Kathryn Evans as Norma
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The original movie 

The crumbling mansion on Sunset Boulevard, which was the home to Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s classic movie about Hollywood, actually stood at the corner of Crensham Street on Wilshire Boulevard. It was demolished in the late 1950s and replaced with a sleek insurance company building. Built at a cost of $250,000 in 1924 for William D. Jenkins, US Consul to Mexico, its 14 rooms featured costly interior panelling, imported tiles and a black walnut staircase at whose foot was a 10-foot-square walk-in vault. Exterior walls of steel and concrete, lined with brick, were 13 ½ inches thick. Jenkins, who lived in the house for only a year, was a sugar baron reputed to be the richest man in Mexico.

Producer Charles Brackett and Director Billy Wilder found the house after a long, unsuccessful search along Sunset Boulevard itself. The mansion was by now in the possession of one of billionaire J Paul Getty’s former wives, who insisted that the pool to be installed in the grounds for the movie should be removed afterwards if she didn’t like it. As it happened, the pool remained (without plumbing and empty) and was used again for a scene in Rebel Without A Cause. In addition to the pool, the mansion was equipped with stained glass windows, palm trees, overstuffed furniture, dusty velvet drapes and a pipe organ. A £25,000 Isotta Fraschine was parked in the driveway after first being equipped with leopardskin upholstery and a gold-plated telephone.

The movie came about, Bracket explained, “because Wilder, Marshman (the third writer) and I were acutely conscious of the fact that we lived in a town which had been swept by social change (as) profound as that brought about in the old South by the Civil War. Overnight, the coming of sound brushed gods and goddesses into obscurity. We had an idea of a young man stumbling into a great house where one of these ex-goddesses survived. At first we saw her as a kind of horror woman; an embodiment of vanity and selfishness. But as we went along, our sympathies became deeply involved with the woman who had been given the brush by 30,000,000 fans”.

Next they needed to find a suitable star to play Norma Desmond. Rebuffed by an indignant Mae West, 55, who was angry to be thought of as a has-been, Wilder was then turned down by Mary Pickford, 57, who wanted the part rewritten so that the movie would focus on her. Pola Negri, 51, was subsequently rejected on the basis of her incomprehensible Polish accent. Gloria Swanson, recommended by Director George Cukor, had left Hollywood after a near-flop Music in the Air (1934), only returning for the disappointing Father Takes a Wife (1941), but had scored a hit on Broadway with A Goose for the Gander and was now hosting a television talk show. She had forgotten Wilder, even thought he had co-written the script for Music in the Air, and was annoyed at being asked to come west for a screen test. “What the hell do you have to test me for? You want to see if I’m alive, do you? Or do you doubt I can act?” Just turned 50, she had made 45 previous films, beginning as a 14-year-old extra in a movie starring Wallace Beery (whom she later married) and by 16 was playing in Mack Sennett comedies. By 1924 she was making $10,000 a week and was the second woman in Hollywood to make $1,000,000 (after Mary Pickford). She had never taken a screen test.

She had been a big star well before the fabulously successful Sadie Thompson (1928) and habitually threw lavish parties in her 22-room mansion opposite the Beverley Hills Hotel, hiring one footman per guest and sometimes giving away hundreds of gold compacts of cigarette cases as party favours. “The public wanted us to live like kings and queens…we were making more money than we ever dreamed existed and there was no reason to believe it would ever stop”, she reminisced.

George Cukor called her in New York to plead Wilder’s case. “Oh, he is so persuasive, charms the birds out of the trees, that dear man. He said this was the greatest part of my life and I’d be remembered for this part. So I took the test”. The results were so impressive that Wilder and Brackett rewrote the Norma Desmond role, ironically the way Pickford had requested.

Montgomery Clift had agreed to play the struggling screenwriter Joe Gills, but two weeks before shooting began he reneged. He was romantically involved with the torch singer Libby Holman, 30 years his senior, and rumours circulated that she drunkenly threatened to kill herself if he took the role, which she felt was a pastiche of their relationship. Even William Holden, a Paramount contract player whose last substantial role had been in Golden Boy (1939) was reluctant until his studio ordered him into the picture. He had no idea that Sunset would make him a star, after 10 years labouring in minor roles.

Wilder and Brackett, who had reached the top $5,000 a week salary level, along with their seldom-mentioned scriptwriting collaborator, D. M. Marshman, tried to keep the plot secret as long as possible, even labelling their scripts with a phoney title – A Can of Beans – but word began to leak out that it concerned the industry. Replicas of the County Morgue and Schwab’s Drub Store were built on Paramount’s Stage 5 and location shooting began at the Bel Air golf course and on Hollywood streets. Legendary Director Cecil B. DeMille was contracted to play himself taking direction through 10 pages of script over four scenes from Wilder. There were an average of 17 takes for each scene. “I don’t suppose Paramount will pick up my option after this”, said DeMille after fluffing his lines. “Mr DeMille was too courteous to make suggestions”, Wilder confessed, “and I was too afraid. I (felt) like a man about to explain satire to George Bernard Shaw”. Unlike DeMille, Erich Von Stroheim – who played Norma Desmond’s butler/ex husband was eager to help with the direction, offering unsuitable suggestions in an attempt to enhance his character. Columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper were both invited to play bit parts but only Hopper, who had been an actress herself, accepted.

At first the movie began with a scene in the morgue, for which 30 extras had been hired to lie motionless on slabs, but when the film was sneak-previewed in a small mid-Western town the audience couldn’t stop laughing. Wilder slipped out, encountered a woman near the powder room and asked how she liked it so far, “I have never seen such a pile of crap in all my life”, she replied.

The re-write took six months, mainly to fix the opening which now featured police cars screaming down Sunset with sirens blaring and Holden’s off screen voice saying that he’d died. This time the movie was previewed on the Paramount lot with an audience of industry insiders. Many enjoyed it, some were stunned, but Louis B. Mayer, Hollywood’s ranking mogul, as outraged. “You bastard”, he shouted at Wilder, “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood”. Barbara Stanwyck obviously didn’t agree. Kneeling at Swanson’s feet she kissed the hem of her gown. The two women embraced, sobbing.

Swanson later recalled that it had been a happy picture to make. “There was love and excitement on the set”, she said. “Everyone was excited, even the gaffers, the juicers, the prop men. I cried when we finished because I had been so happy while we were shooting that I wished we could start it all over again. Interviewed by Newsweek, Swanson held her finger and thumb what the magazine described as a “dramatic thumb and forefinger half an inch apart” and declared “There isn’t this much of me in the story”, and whether or not this was true before Sunset Boulevard it certainly was afterwards. Far from fading away she played opposite Jose Ferrer in another Broadway hit, Twentieth Century, toured in Butterflies are Free, played herself as a passenger in Airport 1975, made hundreds of telephone calls to her fans and promoted a budget line of clothes under the label “Forever Young”. She died in 1983 aged 84. Movie buffs like to quote one of Norma Desmond’s lines from Sunset Boulevard, “I am big – it’s the pictures that got small”.

John Wilcock


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