"The public, not I, made Gloria Swanson a star."
That is Cecil B. DeMille's comment on the well known fact that it he that made a star out of Gloria Swanson. Wikipedia delivers embarrassingly few facts on their great collaboration:
Swanson moved to California in 1916 to appear in Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies opposite Bobby Vernon, and in 1919 she signed with Paramount Pictures and worked often with Cecil B. DeMille, who turned her into a romantic lead in such films as Don't Change Your Husband, Male and Female, The Affairs of Anatol, and Why Change Your Wife?
Thank you for that one. No, if we want the golden years of Gloria Swanson's career described to us in a little more juicy way, I think Gloria herself is the best one to ask.
I, with the help of Gloria Swanson's wonderfully detailed autobiography Swanson on Swanson (1980), will do a special on the DeMille-Swanson part of the motion picture history. And I will start from the beginning.
It was a few years ago now that I read Gloria Swanson's autobiography. Imagine my delight when I found it in the public library! I am nowadays, however, the proud owner of a 1981 First Pocket Book printing of the creation. (Okay, I bought on Amazon.com last year for $1.99, but still - invaluable to me! And with shipment to Sweden the prize was $14.48, so I guess that adds up.) If you haven't read it yet and will, you will also want to own the book - it is irreplacable.
But now, let's get started!
Gloria Swanson, 1917.
Gloria's first rendez-vous with Cecil B. DeMille is written with words of awe.
The year is 1918 and Gloria works for a little film studio called Triangle, making silly films not worth mentioning. She's is waiting with much enthusiasm to hear what her next picture will be about, and with not so much interest in who is going to direct it, when she receives a phone call.
"Miss Swanson, please.""This is Miss Swanson.""Good morning, Miss Swanson. I'm Oscar Goodstadt, the casting director at Famous Players-Lasky and I'm calling on behalf of Cecil B. De Mille. Mr. De Mille would like to see you at your earliest convenience. Could you come in at three today? Miss Swanson?""Oh! Yes. Yes, I can."Mr Goodstadt started to tell me how to get to the studio, but I said I knew where it was. Everybody knew where it was.It took up a whole block at Sunset and Vine. It was where Mary Pickford worked. And Douglas Fairbanks. And Almighty God himself, Cecil B. De Mille.
Swanson on Swanson (1980), p. 95
Oh, little Gloria - 18 years old, 5'1" (155 cm) tall, and has an oppointment of her own at Cecil B. DeMille's office - she must have had lots of guts! Now, enjoy DeMille appearing like a God in front of our little heroine.
Any notion I may have had of style or elegance evaporated the moment I was ushered into Mr. De Mille's paneled office. It was vast and somber, with tall stained-glass windows and deep polar-bear rugs. Light from the windows shone on ancient firearms and other weapons on the walls, and the elevated desk and chair resembled nothing so much as a throne. I felt like a peanut poised on teetering high heels.When he stood up behind the desk, he seemed to tower. Not yet forty, he seemed ageless, magisterial. He wore his baldness like an expensive hat, as if it were out of the question for him to have hair like other men. A sprig of laurel maybe, but not ordinary hair. He was wearing gleaming boots and riding breeches that fit him like a glove. He came over and took my hand, led me to a large sofa and sat down beside me. and proceeded to look clear through me. He said that he had seen me in a little Sennett picture and had never forgotten me, and that at the moment he was preparing a picture in which he wanted to use me. He asked me what kind of contract I had at Triangle."I have no contract at all.""Well, then, who represents you?""No one.""You mean your parents handle your business affairs?""Oh, no, Mr. De Mille. I'm over eighteen. I'll be nineteen the twenty-seventh of March.""Ah, Aries, of course," he said and smiled.Swanson on Swanson (1980), p. 95-96
Cecil B. DeMille (second from the right) poses with Jessy L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor, Samuel Goldwyn and Albert Kaufman after the Famous Players-Lasky merger. Ca. 1916.
They both agree that since she hasn't any contract with Triangle, there will be no problem for him to use her for his next picture. Excited, Gloria Swanson leaves his office, after receiving a gentle tap on the shoulder of Mr. DeMille, and leaves for home. Two days later she receives a phone call from Triangle, they want her for another picture. She proudly says that she is going to work with Mr. DeMille now, she can't accept the job.
Thirty minutes later she receives another phone call, now from Mr. DeMille's secretary, wanting Gloria to come right away. She meets Mr. DeMille once again.
"Everything you told me turned out to be true," he said. "However, lawyers have a way of complicating things. Triangle's legal department has raised the possibility that even though you did not sign a contract with the studio, you did accept a raise in salary. They are contending that when you accepted the raise, you in effect agreed to a verbal contract. So it may still be possible you still belong to them. Were you over eighteen when you accepted the raise?"
I nodded, trying to hold back the tears. Mr. De Mille put his arms around me. "These things happen," he said. "That's why we have a motion picture association. The Triangle attorneys will present their case to an impartial arbitrator selected by the association. His decision will be binding. We won't go to court about it. There isn't time. We'll just hope everything turns out all right. Whatever happens, thank you for coming over, Miss Swanson."
Swanson on Swanson (1980), p. 96-97
Things didn't work out all right. Within 48 hourse Gloria received the message that she belonged to Triangle, and could not work with Mr. DeMille. Gloria realized that she had to accept it, if she ever wanted to work in pictures again. The next morning she forced herself to sign her hateful contract without so much as reading a word of it.
So, this time was not her break-through, due to pitiful circumstances created by an obstinate little motion picture company. Read about Gloria Swanson kicking off her career in part two of The Cecil B. DeMille and Gloria Swanson union!