May 6, 2007

sunset boulevard

I rarely like old movies. I try hard to like them. I realize people think today's output from Hollywood is bad, but most of what I've seen from before 1970 is fairly simplistic, poorly acted (overacted?), and too "feel good" to be of any worth. "Stars" like John Wayne or Ronald Reagan put out tons of this type of schlock. Part of this was due to people like Louis B. Mayer (the last M in MGM) who felt movies should be wholesome and crowd pleasers. Part of it was self-legislation by moralistic organizations like the MPAA. Whatever the reason, gems are hard to come by.

Sunset Boulevard is a gem. I can't even recall how this movie ended up in my Netflix queue. I'm just glad it did. SB is a film by Billy Wilder from the 1950s. It's a fairly scathing attack on the shallowness of Hollywood itself. I guess nothing has changed. But the movie is downright twisted. I imagine moviegoers must have viewed it much like Blue Velvet was received. Louis Mayer reportedly said, "You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood." after a screening. Billy Wilder reportedly replied "Fuck you". Good stuff. Mayer was ousted from his position within a year.

I won't give away too much about the plot. But there are lots of very interesting pieces of information about this movie. The 3 main characters are Joe Gillis (William Holden) a struggling but handsome writer, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) a famous silent film actress who is past her prime but has a fame addiction, and the Max (Erich von Stroheim) a butler for Norma who was previously her director in her glory days.

Here's the craziest aspect of the film - Gloria Swanson actually was a famous silent film actress way past her prime. This movie put her back on the map again. And Erich von Stroheim who plays the butler/ex-director actually was a director! Not only that he was the director for the last movie Gloria Swanson acted in and (since the movie was such a disaster) was largely responsible for the death of her career. Crazy! How did Wilder get these two to star together in the same movie? Wait there is more. The movie that Joe and Norma watch in the private screening room is Queen Kelly. This is the movie directed by Erich von Stroheim that was a disaster.

The narcissistic photos of the young Norma Desmond character that decorate the house are actual publicity photos of Gloria Swanson when she was a young and popular silent movie star actress.

The character of Joe Gillis was very much in tune with William Holden's standing at the time. When he appeared in the 1939 film Golden Boy, he was hailed as a star. Over the next 10 years though he saw his stock fall, largely due to his problems with alcohol. He never overcame those problems. He died after losing his balance while drinking and bled to death from a headwound. This movie, however, did revive his flagging career.

There are lots of other famous people in this movie who play themselves. Foremost is the famous director Cecil deMille. At the time of the shooting of Sunset Blvd., Mr. DeMille was filming a scene from Samson and Delilah which you see in the movie. That is the actual cast and crew of that film.

Other famous actors are H.B. Warner, Buster Keaton, and Anna Q. Nilsson at the card game scene. All played has-beens like Gloria Swanson which is pretty representative of their standing at the time the movie was made. How Wilder got these people to play themselves as has-beens is another great question.

In 1998, the American Film Institute selected this as the 12th greatest film of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time.

The amazing "Desmond mansion" (the main locale of the movie) was built by William Jenkins in 1924 for $250,000. Jean Paul Getty eventually purchased it for his second wife. She divorced and ultimately received custody of the house. She rented it to Paramount for the filming. The "fee" for renting the Getty mansion was for Paramount to build the swimming pool, which features prominently in the film. The house is quite striking. It unfortunately does not exist anymore. A gas station sits at the location. The number of the house in the movie is incorrect as there is no 10,000 block on Sunset Blvd.

The writers feared that Hollywood would react unfavorably to such a damning portrait of the film industry, and so the film was code named 'A Can of Beans' while in production.

This film was the last major Hollywood feature to be filmed on a nitrate negative. Nitrate refers to the 'plastic' film base. The problem with it is that it decays into a sticky, goo-like substance after a few decades. The original nitrate negatives for the film have obviously long disappeared. The only extant film elements were 35mm interpositives struck in 1952, which had undergone a great deal of decay. This interpositive was scanned at 2,000 lines of resolution and electronically restored for the 2002 DVD reissue. The restoration was performed at Lowry Digital by Barry Allen and Steve Elkin. It looks very good.

The directions made by the guard at Paramount studios to meet Cecil B. DeMille on "Stage 18" are accurate. Stage 18 is one of the largest on the lot and was known for years as "The DeMille Stage". More recently it is known as the "The Star Trek Stage" as most of the Trek movies and TV shows were shot there.

This is the movie from which the line, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up" comes from.

The antique car used as Desmond's limousine is an Isotta-Fraschini. Some view this as the real star of the show. There are only 6 left in the world and the cost at the time of the movie in modern dollars was about $500,000. The actual car was rented for the movie. It once belonged to a socialite who received it from her love, automobile magnate Walter Chrysler. Even though Erich von Stroheim plays a chauffeur, he couldn't drive in real life. In the scene where he drives into the Paramount lot, he crashed into the famous gate.