It certainly says something about the power of an icon and the glitter of a golden age in movie-making that â€œSunset Boulevardâ€ stands up so amazingly well as a bit of storytelling, in spite of itâ€™s deranged silent-movie star character being parodied mercilessly by everyone from Carol Burnett on down. And curious it appears that at the time of â€œSunset Boulevardâ€™s making, the silent-movie years were seen, as something long-gone. Here was the faded star of that era, Gloria Swanson, as a deranged ghost, fluttering around the silent halls of a dilapidated mansion, and dreaming of making a comeback. The so-called â€˜modernâ€™ Hollywood which produced a gem like â€œSunset Boulevardâ€ â€” in the last days of the great studios, those dream-factories which churned out a steady stream of great movies, not-quite-so-great movies and a fair proportion of forgettable drek â€“ that Hollywood is now just as much of a long-gone legend as the silents that came before. Gone the writersâ€™ department, the regular costumers and designers, the stagehands who worked on a cowboy movie one week and a film noir the next and a Biblical epic the day after that, the directors and actors who did pretty much the same thing, year in and year out, that Hollywood that was the background for â€œSunset Boulevardâ€™. They are all gone â€“ leaving just the movie to amaze us, make us laugh uneasily, and to give us the creeps â€¦ starting from the moment that a barely-employed, debt-ridden screenwriter, Joe Gillis, takes a turn into the wrong driveway. In the opening of the movie, he is already dead, floating face down in a swimming pool. The rest of the movie explains, with almost clinical precision, how he got that way.
I shouldnâ€™t need to say much about the plot; the movie has been around for so long and been such a part of popular culture, but the amazing and wicked â€œin-nessâ€ of it all demands comment: all those Hollywood legends, playing themselves, or something very like themselves! Erich von Stroheim playing Normaâ€™s butler (and also first husband and movie director) â€“ thatâ€™s a scene from their disastrous and real-life collaboration â€œQueen Kellyâ€ that Norma makes Joe watch. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper plays herself, so does Cecil B. DeMilleâ€¦ and is that Buster Keaton as one of Normaâ€™s old pals, â€˜the waxworksâ€™ as Joe derisively calls them? Why yes, it is â€“ and as a lagniappe, hereâ€™s an amazingly skinny and geeky Jack Webb as Joe Gillisâ€™ screenwriter pal. Itâ€™s like a whole college course in Hollywood history, right there â€“ a course in a lost celluloid world, as lost as Schwabâ€™s Drugstore, a famous and real-life landmarkâ€¦ and the location for a pivotal scene in the movie itself. (Lana Turner was supposed to have been discovered there, and F. Scott Fitzgerald had the first of several heart attacks there.) Another side note â€“ Gloria Swanson actually looked amazingly good for the age that she was at time of shooting. She was deliberately filmed with very harsh lighting. She was also actually a very tiny woman, barely five feet; it is a tribute to her presence that she manages to dominate the screen the way she does.
Of the extras in this set, the most fascinating would have to be the interactive feature on the various locations, and a short feature with writer-policeman Joseph Wambaugh on the noir-ish side of Hollywood. All in all a wonderfully educational look at Hollywood that was, and an excellent presentation of a classic. “Sunset Boulevard – Centennial Collection” is available at Amazon.com, and through other retail outlets.
Sgt. Mom is a free-lance writer and member of the Independent Authors Guild who lives in San Antonio and blogs at â€œThe Daily Brief.” Her current book, â€œThe Adelsverein Trilogyâ€ is now available on Amazon. More about her other books is at her website www.celiahayes.com.