As deluded silent screen vamp Norma Desmond in the 1950 Billy Wilder movie Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson is immortal; hers is a performance that haunts you as much as Desmond’s faded stardom haunts her. The glory days referenced by Swanson’s character are not based on myth; indeed, Swanson was one of Hollywood’s most adored silent leading ladies, but it has been difficult to reclaim evidence of her stardom. A large part of the problem is access. We can still look at the work of her contemporaries, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish; practically all of Pickford’s major films are available on DVD and most of Gish’s work, mainly for director D.W. Griffith, survives. But many of Swanson’s silent films haven’t been preserved (she especially regretted the missing Madame Sans-Gêne, which was produced in France in 1925).
In her colorful and thorough autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, the silent diva also lamented the probable loss of her one-and-only feature with Rudolph Valentino, Beyond the Rocks (1922). When that film was recently rediscovered, it was revealed to be an inhibited affair, directed with zero finesse by Sam Wood. In two comedies she made for a much better director, Allan Dwan (Manhandled  and Stage Struck ), Swanson doesn’t exactly have a light touch. The Cecil B. De Mille movies that first made her a star, like Don’t Change Your Husband (1919) and Why Change Your Wife? (1920), are more historical curiosities than viable filmic experiences. For those who have seen Sunset Boulevard and really want to see Norma Desmond in her prime, there are two films that testify to Swanson’s star power: Raoul Walsh’s Sadie Thompson (1928) and Erich Von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly (1929), both of which were produced by the star herself.
In the late ‘20s, Swanson had won freedom from her Paramount contract, giving her control of her own films. Seeking an edgy, non-conventional vehicle to take advantage of her freedom, Swanson settled on Rain, a hit play based on a Somerset Maugham novel that was banned by Hollywood censorship czar Will Hays. Swanson pulled every trick she could to work around this ban, making appeals to the press, to theater chains, and even Hays himself. She managed to get Rain to the screen as Sadie Thompson.
Swanson insisted that Raoul Walsh direct and also play her leading man, Sergeant O’Hara; the chemistry that they had in life, which she describes in her book, definitely transfers to their on-screen relationship. Swanson is the headliner, both producer and star of this show, but Sadie Thompson is also very much a Walsh movie, demonstrating his cleverness in handling controversial material. Years later, Swanson pointed out that the silent version had a big advantage over later talking adaptations; when Sadie hurls profanities at the hypocritical Reverend Davidson (Lionel Barrymore), Walsh suggests her foul language by having Davidson’s wife and prim friend cover their ears in horror and walk out of the room. In Walsh’s version of this story, the prostitute Sadie Thompson is a basically good-hearted but sometimes scary life force at risk of being snuffed out by the wet blanket of repressive religion. Her laughter in the early scenes is always lusty and full-bodied, and Walsh makes Swanson’s larger than life Movie Star face convey the hardness of a hooker who knows her trade and won’t let anybody push her around.
Whoredom and what it does to a woman’s face is the central theme of Stroheim’s sumptuous Queen Kelly. The film introduces its male lead, Prince Wolfram (Walter Byron) flanked by some of the most hard-bitten whores you’re ever likely to see in a movie (it’s been rumored that they were actual prostitutes that “the Von” corralled for his film, and seeing is believing). Confronted by Wolfram, virginal young convent girl Kelly (Swanson) accidentally loses her panties and then, in a fit of pique, tosses them at the Prince, who tucks them in his saddle. Prince Wolfram proceeds to seduce Kelly at length in his private quarter, in a scene that seems to go on forever, in a good way. It resembles the curious quality of a Jacques Rivette film, where you keep looking and looking at something until it seems to transform before your eyes. We’re worlds away from Walsh’s simple, vital American filmmaking; in the Von’s lush, associative dissolves, we can discern the last orchestral gasp of the silent cinema’s heady montage effects, and in his unflinching look at the harsh effects of pleasure-seeking on the human face, Stroheim anticipates ’60s masters like Antonioni and Bergman. Stroheim is a silent master with his own peculiarly modern sensibility.
What does Stroheim see when his camera keeps looking at Swanson? A queen, a girl, a whore? She was all three in Queen Kelly, but footage exists only of the first two; there are just a few still photographs of Swanson’s Kelly when she becomes madam of her own African bordello. Swanson was intimidated and grossed-out by what Stroheim was seeing in her, but what’s left of his cinematic odyssey into the meaning of Swanson’s face is still a marvel.
Swanson pulled the plug on the production a little more than half-way through the shoot schedule; she got scared of the perverse scenes he was filming (the breaking point came when Stroheim instructed grotesque character actor Tully Marshall how to dribble tobacco juice onto her hand). A would-be masterpiece was brought to a premature end, as were the careers of Stroheim and Swanson. The Von never made another feature, and the advent of talkies meant that Swanson’s face was no longer enough to sustain her career. Her talkie debut,The Trespasser (1929) was a hit, but it showed that she suffered from the habits that afflicted veteran silent performers. She begins an emotion, then freezes it slightly, as if a title card is about to come on, and then goes into the next emotion. Swanson’s inability to make behavior flow together with dialogue stranded her; the devil-may-care flamboyance of her ’20s roles could no longer find a place with the onset of the Great Depression.
It’s worth asking just what Swanson thought of Stroheim, given that they eventually acted together in Sunset Boulevard. In that film, Stroheim’s Max Von Mayerling, a former hotshot director reduced to performing as Norma Desmond’s manservant, screens footage of one of Desmond’s silent hits. It’s actually footage of Stroheim’s own unfinished Queen Kelly. Stroheim/Mayerling watches with a face full of pride and anger; what Stroheim felt about Swanson is as clear in his mortified, quietly bitchy performance in Sunset Boulevard as in the must-see fragments of Queen Kelly.
Swanson will always be best known as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, claiming that she can say anything she wants to with her eyes. She was not a subtle actress, but she is a star that you ignore at your peril. In Sadie Thompson and Queen Kelly, Swanson offers a tantalizing glimpse into how far she was willing to stretch her image and her talent for two radical, late silent ventures into frank – and even franker – sexuality.