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Gloria Swanson and Hollywood's Greatest Comeback

Updated on July 9, 2014

The Story of Sunset Boulevard

Gloria Swanson was a great star in the early years of movie making. This is the story of how her career faded and then burst back into magnificent life with a great movie, helped by the genius of the director, Billy Wilder.

It is difficult for modern day movie goers to appreciate just what a massive star Gloria Swanson had become by the mid 1920's. She was one of the first Hollywood superstars, on a par with Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks.

The public had a voracious appetite for details of her private life. She lived extravagantly, and acted and dressed like a star, and when in 1925 she became the first Hollywood wife of European royalty, her fame knew no bounds. She and her new husband, Henri de la Falaise, Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye, received rapturous welcomes in street parades through New York and Los Angeles. She had become the best known woman in the world.

The Star in the Making

Gloria Swanson was born in 1899 in Chicago and her rare beauty soon brought her to the attention of the movie companies. When she was 15 she began as an extra with Essanay Movie Studios in Chicago. She moved with them to the exciting new filmmaking center at Hollywood, California, and there she began to show she had great talent as well as looks.

She worked for the Keystone Studio of Mack Sennett, performing in mainly slapstick short movies such as 'Teddy at the Throttle' and 'The Pullman Bride' in 1917 but she felt she could show her acting skills better in different types of movie. Her career was put back on track by Cecil B DeMille, already a well known director. The Gloria Swanson legend was about to be created.

Gloria in DeMille Bedroom Farces


Don't Change Your Husband
1919


Change Your Wife
1920

cecil b demille
cecil b demille

Cecil B. DeMille

Cecil B. DeMille was an autocratic Hollywood figure but he was a talented film director and he knew a charismatic actress when he saw one. He first noticed Gloria when she was doing slapstick comedy for Mack Sennett and he quickly realised her star potential.. When she left Sennett he signed her up and began putting her in movies more suited to her personality. Under DeMille's tutelage Gloria was transformed into a society beauty in sophisticated bedroom romps (this was before the censorious Hayes Code) such as 'Male and Female' and 'Don't Change Your Husband' in 1919, 'Why Change Your Wife?' in 1920 and 'The Affairs of Anatol' in 1921.

DeMille's heroines were able to express themselves through beautiful, extravagant clothes, draped in costly jewelry and frequently indulging, like Cleopatra, in elaborately staged bathing and washing. Often he introduced scenes where characters would be shown living in another era, so giving the opportunity for even more elaborate and extravagant costumes. Gloria made six films in all with De Mille and it elevated her into superstar status. Queen Gloria's reign had begun.

Hollywood Superstar

One of the advantages of Gloria's extreme fame was the better choice of film she was offered. She appeared with the legendary lover, Rudolph Valentino in 'Beyond The Rocks' in 1922, which further enhanced her popularity and the following year had another success with 'Bluebeard's Eighth Wife' and another in 1924 with 'Manhandled'.

As the most famous performer in Hollywood she was receiving 10,000 fan letters a week and had her own maid and personal secretary. It was stipulated in her studio contract that she should wear the latest clothes and jewelry whenever she appeared in public. Gloria wore so many high value items of jewelry that she had to rent it. In spite of paying only 10 percent of the value of her jewelry, in one year her annual jewelry budget was half a million dollars.

When it seemed that her fame could not increase any more, she did the one thing guaranteed to grab her more headlines - she met and married a French nobleman. She became not just Hollywood royalty but genuine European "Royal" royalty.

Gloria and Henri

Gloria went to Paris in 1924 to film Madame Sans Gene. She had, most unusually, received the blessing of the French government to film there and she travelled in a blaze of publicity. The studio had arranged an interpreter for her - Henri, the Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye. He was a genuine French nobleman, similar in rank to a Duke in England and, although descended from the Hennessy drinks family, was not wealthy. He had never seen a Swanson film, but the two got on very well very quickly and fell in love.

Henri proposed marriage and as soon as the film was finished the couple got married and returned to America, to a frenzy of publicity which had never been seen before. We have now got used to the mixing of the worlds of Hollywood and Royalty with the marriages of Rita Hayworth and Grace Kelly but Gloria was more famous at the time of her marriage than the later actresses and the sensation her royal connection caused was unparallelled.

She and Henri were feted wherever they went and treated like, well, royalty. In New York there was a parade through the city in their honor and when they returned to the west coast to Gloria's Hollywood home there was another parade through Los Angeles.

Joseph P Kennedy
Joseph P Kennedy

Joseph Kennedy and The Road to Failure

Gloria was still only 26, on her third husband, immensely wealthy and at the peak of her popularity. Her life to 1925 had consisted of an unbroken series of successes. She now began to make a series of wrong decisions which greatly affected her life, both personal and professional.

After 'Fine Manners' in 1926 her contract with Paramount expired and she turned down a million dollar offer to extend it in favour of joining the Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford company, United Artists, swayed by the chance of the greater artisitic freedom the new company would give her.

Although her first movie as an independent, 'The Love of Sunya' in 1927, was not a commercial success her second, 'Sadie Thompson', in 1928, gained for Gloria her first Best Actress Academy Award nomination. It seemed that her successes were continuing but there were storm clouds ahead in the form of Joseph Kennedy. Kennedy was a businessman who had a fascination for film making, particularly in the form of beautiful young actresses. Gloria was still married to the Marquis when she and Kennedy met, and Kennedy was also married and father of seven children (including the future President J. F. Kennedy), with two more children still to come.

Gloria allowed Kennedy to become her business partner and it turned out to be a bad move. He produced her next film, 'Queen Kelly' in 1929 and on his insistence, she appointed Erich von Stroheim as Director. Stroheim was infamous for continually retaking scenes and true to form production on the movie soon fell behind schedule. Gloria was eventually forced to halt the production and dismiss von Stroheim. When her relationship with Kennedy eventually ended her accountants discovered many discrepancies in her accounts. It appeared that Kennedy had been bleeding her dry for several years.

Gloria and Joe - THAT Love Affair

A relationship which promised so much, but delivered....well, you be the judge. This is a fine, well written and well researched book with a wealth of detail about the relationship between these two lovers, both high achievers, and both married to someone else. Fascinating.

Decline and.....

Although Gloria made several successful Talkies in the early 1930's, her 1920's image of unadulterated luxury and extravagance did not sit well with audiences during the years of the Great Depression and her popularity waned. From 1934 she went into semi-retirement, still a wealthy woman, but no longer a household name. In 1941 she made a brief but unsuccessful return, with 'Father Takes a Wife' but then disappeared once more from the big screen. It appeared to be the end of the Gloria Swanson career. Then along came a genius......

Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder was one of the pure movie geniuses from Hollywood's Golden Age. In the 1940's he already had two Best Director Oscar nominations, winning the Award for 'The Lost Weekend' in 1945. He would eventually receive eight Academy Award nominations for Best Director, winning the Oscar twice. He would also be nominated an astonishing twelve times for Best Screenplay awards, winning three times.

He first worked with Gloria Swanson in 1934 when he wrote the screenplay for 'Music in the Air' and in 1949 when he was casting for the role of Norma Desmond in 'Sunset Boulevard' he had to choose between Mae West and Gloria Swanson. Thankfully he chose Gloria....

Gloria Movies on Amazon

The greatest comeback in Hollywood history

Sunset Boulevard, 1950

The Norma Desmond character played by Gloria in 'Sunset Boulevard, is the major starring role in the film. She is a faded silent movie star livng in a delapidated mansion with her memories. There is an eerie correlation between Gloria Swanson and the character she plays and Gloria performs the role magnificently carrying the movie along to its sad conclusion. "Alright Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup."

The film was a triumph for Wilder as the director and joint screenplay writer and for Gloria herself. It received a total of eleven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. Gloria was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar but lost to Judy Holliday for 'Born Yesterday', The movie is still regarded as a classic, one of the best films ever made. For Gloria Swanson it was an unadulterated triumph. She had made what has been called "The greatest comeback in Hollywood history".

Sunset Boulevard - "All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up"

Sunset Boulevard
Sunset Boulevard

Postscript

After Sunset Boulevard Gloria made two unsuccessful films in the 1950's, and then retired from film making completely, apart from a fascinating cameo role playing a parody of herself in 'Airport 1975'. She appeared often on television, painted and sculpted and became an enthusiastic, early advocate of the virtues of healthy eating. Her youthful looks well into old age were a good advertisement for the healthy lifestyle she espoused. She married seven times in all and had a fuller life than most of us can only dream of.

Gloria remained active well into the final months of her life. She died from a heart attack on the morning of April 4th, 1983. She was 84. In its obituary The New York Times called her "THE GREATEST STAR OF ALL!"

The Wonderful Gloria Swanson 1899-1983 - "I'm still big - it's the pictures that got small."

Gloria Swanson
Gloria Swanson

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    • Blonde Blythe profile image

      Blonde Blythe 3 years ago

      Wonderful lens! I've been a Gloria Swanson fan for years!