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Film Friday: «Sunset Boulevard» (1950)

To celebrate William Holden's 98th birthday, which is on Sunday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you the first film I ever saw him in. Incidentally, this was my first Billy Wilder picture, as well as the first time I saw Gloria Swanson (and all the other actors in it, really) on the screen. This also happens to be one of my absolute favorite films of all time.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard (1950) tells the story of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a debt-ridden screenwriter "with a couple of B pictures to his credit." One day, while fleeing from repossession men seeking his car, Joe has a blownout and turns into the private driveway of a decaying 1920s mansion on Sunset Boulevard, where he hides the vehicle in an empty garage. He quickly discovers that the house belongs to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a long-forgotten silent film star, whose fragile illusions are preserved by her servant and former director, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). When Norma learns that Joe is a screenwriter, she promptly engages him to revise her screenplay for Salome, a biblical epic in which she desperately hopes to make her comeback.

Moved into Norma's mansion at her insistence, Joe soon finds himself in the position of a "kept man." On New Year's Eve, Joe has a quarrel with a drunk Norma and walks out on her. When Max informs him that Norma has attempted suicide, however, Joe returns to the mansion and the two are reconciled. Sometime later, Max delivers the edited Salome script to Norma's former director, Cecil B. DeMille (as himself), at Paramount Pictures. Norma then meets with DeMille, who receives her affectionately, leading her to believe that he intends to make Salome. Meanwhile, Joe grows increasingly tired of Norma and his dependent situation and becomes involved with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a script reader at Paramount, whom he meets secretly several nights a week. But Norma inevitably discovers that Joe is seeing Betty and becomes insanely jealous. One night, Joe finally summons the courage to tell Norma that he is terminating their sordid affair once and for all. As Joe leaves the mansion and walks across the patio, Norma shoots him three times and he falls into the pool. Shortly afterward, a crew of newsreel cameraman enter to mansion to photograph Norma as she is taken by the police. Having lost touch with reality, Norma believes the cameras are there to shoot Salome. "All right, Mr. DeMille," she says. "I'm ready for my close up."

Norma Desmond: Still wonderful, isn't it? And no dialogue. We didn't need dialogue; we had faces. There just aren't faces like that anymore. Maybe one — Garbo. Those idiot producers, those imbecils! Haven't they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I'll show them! I'll be up there again, so help me!

The street known as Sunset Boulevard has been associated with Hollywood film production since late September 1911, when the town's first permanent motion picture studio, the Nestor Company, was established there by David Horsley and Al Christie as a West Coast unit of the Centaur Company located in Bayonne, New Jersey. Despite the resistance from local residents, "movie companies popped up as gypsy encampments, filled with a rough-edged crowd, soldiers of fortune, cowboys and vaudeville performers down on their luck." Within a few months, all four corners of Gower Street and Sunset Boulevard had studios churning out comedies, westerns and melodramas. After World War I, there was a boom of American film studios, which was soon accompanied by a boom of real estate. Due to an unprecedented rise of profits and salaries, film workers "spent money like water, demanding bigger and more pretentious homes." With the advent of the star system, Sunset Boulevard and its surrounding neighborhoods were home to many movie stars, who "began a continuous round of house parties, bringing nightlife to the area."

As a young man living in Berlin in the 1920s, screenwriter-director Billy Wilder was interested in American culture, with much of his fascination fueled by the country's films. In the late 1940s, many of the grand Hollywood mansions were still standing and many former stars of the silent era still lived in them, although most were no longer involved with the film industry. A Los Angeles resident since 1933, Wilder wondered how these people spent their time now that their reign had ended and, along with writing partner Charles Brackett, began imagining the story of a star who had lost her celebrity status and box-office appeal. "I was working with Mr. Brackett, and he had the idea of doing a picture with a Hollywood background," Wilder later recalled. "Once we got hold of the character of the silent picture star, whose career is finished with the advent of the talkies, [...] we started rolling." It was the comeback story, he concluded, that appeal to them, so they focused on that.

Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder on the set
Impressed by his film reviews for LIFE magazine, Wilder and Brackett persuaded D. M. Marshman Jr. into joining their team to help them develop the storyline. It was reportedly Marshman who suggested "a relationship between a silent-day queen and a young man. She is living in the past, refusing to believe her days as a star are gone, and is sealed up in one of those rundown, immense mansions on Sunset Boulevard, amid a clutter of mementoes." The young man would be a screenwriter, "a nice guy, maybe from the Middle West, a man who can't make the grade in Hollywood." Then the writing team got stuck; they were unable to figure out what would happen next. From the beginning of his screenwriting career in Hollywood, Wilder had kept a notebook in which he penciled possible ideas for use in scripts. Consulting his notebook, he came across this fragment: "Silent picture star commits murder. When they arrest her, she sees the newsreel cameras and thinks she is back in the movies." Wilder told his partners, "Suppose the old dame shoots the boy." That suggestion put them back on track.

Wilder, Brackett and Marshman decided to called the aging movie queen Norma Desmond. Her first name was a reference to Mabel Normand, a silent film commedienne who appeared in several shorts with Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. In turn, her surname referred to William Desmond Taylor, a director of silent pictures who was killed in February 1922. Taylor had had love affairs with numerous actresses, among them Normand, who was implicated in his unsolved murder case. The highly sensationalized scandal led to a sharp decline in her career and she made only six more films until her death from tuberculosis in 1930. The aspiring screenwriter who gets involved with Norma, Joe Gillis, was somewhat based on Wilder himself at the beginning of his career in Hollywood, when he "submitted God knows how many scripts and synopses and was turned down."

William Holden and Gloria Swanson
In late December 1948, Wilder and Brackett submitted to Paramount Pictures a 61-page preliminary draft of the screenplay with a cautionary note attached: "Due to the peculiar nature of the project, we ask all out co-workers to regard it as top secret." To disguise the true nature of the film's plot, Wilder and Brackett employed the fake working title of "A Can of Beans." They feared that, if it became known that they were planning a picture about Hollywood, their peers would think that it was to be a mocking tale presenting unflattering portaits of individuals whom Wilder and Brackett had socialized and worked with.

Based on this installment, Paramount gave a vote of confidence to the team by green-lighting the production; after Wilder and Brackett had delivered such hits as Arise, My Love (1940), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), The Lost Weekend (1945), the Best Picture winner at the 18th Academy Awards, and A Foreign Affair (1948), the studio felt they did not require a finished script from the duo. After their initial draft, Wilder and Brackett turned in pages "with ration book paucity" and their plan to keep the true nature of the project under wraps worked. Sunset Boulevard, as the film would later be called, was budgeted, cast and in production before anyone at Paramount or at the Breen Office realized exactly what it was about. 

As the characters took shape in the screenplay, Wilder and Brackett naturally began to discuss who should be cast in Sunset Boulevard. Wilder wanted an old-time star to play Norma Desmond and initally offered the part to Mae West. Now in her late fifties, West was insulted when Wilder asked her to play a "has-been," even though she had not made film since The Heat's On (1943), a critical and commercial failure. Moreover, West did not like the script, as she could not see herself "paying a man's upkeep in return for favors, not even in a picture story."

Gloria Swanson in a publicity still
After West declined the role of Norma Desmond, Wilder and Brackett realized that the story was best fit for an actual faded silent film star and next approached Mary Pickford, who had not appeared on-screen since Secrets (1933). Known as "America's Sweetheart" at the height of her career in silent pictures, Pickford liked the script, but eventually told Wilder, "You don't want me [...] There are two actresses that could do this part better. One is Gloria Swanson — that's my first choice — and the next is Pola Negri."

Wilder then asked the advice of his friend and colleague George Cukor, who suggested Swanson as well. She had been of the brighest stars of the silent period, appearing in such films as Male and Female (1919) and Sadie Thompson (1928), for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress at the 1st Academy Awards. With the advent of sound, however, Swanson's career had faltered; by the time Wilder co-wrote Music in the Air (1934) for her, her Hollywood image was for all intents and purposes defunct. She had attempted a comeback opposite Adolphe Menjou in Father Takes a Wife (1941), but that film failed to make a profit. "She had already been abandoned, she was a death knell," Wilder would say in later years. "She had lost a lot of money on the Paramount lot [...] But I insisted on her."

Although Swanson was at that point a Hollywood has-been, she had not withdrawn into seclusion like Norma Desmond. By the time Wilder wanted her for Sunset Boulevard, she had moved to New York and become the host of a local television talk show, The Gloria Swanson Hour (1948), which combined interviews with segments devoted to fashion, cooking and homemaking tips. In his function as producer, Brackett telephoned Swanson in New York and offered her the part of Norma Desmond, but also told her that the studio wanted her to do a screen test. Swanson was indignant. "I made two dozen pictures for Paramount," she responded; those were her "screen test." After all, her successful silent pictures had helped to build Paramount, known as Famous Players-Lasky until 1927. "Without me, there would be no Paramount Pictures," she told Brackett — a line that Norma would repeat in the film. When Brackett assured her that the test would be a mere formality, Swanson finally agreed to travel to Hollywood to discuss the project.

Gloria Swanson and William Holden
For the role of Joe Gillis, Montgomery Clift was originally signed; however, just two weeks before filming began, he bowed out of the project, feeling that he would not be convincing as a young man making love to a woman twice his age. Faced with disaster, Wilder and Brackett then approached Fred MacMurray, who had starred opposite Barbara Stanwyck in their noir classic Double Indemnity (1944). MacMurray, however, declined the offer. Now a major star, he believed that if he played what ultimately amounted to a supporting role, it would deminish his status. Furthermore, he found the role of a kept man "morally objectionable." Wilder and Brackett then briefly considered Marlon Brando, but decided he was too much of an unknown at the time to carry the role. They even offered the part to Gene Kelly, who had portrayed "kept man" on Broadway in Pal Joey (1940), but MGM would not loan him out.

Going through the list of Paramount contract players, Wilder and Brackett finally settled on William Holden, who had made his film debut in Golden Boy (1939). By 1949, Holden's career had began to slide and he was slowly becoming a problem drinker. He was desperately looking for a vehicle that would give his career a boost, but he did not want to risk losing his solid manly image to a woman who was a has-been. In addition, he worried that he was simply not talented enough to play a serious role like Joe Gillis. "That's easy," Wilder said. "You know Bill Holden? Then you know Joe Gillis." Holden finally agreed to play Joe a scant three days before shooting began.

Erich von Stroheim and William Holden
There was only one actor that Wilder envisioned as Max von Mayerling, Norma Desmond's faithful butler, driver, former director and first husband: Erich von Stroheim. A titan of the silent era, Stroheim began his Hollywood career in 1914, receiving his first credited acting role in Old Heidelberg (1915). Following the end of World War I, he turned to writing and directing, helming such pictures as Greed (1924), The Merry Widow (1925) and The Wedding March (1928). Stroheim's directorial career did not survive the coming of sound, but he continued acting in both American and French films.

At first, Stroheim, who had previously played Field Marshall Erwin Rommel in Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo (1943), declined the offer. He thought the role "that God-damned butler" was demeaning to him and did not want to return to Hollywood (he was living in France at the time) to appear in a picture that was exploiting his own downfall as a film director. Reportedly, he only accepted the role because he was "short on funds." According to Wilder, Stroheim "was enormously helpful with the script. It was he who suggested that Norma be receiving fan letters that are ultimately disclosed as having been written by Max. Stroheim had a fine celluloid mind; he knew what worked."

Stroheim had famously directed Swanson in a picture called Queen Kelly (1929), which he also wrote and produced. A third of the way through production, however, Swanson had him fired over creative differences. A hastily assembled version of the film with new scenes was released in Europe, but could not be shown in America until 1966 because of legal problem with Stroheim and his estate. In 1985, Kino International released a restored edition of Queen Kelly using stills and titles to fill in for unshot scenes and lost footage from Stroheim's version. Wilder used a clip of Queen Kelly in Sunset Boulevard, in the scene in which Norma shows Joe one of her vintage films. "It was interesting tie-in," said Wilder. "This added a more genuine flavor to the film."

DeMille and Swanson on the set
In addition, Wilder convinced Cecil B. DeMille to portray himself in Sunset Boulevard. In the film's scenario, DeMille had directed Norma as a young actress; in reality, Swanson too had been directed by DeMille in five pictures, including the aforementioned Male and Female, wherein she shared a scene with a real lion. His sequence, which required four days to shoot, took place on the set of his own film, the Biblical epic Samson and Delilah (1949). (Actually, that picture had already wrapped production and the scene DeMille is directing when Norma visits never appears in Samson and Delilah.) "DeMille was total perfection," Wilder commented. "He was very disciplined and gave a subtle performance, I thought, than any actor ever gave in a film that he directed." Fun fact: DeMille was the first film worker to have a house in Hollywood, renting a shack in the Cahuenga Pass in 1913. He eventually made enough money to buy a "fine home" in Laughlin Park, where he lived for the rest of his life.

In another attempt to "blend the fanciful with reality," Wilder and Brackett cast columnist Hedda Hopper as herself, reporting on Norma's downfall at the end of the film. Brackett had originally asked Hopper's rival Louella Parsons to appear, but she declined. They also got old-time silent stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H. B. Warner whom Norma collectively refers to as "the Waxworks" to appear in a particularly jarring bridge scene. Additionally, Sunset Boulevard mentions several other former silent stars, including Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, John Gilbert, Rod La Rocque, Vilma Bánky, Bebe Daniels and Mabel Normand herself.

William Holden and Nancy Olson
For the role of Betty Schaefer, Wilder wanted a newcomer who could project a wholesome and ordinary image to contrast with Swanson's flamboyant and obsessive Norma. He found those qualities in Nancy Olson, who had been signed to Paramount Pictures in 1948, before making her film debut on loan-out to 20th Century Fox in Canadian Pacific (1949). Olson went on to appear with Holden in three more pictures: Union Station (1950), Force of Arms (1951) and Submarine Command (1951). Apparently, Olson had never heard of Gloria Swanson prior to working with her on Sunset Boulevard.

Meanwhile, Swanson had arrived in Hollywood and done her screen test. "I looked about 30, 35, and I was pleased," she later said. However, when Holden was cast as Joe, she had to test again and was made to look older. "So they took this test with this streak of white and they had nothing but top lighting. I came out looking absolutely drunk and dug up. I saw it and I said, 'now it will be a grueling picture for a young man to be in love with that.' 'Yes, but you've to look older than Holden.' I said, 'Well, make him look younger!'"

With an estimated budged set at $1,765,000, principal photography on Sunset Boulevard commenced on April 11, 1949 and proceeded smoothly throughout. The house that served as Norma Desmond's mansion was located at 3810 Wilshire Boulevard, although the adress is given as 10086 Sunset Boulevard in the film. The baroque edifice was owned by billionaire John Paul Getty, who had it built in 1924 to resemble a French-Italian Renaissance castle. Getty had given the house to his ex-wife as part of their divorce settlement, but she did not reside there. Paramount rented it for the duration of the shoot and added the swimming pool to the grounds for the picture. In addition, Wilder sent a camera crew to capture footage of several locations around Hollywood and Bevely Hills, including Schwab's Drug Store on Sunset Boulevard, in order to give the film a more authentic look.

"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."
Sunset Boulevard was shot in sequence. The last scene to be filmed before production wrapped on June 18 was also the final scene in the picture. It was Norma Desmond's "mad scene," when she descends the grand staircase of her decaying mansion in a trance, fantasizing that she is at long last making her comeback film. "I hated to have the picture end," Swanson later wrote. "When Mr. Wilder called 'Print it!' I burst into tears." Wilder recalled years later that Sunset Boulevard "was one those pictures that started falling into place [...] After one weekend, we knew we had someting." Olson agreed: "This was risky storytelling, risky in the sense that it was a little bizarre and it could have been farcical if it had not been played for ultimate reality [...] But this had a kind of purity of intent, right from the beginning."

In April 1950, Paramount arranged an advance screening of Sunset Boulevard for esteemed members of the Hollywood community. Most of the audience stood up and cheered at the film's conclusion. According to Swanson, "Barbara Stanwyck fell on my knees and kiss the hem of my skirt." Swanson looked around for Mary Pickford, only to be told by an old-time producer, "She can't show herself, Gloria. She's overcome; we all are." In contrast, Mae Murray, another silent screen diva, whom Stroheim had directed in The Merry Widow, was not impressed; "None of us floozies was that nuts"! she exclaimed. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer was particularly outraged. He shouted at Wilder, "You have dirtied the nest. You should be kicked out of this country, tarred and feathered, you goddamned foreigner son-of-bitch." In the heat of the moment, Wilder responded to the mogul in kind: "Mr. Mayer, why don't you go fuck yourself!"

Olson, Holden, Swanson and Stroheim
in a publicity still
Sunset Boulevard premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York on August 10, 1950 to overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. Thomas M. Pryor of The New York Times wrote: "Sunset Boulevard is by no means a rounded story of Hollywood, past or present. But it is such a clever compound of truth and legend — and is so richly redolent of the past, yet so contemporaneous — that it seemingly speaks with great authority. Sunset Boulevard is that rare blend of pungent writing, expert acting, masterly direction, and unobtrusively artistic photography which quickly casts a spell over an audience and holds it enthralled to a shattering climax." William Brogdon of Variety considered that the film, "disregarding the unpleasant subject matter, is a standout. [...] Performances by the entire cast, and particularly William Holden and Gloria Swanson, are exceptionally fine." For their part, TIME magazine summed it up perfectly by describing Sunset Boulevard as a story of "Hollywood at its worst done by Hollywood at its best." The film was also one of the biggest moneymakers of the year, breaking house records in several major cities.

At the 23rd Academy Awards held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in March 1951, Sunset Boulevard won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction (Black and White) and Best Original Score, receiving eight additional nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Holden), Best Actress (Swanson), Best Supporting Actor (Stroheim), Best Supporting Actress (Olson), Best Cinematography (Black and White) and Best Film Editing. Many critics predicted that the Best Actress statuette would be given to Gloria Swanson or Bette Davis for her performance in All About Eve (1950), the biggest winner that night with six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Best Supporting Actor for George Sanders. They were surprised that the recipient was newcomer Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday (1950), which also starred William Holden. In turn, Holden lost to José Ferrer for Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), but would win three years later for Stalag 17 (1953).

Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond and the Dark Hollywood Dream by Sam Staggs (2002) | Exiles in Hollywood: Major European Film Directors in America by Gene D. Phillips (1998) | Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star by Stephen Michael Shearer (2013) | Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder by Gene Phillips (2010) | The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History by Gregory Paul Williams (2005) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. Hi Catia, Just wanted to let you know Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood has asked to co-host my de Havilland blogathon so I have updated the banners with her name on it.

    Looking forward to reading this post when I'm done updating everything!

    1. Wow! What a great story of how the film came together!! I love how Wilder made a movie about a question he had! That's like something I would think about! And that he got the rest of the idea from and old notebook - you never know when you may use an idea!

      I can't imagine anyone but Swanson and Holden in these roles!! It wouldn't be right with Clift and it wouldn't be a classic without Swanson! Terrific post as always!

    2. I completely agree. This film would not have been nearly as good if anyone else other than Swanson and Holden had played those roles. Monty would have been terrible as Joe Gillis. He didn't have that kind of "shadiness" in him, you know what I mean?

      Thanks for reading. :)


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