Posted by Susan Doll on March 30, 2015
I’ve been reading Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, Stephen Michael Shearer’s 1913 aptly titled biography of the woman who defined what a real movie star should be. Though I had read parts of Gloria’s autobiography Swanson on Swanson, Shearer’s book exposes that the star’s recollections were colored by selective memory, forgotten details, and overlooked events. I thought I knew a great deal about Swanson, but I discovered that instead of fact, I was hanging onto assumptions and misconceptions. Below are several discoveries about Gloria Swanson that reveal the complexities of her life and career.
Gloria in Chicago: Swanson began her career at Chicago’s Essanay Studio just a few months before Charlie Chaplin arrived to make movies in the Windy City—a venture that proved short-lived. Chaplin tested the teenager for what proved to be his only Chicago film, His New Job. He tried to teach her some basic comic shtick, but she was not good at spontaneous physical humor. More to the point, she didn’t like it. What 15-year-old girl does? She was supposed to bend over to retrieve something and get kicked in the backside. The next day, Chaplin had someone tell her that she would not do as a comic foil, to which Swanson replied, “I think it’s vulgar anyway.” Though Swanson does appear in a bit part as a stenographer in His New Job, she always denied that she was ever in a Chaplin film.
During her stint at Essanay, Swanson’s BFF was Virginia Bowker. The two practiced their ukuleles between scenes and walked to Sternberg’s on the corner of Argyle and Broadway for lunch, often with Rod LaRoque and June Walker. Apparently neither Chaplin nor Swanson harbored any hard feelings over Swanson’s disinterest in his film. Once, Chaplin treated her to a soda at Chicago’s famed Green Mill Gardens, a restaurant with actual sunken gardens at Broadway and Lawrence. Later, the gardens were removed, and it became a speakeasy operated by Al Capone. The Green Mill is now a jazz club: If only its walls could talk.
Gloria at Keystone. Gloria never enjoyed physical humor, but she did learn to handle it when she was signed by Mack Sennett as part of his Keystone Studio. The 4’ 11” Swanson was teamed with 5’ 3” Bobby Vernon and Teddy the Wonder Dog for a series of comedy shorts with titles like Haystacks and Steeples, The Danger Girl, The Nick of Time Baby, and Hearts and Sparks.
Young Fellow. Movie lovers who have seen Sunset Blvd. recognize “Young Fellow” as Cecil B. DeMille’s nickname for Norma Desmond. I knew it was also the nickname that DeMille had bestowed upon Swanson back in the early 1920s. But, I did not know the reason why. Apparently, it came from Swanson’s insistence on doing a scene for Male and Female involving a lion. Like many of DeMille’s domestic dramas or comedies, there was a fantasy or historical scene, which provided the opportunity for lavish costumes and exotic sets. In this historical sequence, Swanson’s character was to be mauled to death by a lion. She suggested that that they re-create the 1908 painting The Lion’s Bride by Gabriel Max as a tableau for part of the scene. Gloria climbed into the set with an actual lion, and let the lion place its paw on her back while she lay prone on the ground. It roared at her, and she could feel its breath, but the scene went off without a hitch. DeMille respected actors who took physical risks and loathed those who would not. He began calling her Young Fellow as a tribute to her pluck and nerve.
Swanson the Star. DeMille’s romantic and domestic fantasies made Swanson a movie star. The historical sequences with the lavish costumes and sets propagated an exotic, larger-than-life image for her. Swanson, who was barely 21 at the time, began to live this image offscreen as well as on. In an interview with the New York World Telegram in 1960, Swanson recalled, “We were the romance and the royalty of the U.S. We were the fairy tales come true.”
I did not realize that Swanson’s career peaked so early; the high point was definitely her work with DeMille, which ended in the mid-to-late 1920s. By the early 1930s, after her debacle with Joseph Kennedy (see below), she appeared in very few successful films. Unfortunately, she continued to live as though she were one of DeMille’s characters, lavishly spending money despite warnings by associates and accountants. She did not pay taxes for 1925, 1926, and 1927, which incurred the wrath of the IRS. By the 1930s, her indulgent lifestyle and behavior did not match the sensibilities of the Depression, and the public grew less enamored with her. Living in a huge mansion on Crescent Drive, she had four butlers, two chauffeurs, and three Rolls Royces–one white, one black, and one maroon. Later she admitted, “After I was through with the movies—or vice versa—I was so sore at my stupidity that I could’ve cut my throat. I woke up and discovered I was the all-time Hollywood dumb cluck who’d thrown away millions of dollars to put up a front that fooled nobody but me.” (Pitts, Leonard, Jr., Glamour Girls of Hollywood. 1984.)
Swanson and Elinor Glyn. In 1920, Paramount commissioned 56-year-old romance writer Elinor Glyn to write a screenplay for Swanson. Glyn, who sported flaming red hair, leopard-print outfits, and a powder-white face, fancied herself a fashion plate—like her sister, fashion designer Lucile. Glyn dreamed up her ensembles and traveled with dressmaker who whipped them out. She took up residence in the Hollywood Hotel, adorning her room with oriental rugs, Persian divans, Buddhas, crystal balls, gongs, and a tiger skin rug. She began hosting teas on Sunday afternoon, where she would recite poetry while wearing Persian pajamas. The film that Glyn scripted for Swanson, The Great Moment, is typical of her melodramatic, “great love” narratives. To wit: While Gloria’s character is horseback riding, she notices a rare flower. She dismounts to investigate, bends over the flora and fauna to get a closer look, and is bitten on the bosom by a deadly viper. She screams, which draws the attention of Bayard Delavel, who picks her up, tears her shirtwaist, and then sucks the poison out. As a result, she marries him. Well, who wouldn’t! Glyn wanted the poison-sucking scene to take place on leopard skin rug, but no one could make sense of how that would happen. A note on director Sam Wood’s script read: “Rather than describe the scene, Mdm. Glyn will personally enact it on the set.”
Swanson and Kennedy. Gloria met Joseph Kennedy when a friend suggested he might help her with her debts and financial problems. To say it was an ill-fated union is an understatement. Kennedy had purchased the small FBO studio and fancied himself a producer, though he had no talent for filmmaking, selecting scripts, or even hiring the right directors. He acquired the Keith Albee circuit of theaters in a hostile take-over as well as the Pathe Exchange, eventually merging all three companies into RKO Pictures in 1928. Swanson set up her own production company, Gloria Productions Inc., affiliating it with Pathe. I knew about the famous love affair between Swanson and Kennedy, but I did not know that he used her and her assets, leaving her deeper in debt and ruining her financially. Swanson trusted Kennedy to run everything, not even reading the contracts or financial papers. Kennedy charged gifts and expenses to Gloria Productions, leaving her with the bills when their personal and professional relationship ended. He charged Gloria Productions rental fees for the use of his studio, jacking up the price to three times the average cost. When her accountant paid off invoices, more invoices arrived for the same expenses in the hopes that some bills would get paid more than once. He influenced her decisions in dealings with other studios, such as United Artists, but the outcomes were not always to her advantage. According to Shearer, Kennedy used Gloria Productions “as a sieve through which Pathe paid its personnel and covered its overhead when they had no productions of their own.” Kennedy and Swanson were involved with three projects, but only The Trespasser—her first talkie—proved successful.
Queen Kelly. Kennedy and Swanson’s most notorious undertaking was Queen Kelly, which was directed by the one-and-only Erich von Stroheim. From the beginning, von Stroheim included material in the script that Swanson was not comfortable with, but it was deleted when the script was sent to Kennedy and to the Hays Office. However, von Stroheim reinstated the provocative scenes during shooting. Swanson finally walked off the set during the marriage scene to lecherous, crippled Jan Vryheid. Von Stroheim asked the actor playing Vryheid to drool tobacco juice over Gloria’s hand as he places the wedding ring on her hand.
After 22 reels (about 5 ½ hours), von Stroheim was fired, though only about one-third of the script had been shot. Kennedy and Swanson asked director Edmund Goulding to salvage the film, which did not work out. The film was shelved twice; at one point, Kennedy tried to resurrect it as sound film, shooting 12 sync-sound sequences. In 1930, he asked Richard Boleslavsky for a new treatment that would be directed by Sam Wood, who bowed out, and then Alan Dwan. However, it was shelved again. After Kennedy abandoned Hollywood, Swanson controlled the rights to the film, and she had it edited down from 28 reels to 90 minutes, adding a new ending. She released it in South America and Europe in November 1932, but von Stroheim owned a small piece of the film, and he refused to allow its release in the States.
Swanson’s Friends, Husbands, and Lovers. Gloria’s second husband, Herbert K. Somborn, opened the famous Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles on Wilshire Boulevard and Alexandria—the one shaped like a hat. At Gloria’s suggestion, Joseph Kennedy signed Joel McCrea to Pathe; he had once been her newspaper boy. Shortly thereafter, he was given a part in one of her films, and she began an affair with the handsome 24 year old. McCrea was besotted with the older, exotic Swanson, who gave him a copy of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and read poetry to him. Like all of Hollywood’s royalty, Swanson knew Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. In the late 1920s, Swanson introduced Fairbanks to Lady Sylvia Ashley, a lingerie model who had married Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper, attaining a title and a fortune in the process. By 1931, Fairbanks had left Mary for Sylvia. Pickford never forgave Swanson. However, in 1949, she recommended Swanson to Wilder for the role of Norma Desmond for reasons known only to herself.
Gloria Swanson, War Heroine. During the late 1930s, Swanson—who had always been interested in science—set up a company in New York City called Multiprises to secure patents and markets for Jewish inventors. She knew Jewish scientists and their work were in peril from Hitler and Mussolini. Swanson spent $25,000 to bring four scientists to America—three Jews and one gentile. She secretly traveled to Paris to fetch Anton Kratky in person, while her secretary traveled to retrieve the others. Gloria’s ex-husband, a French nobleman named Henri de la Falaise, hid several refugee inventors in his apartment in Paris, and Swanson and her secretary would pick them up there. Gloria paid for food and necessities, gave them salaries, and greased palms to get them out of Paris. She guaranteed them employment and signed documentation attesting to that. When Henri and his new wife attracted unwanted attention during Nazi-occupied Paris, Gloria helped get them to the States. She later said that she had finally found something useful to do with her money, though she was rarely flush for long.
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