The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
As we saw with the recent 2006 Academy Awards®,
sometimes it’s not so interesting to be … uninteresting. They took the spice out
of the outfits, the speeches, the monologues, and ended up with a tasteful
affair that wasn’t nearly as much fun to watch. Why? Because stars are supposed
to be divas, they’re supposed to flaunt their vices and their antics, and we
love them for it. Divas go back nearly as far as cinema itself, and the height
of the silent era saw enough of them to fill the very first movie magazines …
the faces that launched thousands of more stars and the most successful mode of
entertainment in history. All this to say that we love our divas, and Gloria
Swanson very well might have been the most diva-esque diva there ever was.
Gloria was born
Gloria May Josephine Svensson in Chicago, Illinois on March 27, 1897, not long
after the first images were beginning to be canned and seen. While
many of her peers, having been born into showbiz families, were “destined” to
enter the movies by way of vaudeville, Gloria had no such fate or aspiration,
though she was about to become one of the most storied stars of her time.
Her childhood was
typical, though she did move around quite a bit; she attended elementary and
then high school in Chicago and and elsewhere – Key West, Florida included –
and upon completing her education, she went to work as a clerk in a department
store – stranger things have happened. She was still young – 18, to be exact –
in 1915, when she went along with her aunt to a movie studio to see what the
pictures were all about. Those were the days, of course, that the emerging
industry was going strong on the East Coast and Hollywoodland was not even a
speck of dust on the imagination of the future image-makers of America.
This is where fate
kicks in. While at the studio, she was singled out for her ravishing, exotic
looks, and was immediately asked to be an extra on the film they were currently
working on. This was to be the beginning of a fascinating career, and it all
started with a bit role in The Fable of Elvira and Farina and the Meal Ticket
(1915). (Caveat: sources, as always, are mixed about her first film; also cited
previous to The Fable are The Song of Soul (1914). Both these
films were made with the General Film Company and the Essanay Film Manufacturing
From here it
wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, but she was off to a consistent start. She
appeared in a few more uncredited roles – in films like At the End of a
Perfect Day (1915), and then got a larger part in Sweedie Goes to College
that same year. Overall she made seven films that year, before her career really
began to take off, along with her off-screen persona and personal life. She made
one film – The Nick of Time Baby – before appearing in a film with the
man who would soon become her husband: Wallace Beery. That fateful film was A
Dash of Courage. The two were soon married, and decided to leave Chicago for
warmer climes. As we know in hindsight, they made the perfect choice and would
have undoubtedly ended up in Hollywood anyway.
Gloria couldn’t be
slowed down. She chose or was chosen for all the right films and her star
continued to skyrocket. Some highlights from this era include Baseball
Madness and A Pullman Bride (both 1917); Wife or Country or
Shifting Sands (both 1918); and For Better, For Worse and Don’t
Change Your Husband (both 1919). In fact, she only made three films in 1918,
a paltry number for a starlet in those heady years. She was going through the
first of much personal turmoil; by 1919, she had divorced Beery and was already
remarried, to her second of seven husbands. Quite a grand total – it’s easy to
see why she became as much a media as a public darling.
All this drama
aside, her notoriety as an outstanding actress was growing. Within the next few
years, she became the highest grossing actor in Hollywood, despite the fact that
she didn’t appear in nearly as many films as some of her peers – rumour has it
that she went through (as it earned and blew away) over $8 million during the
roaring twenties. Imagine how much that would be today. Fans were on the edges
of their seats watching her star in film after film, and going through husband
after husband, and her studio – Famous Players-Lasky Corporation in conjunction
with Paramount Pictures – was beside itself with joy. It almost didn’t matter
what kind of role she played and what kind of film she appeared in; people were
going to the pictures to see Gloria Swanson in such movies as: Don’t Tell
Everything (1921), Her Gilded Cage (1922), Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife
(1923), A Society Scandal (1924), Stage Struck (1925), The
Untamed Lady (1926), The Love of Sunya (her only film in 1927),
Sadie Thompson (1928), Queen Kelly (1929, in which she had the
eponymous role) and her last film of the silent era, The Trespasser (also
As you’ve noticed,
she was going strong as a silent film star well into the beginning stages of the
sound era. By 1929 it was inevitable that the “sound experiment” was working,
and that all studios – following Warner, who did it first – had to convert to
sound. Gloria was already 30 when the sound era hit, which didn’t put her in a
prime position to carry her fame over into this new phase of the movie industry.
Would she be able to pull it off? She hadn’t won an Oscar, thought she’d been
nominated for 1928’s Sadie Thompson (she lost to
Mary Pickford for her role in Coquette).
A year later she was nominated for The Trespasser and lost to
Shearer (The Divorcee). In other words, she was adored and respected,
but hadn’t quite reached the summit of achievement and everything was about to
change as the audiences began to hear.
living the lavish life, made only four films in the 1930s, and all of them were
made before 1934, when she took a hiatus. But she was not down for the count.
She returned in 1941 in Father Takes a Wife (in which Desi Arnaz
appeared), and then took another hiatus until her magical return in Billy
Wilder’s 1950 classic, Sunset
Blvd. This was truly a plumb role: she played her contemporary from the
silent period, Norma Desmond, as a has-been former silent film star so desperate
to make a comeback that she’ll do literally anything to achieve this – but her
insanity gets in the way. Dark, moody and with a luminous Swanson playing, in
over-the-top fashion, the over-the-top personality of a faded star, this film
has more layers to it than an onion. Swanson-as-Desmond was ravishing, and the
box-office concurred: she was nominated for yet another Oscar that year, but
lost to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. No matter. Sunset Blvd. remains
one of the best films ever made, and Swanson was immortalized for the second
time (the first time being the entire decade of the twenties) for being an
integral part of it.
Gloria made a few
more films in the fifties – including a few in Europe – and largely stuck to a
few television roles in the sixties. She’d had her day, and what a long,
glorious day it was. She made one more mini-comeback – more an homage to her
former legend – in the 1975 film Airport, in which she played herself.
What else do we want or need her to be.
Gloria passed away
on April 4, 1983 in New York City. She was 84. A star has come, played, and
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her
regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of
Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Tammy invites you to write her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments on her column.
Other Gloria Swanson Pages:
A Tribute to
Gloria Swanson -- From Brad Lang's Classic Movies site.
Jackson's Gloria Swanson Page -- Her Escapades Made Her a Public Favorite