The Story: Oh my. There are so many deep layers to this scene, they could fill the biggest pot-hole ever conceived on Sunset Boulevard.
This series of frames is a mere way-stop on Joe Gillis' journey from being a writer kept on retainer to "kept man" by former silent film star Norma Desmond, holed up like a black widow spider in her creepily ornate California mansion of faded glories. There was plenty of material to choose from in Hollywood's musty past to make a blistering screenplay in Billy Wilder's part-noir/part-horror show of the dead souls left behind in the Movie Biz. But it was the casting that solidified it, like the cement at Grauman's Chinese. Or Louis B. Mayer's heart.*
The first choice to play Norma Desmond was Mae West (who said she was too young to play a silent film star**). Wilder and writer-producer Charles Brackett personally asked Mary Pickford (who was so horrified at the story that Wilder and Brackett just apologized for bothering her, and slunk away). Pola Negri (whose thick Polish accent, which hampered her career for sound movies) would have been hard to understand. They even asked Greta Garbo. But director George Cukor pushed Gloria Swanson to try out for the role. She was an inspired choice. There are some actors that Wilder could transform, like Ray Milland in "The Lost Weekend" and Swanson in this film, to show the mad glint in the eyes that come from dreams of glory. That's part of this scene, certainly.
But, even more interesting is the choice of film that is screened in Norma Desmond's parlor. It is one of Gloria Swanson's silent pictures, but one that had never been seen in the United States: "Queen Kelly," made in 1929.
It was directed by Erich von Stroheim.
Yes, the actor who plays Desmond's ex-director, ex-husband, and now butler, directed this film for star Swanson and producer Joseph P. Kennedy.***
Von Stroheim's career in Hollywood was a colorful one, as actor and director. he was one of the great screen villains during the silent era, and as a director he made epic, gargantuan movies of such scope that they were usually shanghaied by the production company and edited down to lengths a mere shadow of their former selves—the classic example being his ten hour version of "Greed" (1929). Though not as large as "Greed," "Queen Kelly" under von Stroheim's supervision would have clocked in at four hours, and shooting was over schedule and over-budget. Swanson, who also had problems with von Stroheim, demanded that Kennedy fire him from the production. Additional footage was shot to bring the film to a bridgeable conclusion, but due to stipulations in von Stroheim's contract (he had to give permission to show it), the film was never seen in the United States—until "Sunset Boulevard."
And that at von Stroheim's suggestion.
So, there he is, on-screen, the real director playing a reel humiliated director screening a section of his own mutilated film. And it is the glow of this film (and its own story) that back-lights the sordid story to come; the light that Norma Desmond basks and glories in.
When one digs a little into "Sunset Boulevard," the spine shivers, the hairs on the back of your neck straighten, and you're overcome with "the creeps."
The Set-Up: Wisenheimer Hollywood scipt-hack Joe Gillis (William Holden) has just fallen down a rabbit-hole. In an attempt to evade his creditors chasing him down Sunset Boulevard, he's pulled into a drive-way to an abandoned house and hidden his car in the garage. What starts as an accident turns into a lucky break as he finds it is the home of silent-screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), not-so-gracefully retired, and in a vain attempt to make a come-back, hires Joe to write a new starring vehicle, to be called "Salome." Norma sees stars, and Joe sees a steady pay-check but with negative benefits — a lack of his freedom and unwanted attention from Norma, both of which are irksome, as is the baleful glare of Norma's gruff, doting man-servant Max (Erich von Stroheim).
Quiet, everybody! Lights! (Are you ready, Norma?) All right! Camera! Action!
B-9 THE BIG ROOM -(NIGHT) Shooting towards the big Gold Rush painting. Max, white gloves and all, steps into the shot, shoves the painting up towards the ceiling,revealing a motion picture screen. Max exits.
GILLIS' VOICE: It wasn't all work - of course. Two or three times a week Max would haul up that enormous oil painting that had been presented to her by some Nevada Chamber of Commerce...
GILLIS' VOICE: ...and we'd see a movie, right in her living room.
B-1O NORMA AND GILLIS They sit on a couch, facing the screen. On a table in front of them are champagne, cigarettes and coffee. Above their heads are the typical openings for a projector. The lights go off. From the opening above their heads shoots the wide beam of light.
GILLIS' VOICE: "So much nicer than going out," she'd say.
GILLIS' VOICE: The plain fact was...
GILLIS' VOICE: ...that she was afraid of that world outside.
GILLIS' VOICE: Afraid it would remind her that time had passed.
B-11 MAX, IN THE PROJECTION BOOTH BEHIND THE ROOM The light of the machine flickering over his face, which is frozen, a somber enigma.
GILLIS' VOICE: They were silent movies, and Max would run the projection machine, which was just as well...
GILLIS' VOICE: -- it kept him from giving us an accompaniment on that wheezing organ.
B-12 NORMA AND GILLIS watching the screen. Gillis looks down and sees that Norma's hand is clasping his ann tight. He doesn't like it much but he can't do anything about it. However. when she for a second lets go his arm to pick up a glass of champagne, he gently withdraws his arm, leans away from her and crosses his arms to discourage any resumption of her approach. Norma puts the glass down doesn't find his arm, but is not aware of any significance in his maneuver. They both watch the screen.
GILLIS' VOICE: She'd sit very close to me, and she'd smell of tuberoses, which is not my favorite perfume, not by a long shot.
GILLIS' VOICE: Sometimes as we watched, she'd clutch my arm...
GILLIS' VOICE:...or my hand forgetting she was my employer becoming just a fan...
GILLIS' VOICE: ...excited about that actress up there on the screen....I guess I don't have to tell you...
GILLIS' VOICE: ...who the star was.
GILLIS' VOICE: They were always her pictures -- that's all she wanted to see.
B-13 THE OTHER END OF THE BIG ROOM. WITH THE SCREEN On it flickers a famous scene from one of Norma's old silent pictures. It is not to be a funny scene. It is old-fashioned, but shows her incredible beauty and the screen presence which made her the great star of her day.
B-14 NORMA AND GILLIS ON THE COUCH
NORMA: Still wonderful, isn't it?
NORMA: And no dialogue. We didn't need dialogue.
NORMA: We had faces. There just aren't any faces like that any more.
NORMA: Well, maybe one -- Garbo.
In a sudden flareup she jumps to her feet and stands in the flickering beam of light.
NORMA: Those idiot producers! Those imbeciles! Haven't they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like?
NORMA: I'll show them. I'll be up there again. So help me!
Words by Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman Jr. and Billy Wilder
Pictures by John F. Seitz and Billy Wilder
"Sunset Boulevard" is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video.
* In IMDB's "Trivia" section for "Sunset Boulevard" it is reported that Mayer, then head of M-G-M, screamed that Wilder should be "tarred, feathered and horse-whipped" for denigrating the film industry with the film. Wilder's tart reply: "F*%k you!"
** Well, "technically" yes but no. While West never made a silent film—after years of writing and starring on Broadway, she was signed to a contract by Paramount Pictures in 1932—she really wasn't too young to be a silent film star. She signed that contract at the age of 38, making her born in the year 1893—a full six years before Gloria Swanson was born.
*** Patriarch of the Kennedy clan, father of President John F. and Senators Robert and Edward. He was rumored to be involved with Swanson as more than her producer.