also painted and made sculptures.

Gloria Swanson had a multicultural ancestry, her mother being from German, Polish and Fench origin, and her father from Swedish American (originally named Svensson).
She was however born in a small house in Chicago in March 1899, as Gloria Josephine May Svensson.
She initially didn't have any dreams of becoming a movie star, but worked as an extra at Essenay Studios beginning in 1914. She even came to work with Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennet, but her disgust with slapstick didn't get her very far along that road.

As Leila Porter in Cecil B. DeMille's Don't Change Your Husband (1919).

Her break-through although, came when star director Cecil B. DeMille discovered Gloria and cast her in his intellectual comedy Don't Change Your Husband in 1919. In that film Gloria plays a bored housewife, tired of her decaying and neglecting husband. Instead she finds comfort in a stylish Don Juan, and marries him instead. Soon she finds out that he perhaps wasn't any better, and starts to have second thoughts about her first husband, who after the divorce has started improving himself.
This film made Gloria Swanson a movie star and a fashion icon almost over night, and resulted in a sequel - Why Change Your Wife? (1920). She was also casted, being DeMille's greatest star, in Male and Female (1919) and The Affairs of Anatol (1921).

Interview 1980: Gloria Swanson on the most important and dangerous scene in Cecil B. DeMille's Male and Female (1919).

After the "DeMille-period" Gloria did some films with director Sam Wood, among them Beyond the Rocks (1922) against no less than the latino dream Rudolph Valentino. The story of that film was built on a novel by the popular erotica author Elinor Glyn (see my post about It).
Theodora Fitzgerald (Swanson) marries a much older millionaire for the financial safety, but falls on her honeymoon in love with a handsome nobleman in her own age (Valentino).
Until 2003 this film was believed to be lost, but was found in a private collection in The Netherlands.

Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino in Beyond the Rocks (1922).

In 1927 Gloria did something that would change her career; she joined the United Artists filmstudio, founded by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith to let actors have more artistic control of their own work.
And so Gloria did. In 1928 she produced a film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's short story Miss Thompson. She cast herself in the leading role and changed the name of the story to Sadie Thompson.
Since the main character is a smoking, drinking, jazz listening, young prostitute, the film challanged the Hays Code of censorship a great lot. A riot was enormous, here's a link to Wikipedia about the whole thing.

Gloria Swanson as Sadie Thompson.

Sadie Thompson (1928).

[Gloria Swanson on Erich von Stroheim]
The experience of working with him was unlike any I had had in more than 50 pictures. He was so painstaking and slow that I would lose all sense of time, hypnotized by the man's relentless perfectionism.

For Sadie Thompson she was nominated for her first Oscar as Best Actress.
1929 she produced a film, Queen Kelly, with Austrian Erich von Stroheim directing her in the leading role. That film, however was never finished since von Stroheims eccentric persona got on her nervs and she fired him.
That film did however enter the theatres anyway, being 75 minutes (restored to 101 minutes in 1985), compared to the by von Stroheim intended lenght of four hours.

Gloria Swanson was one of the actors and actresses that could handle the transition to talking pictures, her first being The Trespasser (1929) in which she even sang. For her role in that film she got her second Oscar Nomination for Best Actress. She also appeared in other musicals, as Indiscreet (1931) and Music in the Air (1934).
Her career, however, was decaying. Since Gloria never was the nostalgic person dwelling in the past, she found other ways of passing her time, including art and politics.

It's amazing to find that so many people, who I thought really knew me, could have thought that Sunset Blvd. (1950) was autobiographical. I've got nobody floating in my swimming pool.

She did, although, have a great come back. In 1950 she made an immortal performance in Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. (1950) as the forgotten silent movie star Norma Desmond, who never wanted to realize that the audience gave her up a long time ago. In the male leading role (and narrator) we have William Holden as the B-writer Joe Gillis, who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Earlier mentioned Erich von Stroheim appears as Norma Desmonds ex-director, ex-husband and present butler (a part not too distant from his real self). Even Buster Keaton and Cecil B. DeMille appears as themselves.

Scene: Final scene from Sunset Blvd. "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

Sunset Blvd. was a huge success, bringing Gloria Swanson a third Oscar Nomination and a Golden Glove Award for a part that Mae West, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri had declined.
As a natural result of her rediscovered greatness Gloria was offered several parts in different movies, but declined them since they were "all just pale imitations of Norma Desmond".
Her last big Hollywood motion picture was Three for Bedroom "C" (1952), but the failing audience put an end to Gloria Swanson return as an actress.

The Sunset Blvd cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson and Erich von Stroheim.

When I die, my epitaph should read "She Paid the Bills".
That's the story of my private life.

Her personal life was hectic, including six husbands (Wallace Beery 1916-1919, Herbert K. Somborn 1919-1922, Henri de la Falais 1925-1931, Michael Farmer 1931-1934, George William N. Davey 1945-1948 and William Dufty 1976-1983), two children (with Somborn and Farmer) an affair with the married tycoon Joseph P. Kennedy and a WWII veteran/stalker named Samuel Golden.
She was also accused of her second husband, Somborn, to have had affairs with Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and Marshall Neilan. During that divorce Gloria adopted a baby boy and named him Joseph Patrick Swanson.
When Swanson later married Michael Farmer her divorce with Henri de la Falais had not yet been finalized, making Gloria a bigamist and had to re-marry Farmer.

Well, you see. She lived a long time, dying of natural causes in 1983, and she spent that time doing what she wanted and never flinched. Her life was sure an interesting one, so the best I can do is to recommend her biography: Swanson on Swanson (1980).

Personal quotes:

I think all this talk about age is foolish. Every time I'm one year older, everyone else is too.

I've given my memoirs far more thought than any of my marriages. You can't divorce a book.

After 16 years in pictures I could not be intimidated easily, because I knew where all the skeletons were buried.

After seven years in one place, not to mention two marriages and 32 pictures, I felt I had earned a vacation.

All they had to do was put my name on a marquee and watch the money roll in.

As Daddy said, life is 95 percent anticipation.

Every victory is also a defeat

All creative people should be required to leave California for three months every year.


Millie said...

This was fascinating!

I have actually never seen any of her films, besides "Sunset Blvd."

This post makes me want to go see some!

Lolita said...

Then I've reached my goal! Thank you.
I recommend Don't Change Your Husband - entertaining, moving and clever!

Millie said...

Okay, I will try and see that one! It looks good!