If you’re a classic film fan, you’ve undoubtedly seen the Billy Wilder masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. The film barely made it out of the 1940s to start a new decade, one that would be consumed by the new medium of television. The two protagonists, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and Joe Gillis (William Holden) are equally pathetic, using each other to fill a void left by the absence of reality. Holden is fine as Gillis, a struggling screen writer trying to make ends meet in the unforgiving, brutal Hollywood atmosphere, but it is Swanson who steals the show.
Thirty years after she played the aging, embittered silent film star, Gloria Swanson wrote her memoirs. The book, titled Swanson on Swanson, is an honest, unapologetic open door.
Unfortunately for me, I knew little about Swanson aside from her “comeback” role as Norma Desmond. I had seen her bounding across the screen like an ingénue, knowing full well her career went back to silent days but never having the presence of mind to seek out her early work. Years later, I learned that Erich Von Stroheim, who played Swanson’s butler in Boulevard, had himself been a director of early cinema. In fact, it was on one of his films, 1929’s Queen Kelly, where Stroheim and Swanson were first acquainted; the film had begun excitedly and ended in disaster. Because of constant disputes over the script and the direction of the film, Stroheim was eventually fired from the project. The unfinished film was salvaged by Swanson (and boyfriend/confidante/consultant Joseph Kennedy), but was never released theatrically in the United States.
The above story is just one of many in Swanson on Swanson. Gloria also takes readers through her childhood, as the daughter of a military man whose travels allowed her to see the world but prevented her from putting down roots. As she matured into her teen years, Gloria suddenly found a new love – motion pictures. Because the industry was still in its infancy, the uncertainty of filming, stunt work, and auditioning was a never-ending roller coaster. Soon, a romance sprouted between Gloria and a seasoned actor of the day, Wallace Beery. Swanson on Swanson recounts the love affair (which blossomed into a full-fledged marriage, Gloria’s first) in great detail. The specifics of the relationship are as shocking as a supermarket tabloid. All of this, intermingled with Swanson’s emergence as a superstar, makes the first half of the book a nonstop train ride through the early 20th century.
Like many artists, Gloria Swanson was a multi-faceted person. Her talents did not begin and end on the movie screen; rather, the film industry gave her the connections and the means to be herself – a woman in perpetual motion, always looking for something else to do. Though many of the films in her arsenal are seldom-seen, and the one film for which she is best known is considered a swan song, Swanson’s real accomplishments came on the wings of her perseverance. Having endured many failed marriages, broken business affiliations, personal highs and lows, and career roadblocks, Swanson managed to coast into her later years with optimism.
Aside from the requisite Hollywood information and cameos, Swanson on Swanson is full of anecdotes, some humorous, some quite serious. Every once in a while, the stories become slightly dramatic, no doubt the product of Swanson’s active imagination and obvious love for the person she’d become. Before the final page is turned, readers will know much more about Gloria than her appearance in Sunset Boulevard; they will know her as an actress, a wife, a mother, and a friend.