Friday, April 5, 2013

Gloria Swanson: The "Lost" Movies

Gloria Swanson
Gloria Swanson, a favorite of director Cecil B. DeMille during the silent era, became an actress as a result of being in the right place at the right time. When her aunt took her to visit Essanay Studios in 1913, the soon-to-be actress was captivated by the new technology and the costumes and makeup and lights and everything that went into dramatic acting. She was quickly hired as an extra and rose up the ranks when Mack Sennett hired her for a series of short films. Comedy was not her style and the actress went to work for Triangle Studios in 1917. Her serious dramas there garnished the attention of Cecil B. DeMille, who cast her in Don't Change Your Husband (1919), complimenting the format DeMille wanted to expose in every one of his pictures -- the glories of sin and the comeuppance of adultry, coveting and greed.

By 1920, Gloria Swanson had been on the cover of every major movie magazine and became a box office star. Famous Players-Lasky (which later became Paramount Pictures), treated their salary contract players like cattle and steered Swanson into movies without DeMille's name and the director was left to find a new leading lady for his pictures. The rational thinking of the studios was to separate two commercial properties and double their box office returns.... and it worked. By 1926, she was making $6,500 a week (over $3.5 million a year by today's standards). She took a financial and career risk by turning down a $1 million salary from the studio to form her own production company, with Joseph Kennedy.

Kino on Video DVD Release
In 1928, she starred in Sadie Thompson, the first film version of Somerset Maugham's classic story "Miss Thompson," which established her status as a screen legend. The movie featured the creative talents of Gloria Swanson, Lionel Barrymore, Raoul Walsh, art director William Cameron Menzies and cameramen George Barnes and Oliver Marsh, at the height of their careers. Swanson and Barnes were nominated for Oscars, in what was the first year of the Academy Awards. Sadie Thompson proved to be a landmark of the silent era and is considered required viewing for people studying silent movies. Perhaps, its greatest achievement was the film's uncompromising translation of Maugham's controversial story of a San Francisco prostitute and a South Pacific reformer. She plays the title role who prowls the South Seas seducing U.S. Marines until she runs afoul of a religious hypocrite (Lionel Barrymore) who claims he wants to save her soul but cannot resist her body. Swanson correctly maintained that the film's silence was its greatest asset, for the churches and Hays office could not censor what they couldn't hear.

Why Change Your Wife? (1920)
The tragedy of Sadie Thompson is that, for many decades, the last scenes were missing from the sole existing print. A lack of film preservation over the decades (often described by many as the studio's lack of concern when weighed against the budget required to maintain their film archive) is the reason why we do not have the opportunity to view the closing chapter of the story. In 1987, Kino International funding a restoration of the final minutes, carefully recreated, using the original script, the Swanson's personal collection of stills, film footage where appropriate, and an orchestral score commissioned for the completed film.

Neglected and forgotten over the years, Sadie Thompson has emerged as an important triumph in the silent era, and Swanson's greatest performance ever.... or you can debate against her gutsy comeback in Sunset Boulevard (1950). She made a successful transition to sound in 1929 but the failure of Music in the Air (1934) left a bad taste in her mouth. Swanson left Hollywood for semi-retirement. In 1949, writer-director Billy Wilder offered her a comeback role as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, now considered one of the 100 greatest movies ever made and a major influence for film noir. She received critical acclaim, an Oscar nomination and chose to return to the stage instead of the silver screen. Taking a page from numerous silent stars who chose other forms of generating an annual salary, she hosted her own afternoon radio talk show and created her own fashion line (Gowns by Gloria).

Male and Female (1919)
This latter part of her career comes as no surprise. During the height of her career, Swanson was a trend setter and is credited as having become the first fashion influence. After all, movies helped define popular culture from the clothing we wore to the music we sang. Supposedly she paid as much as $10,000 for her elegant stockings. Swanson was evidently a woman of material means. In 1917, she went on strike to get mack Sennett to raise her salary. He got her to return to work by buying her a $100 green suit trimmed with squirrel fur. In 1919, during the filming of Male and Female, Swanson lay down next to a lion, which placed a paw on her back. When the actress, shaken from the experience, demanded the next day off to recover, DeMille placated her by allowing her to pick anything she wanted from a large cache of jewels. She selected a gold mesh bag and immediately said she felt much better.

Movie poster of a "lost" movie.
For trivia fans, Sunset Boulevard (1950) offers an added benefit for her fans. It features a scene from her unfinished epic, Queen Kelly (1928). Now considered one of the most audacious in-jokes in the history of American movies is the scene when Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) shows Joe Gillis (William Holden) a silent film being projected by her onetime director-husband and now butler, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). But the film they are watching, as few viewers then or now would realize, is Queen Kelly, a 1929 production starring Swanson and actually directed by von Stroheim. The director was, of course, never Swanson's paramour any more than Swanson was a real life Norma Desmond. But this movie was the last to be released with von Stroheim's name on the credits as director.

Gloria Swanson on NBC Radio.
In 1928, after years of struggles within the studio system, Erich von Stroheim found the opportunity to create his crowning achievement: a storybook romance of intoxicating beauty, counterbalanced with a frightfully grim tale of moral corruption. Gloria Swanson played the role of an innocent convent girl who fell under the spell of a handsome prince (Walter Byron) on the eve of his marriage to a diabolical queen (Seena Owen). Queen Kelly might have been one of von Stroheim's greatest films had actress/producer Swanson not halted it in mid-production. She disapproved of his extravagant methods and strange story ideas. Though the European scenes were full of innuendo, and featured a philandering prince and a sex-crazed queen, the scenes set in Africa were grim and, Swanson felt, distasteful. In later interviews, Swanson had claimed that she had been misled by the script which referred to her character arriving in, and taking over, a dance hall; looking at the rushes, it was obvious the 'dance hall' was actually a brothel.

Poster Art for a "lost" movie.
Stroheim was fired from the film and the African storyline scrapped. Swanson and Kennedy still wanted to salvage the European material, as it had been so costly and time-consuming, and had potential market value. An alternate ending was, however, shot on November 24, 1931. In this ending, directed by Swanson and photographed by Gregg Toland, Prince Wolfram is shown visiting the palace. A nun leads him to the chapel, where Kelly's body lies in state. This has been called the 'Swanson Ending'. The film was not theatrically released in the United States, but it was shown in Europe and South America with the 'Swanson ending' tacked on. This was due to a clause in Stroheim's contract. By some accounts, Von Stroheim suggested the clip be used for Sunset Boulevard  for its heavy irony. This was the first time viewers in the US got to see any footage of the infamous collaboration. (In the 1960s, it was shown on television with the Swanson ending, along with a taped introduction and conclusion in which Swanson talked about the history of the project.)

Poster Art for a "lost" movie.
Thankfully, by 1985, Kino on Video acquired the rights to the movie and restored two versions: one that uses still photos and subtitles in an attempt to wrap up the storyline, and the other the European "suicide ending" version. The DVD release contains bother versions of the movie, alternate endings and bonus features.

Sadly, amidst the restorations of Queen Kelly (1929) and Sadie Thompson (1928), a number of Gloria Swanson's movies are considered "lost" and not known to exist. Film archives the world over have been cataloged and consulted. The Library of Congress, UCLA, the George Eastman House and many others have verified the movies below are "lost" and are today sought after by anyone with deep pockets and an ambition to restore the film. The list below constitutes (as of December 2012) the films starring or co-starring Gloria Swanson which we may never see again.

The Official List of "Lost" Films
  • Society for Sale (1918)
  • Her Decision (1918)
  • Station Content (1918)
  • You Can't Believe Everything (1918)
  • Everywoman's Husband (1918)
  • The Secret Code (1918)
  • Wife or Country (1918)
  • The Great Moment (1921)
  • Under the Lash (1921)
  • Don't Tell Everything (1921)
  • Her Gilded Cage (1922)
  • The Impossible Mrs. Bellew (1922)
  • My American Wife (1922)
  • Prodigal Daughters (1923)
  • Bluebeard's 8th Wife (1923)
  • Hollywood (1923) (she makes a cameo appearance in this film)
  • A Society Scandal (1924)
  • Her Love Story (1924)
  • Wages of Virtue (1924)
  • Madame Sans-GĂȘne (1925)
  • The Coast of Folly (1925)
  • The Untamed Lady (1926)
Gloria Swanson in Zaza (1923).
Among the highlights of historical nature are Madame Sans-GĂȘne (1925), produced in France as Swanson was on extended vacation there. She soon became involved with Henri de la Falaise, hired by Paramount to be her translator, and who later became her third husband.

The movie Hollywood (1923), tells the story of a young unknown (Hope Drown) who comes to Hollywood to become an actress, and brings her grandfather (Luke Cosgrave). At the end of the first day, she has not found work, but her grandfather has. The movie is known for having cameos from more than 30 celebrities from Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Charles Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Pola Negri, Mary Pickford, Zasu Pitts, Will Rogers and Gloria Swanson, among others.

Certain scenes in Prodigal Daughters (1923) were shot in Swanson's own palatial Hollywood mansion. A young unknown Mervyn LeRoy, later a famous director, appears unbilled as a newsboy. (He later directed Swanson in her early talkie Tonight or Never.)

In recognition of Gloria Swanson's "lost" movies and the early days of motion pictures, the Mid Atlantic Nostalgia Convention will present two rare hour-long gems this September. Less than two years before her death, Gloria Swanson agreed to narrate an hour-long documentary about Cecil B. DeMille titled, Ready When You Are, Mr. DeMille! This was a superb film profile of film director Cecil B. deMille, with exclusive commentary from Gloria Swanson, Charlton Heston, Agnes DeMille, Jesse Lasky Jr., Katherine DeMille, Anthony Quinn, DeWitt Bodeen, Henry Wilcoxson, Cecilia Presley (his grand daughter), Robert Parrish, William O'Connell, and his assistant director Chico Day. They will also be screening a 1952 telecast (transferred from a rare kinescope) with Gloria Swanson introducing scenes from three of her rarely-seen motion pictures, Stage Struck (1925), Zaza (1923) and Manhandled (1924) -- the latter not available in collector hands and archived and preserved at the Library of Congress. (see the 2013 movie room schedule for more details on the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention's website.)

2 comments:

Jon said...

I suspect Swanson would gladly have made more movies after SUNSET BLVD., if the roles she was offered had not mostly been variations on Norma Desmond, a role she was determined not to repeat. THREE FOR BEDROOM C, a comedy she made in 1952 for Warner Bros., was a flop, and I think Swanson was canny enough to realize that her future didn't lie in Hollywood.

thoseawfulreviews said...

The original feature length version of "Station Content" (1918) may be lost, but the film does survive in an abbreviated form. The short version is available on video from Harpodeon.com

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