loria Swanson practically invented the movie star. There had been a few forerunners, notably Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, but Pickford specialized in playing golden-haired ingenues, and Chaplin, of course, was the Little Tramp. It was the fully adult Swanson who incarnated glamour, sex appeal and conspicuous consumption in a string of Roaring Twenties performances that titillated men and inspired women. She was also the first of her kind to marry into nobility — an alliance that, while it lasted, allowed her to use the splendiferous title Madame la Marquise de la Falaise de la Coudraye. Later, when she patented the comeback by throwing herself into her portrayal of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” no one else could have delivered one of that film’s enduring lines with such authority: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
This fall brings two biographies of Swanson (1899-1983), and because both use the star’s name (her real one, by the way) as the main title, I’ll refer to them by subtitle. Stephen Michael Shearer’s “The Ultimate Star” might not be quite as gushy as it sounds, but it’s full of cliches. We are told that Swanson looked “quite fetching”; that a costume designer was “in his element” (which, I guess, would be cloth); that a novelist came to “take Hollywood by storm”; and so on. In “Ready for Her Close-Up,” Tricia Welsch mostly avoids this sort of laziness — although, like Shearer, she ought to swear off the word “stunning” for the rest of her writing life. More important, she displays considerable analytical skill, and her take on Swanson is the one to read.
No great beauty — caricaturists loved to accentuate her long chin and sizable choppers — Swanson stood barely 5 feet tall. But with big, blue eyes under strong brows and a willingness to listen and learn, she soon emerged from the pack of extras with whom she had entered the movie biz in her native Chicago. It was Cecil B. DeMille who made her a Hollywood star in a series of films in which she lived out outlandish historical fantasies (in one, she lies still while a lion rests its paws on her bare back), bedecked in one sumptuous getup after another. A standard Swanson vehicle had two men vying for her affections. As Welsch notes, “The love triangle theme was no accident: she had such a strong presence that it generally took two male players of average capability to hold the screen against her.”
At her peak, Swanson wangled a movie contract that brought her $1 million a year. But she felt constrained by studio bosses and sought a measure of artistic control by joining United Artists, the distributing company founded by Pickford, Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. It wasn’t long, though, before her finances were a mess, and she was delighted to run into a charmer who promised to straighten them out: the financier Joseph P. Kennedy, father of a future U.S. president.
Kennedy fancied himself a movie tycoon in the making. (Too late, Swanson realized that he lacked a prerequisite for that role: an aesthetic sense.) Their affair was fulfilling enough, but Kennedy hired — and then failed to supervise — the profligate Erich von Stroheim to direct Swanson in “Queen Kelly,” a melodrama about a convent girl who marries a king, although not before being sent to live with her aunt, a brothel keeper in the African jungle. Not only was the story preposterous, but Stroheim insisted on adding lascivious touches that never would have made it past the censors. Finally, an exasperated Swanson got Kennedy to fire him. The picture had to be scrapped, at an estimated loss of $800,000. In the meantime, the advent of sound had transformed the movie industry. A few silent stars managed to cross over, but Swanson was not one of them.
Welsch is good at showing how Swanson kept busy during the 20 ensuing years in the wilderness. Despite having no more than an eighth-grade education, she was a smart and worldly woman who succeeded in business, founding and running a firm that sold inventions made by refugees from Nazi Germany, and then starting a line of cosmetics. (Toward the end of her life, she also wrote a best-selling autobiography.)
Swanson became famous again in 1950, thanks to “Sunset Boulevard,” which, as Welsch points out, changed markedly after she joined the cast. Director and co-writer Billy Wilder had set out to tell the story of a gigolo (played by William Holden), but Swanson made so much of her role as an aging, half-mad silent-movie queen that the kept boy became secondary. “The resonance with the leading lady’s real life got deeper and stranger,” Welsch writes, as Desmond’s mansion filled up with memorabilia from Swanson’s career, as footage from Swanson’s movies served to illustrate Desmond’s filmography, and as her former nemesis Stroheim took the juicy part of her depraved butler.
The result was Swanson’s finest performance and a revived career on stage and television. Surprisingly, few movie offers materialized, but that might have been just as well: Probably not even Gloria Swanson could have made pictures big again.
Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.