The Anti-Damsel Blogathon salutes inspirational women filmmakers and characters throughout film history, hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive In. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.
When I wrote about the film Sunset Boulevard, I had said that I used to think all silent film characters were like Norma Desmond, the iconic, fictitious movie star brought to life by Gloria Swanson. I might not have been too far off the mark when I wrote that. The nature of the medium at the time required its actors to use their whole bodies to communicate the action, in a manner that might seem melodramatic to one used to watching movies with sound. And in Sunset, Swanson speaks for everyone from that bygone era when she says things like "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"
Film history remembers Swanson primarily as a dramatic actress, a reputation cemented by the films she made with director Cecil B. DeMille, but is it possible she missed her calling as a comedienne? In looking at both types of silent films for this post, I found I liked her comedic chops much more. Later in life, Swanson said that she hated comedy at first, but over time, she realized that it taught her timing, which she credited as being the key to learning dramatic acting. That may be true, but I think she was better at it than perhaps she gave herself credit for.
For instance, I watched the DeMille-directed drama The Affairs of Anatol, which was generously provided to me on manufactured-on-demand DVD by the folks at Flicker Alley for this post and this blogathon. I thought it was more of a vehicle for the leading man, Wallace Reid. Swanson wasn't bad in it, though it was too easy to sympathize with her. All she had to do was be the aggrieved wife for most of the movie and look glamorous.
On the other hand, in looking at some of her comedy shorts - I watched The Sultan's Wife, Teddy at the Throttle and The Danger Girl - she's so much more fun to watch! While some of these shorts go so fast, it's hard to follow what's going on sometimes, Swanson herself is active, lively, and engaging. She and frequent co-star Bobby Vernon seem to have a bit of a Mickey-and-Judy vibe at times, but maybe that's just because they're both short.
Swanson was ambitious like few actors of her era. Someone like Mary Pickford was admired, and rightly so, for her business acumen as much as her acting ability, but with Swanson, it was a strong point of pride with her, one that she never bothered to conceal - and which rubbed some people the wrong way. In her book Silent Stars, author Jeanine Basinger quotes several industry magazines of the day who wrote about Swanson. This one, from Motion Picture in 1922, is notable for its stern analysis: "Her career, her work in the studio is as vital to her as the oxygen she breathes... She is beautiful, as flawlessly beautiful as a diamond - and as cold."
Swanson was unapologetic about her naked ambition: "I've always been my own business manager and agent. Mary Pickford had her mother, Chaplin had his brother, [Harold] Lloyd had his uncle, the Talmadges had [Joseph] Schenck, the Gishes, Griffith. I was always alone." Swanson chose to work with DeMille when she decided she had had enough of comedy and wanted more serious work, then left him for Famous Players/Lasky at Paramount when she thought DeMille crimped her style artistically and financially; she negotiated a contract which paid her $6500 a week, a sky-high figure for the time; and by 1926 she had formed her own production company, Gloria Swanson Inc. She did all of this while shaping and refining her public image on- and off-screen as an ultra-modern glamour girl with exquisite clothes - one who got married no less than five times.
Why did her career tank in the sound era? Who knows for certain? I watched a clip from one of her first talkies, a film called Tonight or Never, with Melvyn Douglas, and while it struck me as being really melodramatic, I thought she was good in it. Her voice was a little high, but she had marvelous chemistry with Douglas, and the tension in the scene is palpable. She could even sing. Her talkies just didn't click with audiences. Nor did her career flourish after Sunset, despite roles on Broadway and television. Still, there's no doubt that Sunset raised her profile and kept her in the public eye long afterwards. Check out this clip of her on The Dick Cavett Show from 1970 (with Janis Joplin as another guest!).
Swanson was a real film diva who reveled in the accolades and the glitz and the affluent lifestyle that came with the stardom. She may have inspired as much resentment as adoration, but it never fazed her, nor did it slow her down. A quote of hers that could have come from Norma Desmond says it all: "I have decided that when I am a star, I will be every inch and every moment the star! Everybody from the studio gateman to the highest executive will know it." And everybody did.
Next: Robert Wise
Films with Gloria Swanson:
Previously in this series:
Jack Lemmon Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson Rita Moreno
Frank Capra Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell James Dean
Ethel Waters William Powell
Tod Browning Edith Head
Joel McCrea Thelma Ritter