Ready for Her Close-Up

Dennis Drabelle in The Washington Post:

Gloria%20Swanson1At 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.

More here.