I teach a series of classic film classes in my town. Currently, I’m instructing my second Film Noir course. Each course is structured similar to a Book Club but with my guiding contributions of background, trivia, history, influencers, and more. The first class is my overview on the style/genre plus the outline of films we’ll review each week. The participants watch the assigned film at home, then we screen selected clips and engage in discussions in class. In the 2nd week we screened Billy Wilder’s timeless classic noir, SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and I thought I’d share my notes with you…
Director: Billy Wilder
Writing Credits: Charles Brackett (also the Producer), Billy Wilder, DM Marshman Jr
Music: Franz Waxman
Dir of Photography: John F Seitz
Costumes: Edith Head
Starring: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Eric von Stroheim, Nancy Olson…
Cameos: Cecil B deMille, Buster Keaton, HB Warner, Hedda Hopper, Anna Q. Nilsson
The original opening scene, depicting corpses including a toe-tagged Bill Holden in a morgue chatting, was cut. Test audiences roared with laughter- was meant to be subtle dark humor, not slapstick camp. Switched to striking pool scene. Special difficulties loomed in filming to get this opening shot right- water exactly 40 degrees, shot from above with mirror below.
The famous “Phantom Mansion” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_O._Jenkins_House) – exterior was a real house on Wilshire Blvd, owned by J Paul Getty, originally built by robber baron William O Jenkins. Both Jenkins and Getty families had a knack for acquiring wealth and ignored the estate as much as they did their own families. It sat empty for many years, while occupying a full block as the source of many neighbors’ frustrations by the time Wilder used it for this film. An outdoor pool was dug/created for key scenes and later emptied- this was later used in “Rebel Without A Cause.” The lonely mansion was torn down. A modern-styled building, the Tidewater Oil Co., exists there now. Rest of it was shot on a studio set.
Wilder was very EXACT and super detailed in his directing approach. As a writer himself, no one was allowed to deviate from the script. He and Charlie Brackett were notoriously talented as a team, yet didn’t actually like each other and were even sarcastically called, “the happiest couple in Hollywood.” Masters of both Screwball Comedy and Film Noir, the end results were cinematic gold. His family was murdered in the Holocaust. Wilder brought his biting, dark humor from Europe with him and it can be seen in all of his films.
When asked why Billy enjoyed the use of voice-over narration so much (we see in SUNSET BLVD but also in his other films and a common technique in other noirs), he said: 1) It does an excellent job of catching the audience up to speed quickly and 2) It allows a writer like himself to express clever plays on words.
ALL the Norma Desmonds:
Various ‘aging Hollywood starlets’ were considered, approached and/or test-screened to play Norma Desmond… Mae West (she wanted to rewrite dialogue so that was an automatic no), Pola Negri (too strong of a Polish accent), Mary Pickford (she insisted on owning her own negatives as she had with all of her films, plus she feared the role may come across as demeaning and mocking of legendary silent stars such as herself, so she was a no), then George Cukor suggested Gloria Swanson, who was very similar to Norma Desmond in terms of great popularity during Silent era. She landed up being the absolute perfect actress for the role as she worked hard, nailed the performance into legend, and while she was no Norma, it landed up being a true “comeback for an otherwise has-been” plum role. Swanson was a very fascinating woman in real life, having lived through many rags-to-riches life stories, several times. At this point in her life, she had married and divorced 5 husbands and was a faded star.
Although Norma is supposed to be a fictional character based upon a composite collection of Hollywood stars, some have suggested the ND name may have been inspired by silent star Norma Talmadge –or- a combination of the names of the actress Mabel Normand and director William Desmond Taylor. Normand was a very successful actor/writer/producer/director in the silent era but was frequently connected to scandal. In 1922, Taylor was murdered. Normand was a close friend and the last person known to see him alive but was ruled out as a suspect, after a rough police interrogation. The case has never been solved.
Before William Holden, Montgomery Clift was offered the role. He agreed initially, went off to a ski trip then declined. Almost like Swanson, Holden while working more actively than Gloria, was also in a bit of a career slump (more second fiddle than A lister leads) yet Wilder saw the potential in each of them as much deeper than their prior films had allowed them to fully realize.
Eric von Stroheim– like Swanson, he too possessed striking parallels to his character so made for the ideal “Max. “ He was one of the most famous directors of the silent era. His career suffered when he was more interested in art than commercial success when he made 7 hour long films and gave investors a hard when asked to edit to a standard length (“GREED”) Ironically, when Stroheim directed Swanson in “QUEEN KELLY” a film (that her then lover Joseph Kennedy convinced Gloria to do) it was a bust at the box office and the two had a falling out. Apparently, von Stroheim and Swanson resolved their differences by SUNSET BLVD because there were never any reports of any issues on set.
Nancy Olson– considered perfect for the role. I personally saw her introduce SUNSET BLVD. on the mega screen at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre for TCM Film Fest and she told us lovely stories about Edith Head and mentioned her nickname in school was “Wholesome Olson.”
Here are some of the questions and topics I prepared and posed to the class to prompt discussions:
~In what ways SUNSET BLVD a Film Noir, how does it differ from other ‘typical’ noirs?
~Discuss the themes: duality of a film this is both about the Movie Biz, but also a Film Noir
~The intro sets the tone… of decay, of cynicism, of fated doom.
~While it is a black and white, but it was big budget- how do you think Wilder gave it ‘Noir’ touches stylistically?
~The characters; who do we root for? Who is vulnerable? Do we feel sympathy for them?
~What does this film say about the movies/of Hollywood/ of the studio system/ of screenwriters?
~What double meanings does the writing cleverly reveal?
~Where do we see and who demonstrates disillusionment?
~What examples of symbolism do we see?
~Why do you think it has remained such a timeless classic?
~Why did Joe not see/not choose all the exit signs (would he land up as the next dead monkey, or the next Max?)- was he too as fated for doom as Norma?
~Nancy Olson quotes Billy Wilder that “all the characters in SUNSET BLVD are opportunists”… in what ways does this film show us opportunists and their consequences, and about ‘selling out’?
~What does this film say about aging actresses in that industry back then- and even to this day?
Members of my class had interesting insights and additional commentary to contribute as we watched key scenes. Many debated whether Swanson’s performance was too over-the-top to the level of ‘camp.’ This poses a good question. My two thoughts on the matter for those who thought she was too campy… 1) Did you see Carol Burnett’s parody of Norma Desmond BEFORE seeing the actual film your first time, and could that have subconsciously planted that parody seed of perception? 2) Keep in mind that over-the-top dramatic gestures and mannerisms is inherit to the Norma Desmond character as she lives in her silent film star world, even prior to breaking down completely and detaching from reality at the end.
One student whom had seen this film a few times prior added that it never occurred to her until our discussion that this film was a darker criticism of Hollywood and the movie industry. Another student pondered how much this film was pivotal in turning Bill Holden’s career from a relatively B list actor to much stronger roles post- SUNSET BLVD success. Another student added that Ronald Reagan had similar B list roles until he became political in his aspirations. I joked, “just think, if it wasn’t for SUNSET BLVD, perhaps we would have had a ‘President Holden.’
We discussed, how much sympathy do we have for Norma, especially after Cecil B deMille explains what ‘a dozen press agents working around the clock can do to the ego.’ After all, we see mercurial sides of Norma- often insulting, unyielding, selfish, and brutal, and yet quite lonely and vulnerable. What factors contributed to her delusions and ultimate demise, and why were the other ‘wax figures’ of her contemporaries not affected the same way? One answer could be that her peers may have been forced to adapt because they may not have profited into mega wealth as well as she did. And yet, CB de Mille transitioned successfully from the silent era and remained active in the industry- was being a male director with strong adaption skills (vs. an aging female in front of the camera) key? Was Max to blame for keeping her in her fantasy bubble? Or, were her peers quietly suffering in their own ways yet managed to cope just enough to be functioning? (At least enough to still make it until the next gathering of playing a game of Bridge.)
My final thought for the class was focused on Max, the character portrayed by Eric von Stroheim. Who was the more ‘crazy’ of the two? Norma, for remaining too deeply fastened into her past and the subsequent lack of reality? Or Max, even as her former director and husband, for dysfunctional worshipping her as an indentured servant and enabled her fate? In the end, Max was most likely to be the sole beneficiary of that big estate so maybe he was motivated in his madness.
For me, SUNSET BOULEVARD is easily a nominee for the best film ever made. It’s a blend of so many themes and genres… a film noir, a thriller, a movie about the movie industry, and perhaps even a horror film. In addition to the compelling performances and fascinating story, it is a reflection of the brilliance of Billy Wilder. It remains a haunting, genius piece of storytelling and art, which is why it continues to be a timeless classic, just like Norma Desmond herself.
Here are some additional resources/other views on this film that I found interesting…
Sunset Boulevard Explained: The Hollywood Nightmare (ScreenPrism)
Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard- a look back (cinematographos)
From Wilshire Boulevard Houses:
From Cinematheque, “Strange Magic, The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder” http://www.thecinematheque.ca/strange-magic-the-films-of-charles-brackett-and-billy-wilder
“One of the most famous comments about the two apparently competing theatrical genres of comedy and tragedy is that “Comedy is simply tragedy plus time.” This remark is often attributed to the great Carol Burnett. It was in fact uttered by Charles Brackett to Billy Wilder in the studio office of a Hollywood executive who was desperately trying to understand their original intention of making Sunset Boulevard as a comedy!”
5 thoughts on “Film Class: SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)”
What a great blog! I wish I could’ve been a part of the discussion in your class. Sunset is just about a perfect film IMO, but then again I like my movies dark and biting. An interesting fact about Montgomery Clift and his turning down the role of Joe Gillis. Apparently, Mr. Clift was involved with the much older Libby Holeman who may have been uncomfortable with possible comparisons between Clift’s personal life and the part. Thanks for a fascinating read. You can catch my blog at maxmcmanus.com. I’m currently working on an entry about whether Mildred Pierce is a noir or not.
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Wish you could have joined our class! Great discussions- I know you would have enjoyed it. Just wrapped up our last class, with THE KILLERS. My next class takes a completely different direction… Ray Harryhausen!
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I haven’t seen The Killers, but I’m going to very soon. Thanks for your kind words about my latest blog entry.
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Fantastic to see so many positive responses to this brilliant film.
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I wish I could be in your class! Great info and terrific questions for discussion.