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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
Gloria Swanson

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December 24 1924 Gloria Swanson Mon Cine SupplementAd for Gloria Swanson in "What a Widow!"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.

1929 Gloria Swanson Movie Land Keeno Game CardHer 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 Company).

From here it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, but she was off to a consistent start. She 1919 Gloria Swanson Kinema Theatre Cardappeared 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.

1923 Gloria Swanson Picturegoer Star At HomeGloria 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 1929).

1923 Gloria Swanson Neilson's Chocolates CardAs 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, 1924 Gloria Swanson BAT Tobacco Cardthought 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 Norma 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.

Gloria, still 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 gone.
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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 The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at tammystone444@yahoo.ca with any questions or comments on her column.

Other Gloria Swanson Pages:

A Tribute to Gloria Swanson -- From Brad Lang's Classic Movies site.
Denny Jackson's Gloria Swanson Page -- Her Escapades Made Her a Public Favorite