The Making of "Sunset Blvd."
On December 21, 1948, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder turned in the first sixty-one pages of their new screenplay to their bosses as Paramount. The screenplay began with a curt notation: This is the first act of Sunset Blvd Due to the peculiar nature of the project, we ask all our co-workers to regard it as top secret. What was peculiar about the film was its central female character, a batty silent screen star who’d passed her prime. Its narrative structure was also strange. Sunset Blvd. began in a morgue. Its leading man, the film’s narrator, was a cadaver:
An attendant wheels the dead Gillis into the huge, bare, windowless room. Along the walls are twenty or so sheet-covered corpses lying in orderly rows of wheeled slabs with large numbers painted on the walls above each slab. The attendant pushes Gillis into a vacant space. Beyond him, the feet of other corpses stretch from under their sheets: men’s feet, women’s feet, children’s, two or three Negroes - with a linen tag dangling from each left big toe. The attendant exits, switching off the light. For a moment the room is semi-dark, and then as the music takes on a more astral phase, a curious glow emanates from the sheeted corpses.
A MAN’S VOICE: Don’t be scared. There’s a lot of us here. It’s all right.
GILLIS: I’m not scared.
His head doesn’t move, but his eyes slowly wanted to the slab next to him. There, under a partially transparent sheet, lies a fat man aged 60 or so. His eyes are open, too, and directed at Gillis.
FAT MAN: How did you happen to die?
GILLIS: What difference does it make? It’ll be a good joke, lying here like a jigsaw puzzle all scrambled up, with the cops and the Hollywood columnists trying to fit in the wrong pieces.
FAT MAN: Hollywood? You in the movies?
GILLIS: Yeah. Came out in forty-five, to catch me a swimming pool. And by gosh, in the end I got myself one. Only there turned out to be blood in it.
FAT MAN: Were you an actor?
GILLIS: No, a writer. Never had my name on anything big, though. Just a couple of B pictures. One sinker, and the other one - well, that wasn’t so hot either. I was having a tough time making a living.
FAT MAN: It’s your dying I was asking about.
GILLIS: Well, I drove down Sunset Boulevard one afternoon. That was my mistake. Maybe I’d better start off with the morning of that day. I’d been out of work for six months. I had a couple of stories out that wouldn’t sell, and an apartment right above Hollywood and Vine that wasn’t paid for . . .
Brackett and Wilder listed their cast of characters along with “the actors we hope to get” to play the roles. For Dan Gillis, they wanted a bright young star - Montgomery Clift. Gloria Swanson, herself a silent star who hadn’t made any movies in a while, would be the demented Norma Desmond. Erich Von Stroheim would appear as her butler Max. The character of Betty, a Paramount script reader, would be played by “a new face,” and Brackett and Wilder hoped that the r ole of Kaufman, a Paramount producer, would be taken by Joseph Calleia. There would also be a number of smaller roles - “movie people, cops, and corpses.”
Magnificently handsome and charismatic, Montgomery Clift had appeared in only two films - Howard Hawks’ Red River and Fred Zinnemann’s The Search when Wilder approached him for the lead in Sunset Boulevard. His third picture, Paramount’s The Heiress (costarring Olivia de Havilland) hadn’t finished filming yet, but the buzz surrounding him was extraordinary. He was a studied, upper-crust 28 year old who assiduously played the r ole of a relaxed bohemian in his public life. The combination was dazzling. Wilder gave him the first section of the screenplay, Clift loved what he read, and agreed to play the role. Paramount’s contract with Clift for The Heiress included options on future films, so all Paramount had to do was exercise the first of these options for Sunset Boulevard and Monty was ready to go. He’d get $5,000 per week for a guaranteed twelve weeks on the film. Clift agreed to report to work in early April, about six weeks after he officially signed on. In the meantime, Billy and Charlie wanted him to stay in Hollywood for story conferences as did Clift’s protective agent, Herman Citron. But Clift, having finished work on The Heiress, was in the mood for a nice vacation, so he flew to Switzerland and went skiing.
Clift was a fine match for Gloria Swanson. Hollywood’s hottest young man would play beautifully opposite the Jazz Age’s flashiest, most glamorous woman. Swanson had been a genuine sensation in the 1920s. “You must remember,” said Wilder, “that this was a star who at one time was carried in a sedan from her dressed room to the soundstage. When she married the Marquis de la Falaise and came by boat from Europe to New York and by train from there to Hollywood, people were strewing rose petals on the railroad tracks in her direction. She’d been one of the all-time stars, but when she returned to the screen in “Sunset,” she worked like a dog.” In the film, Wilder gives Norma’s butler a punch line that plays on Swanson’s own erotic allure: She was the greatest of them all. You wouldn’t know; you’re too young. In one week she received seventeen thousand fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser for a lock of her hair. There was a maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later he strangled himself with it . . .”
When he described Swanson’s dedicated to her performance, Wilder makes an important point: she was not the crazy diva she played on-screen, but a tough and hard-working actress. But then nobody had ever called Gloria Swanson either lazy or dizzy. Swanson’s movie career appeared to be over, but she had never stopped working. Ironically, one of her last movies had been 1934’s Music in the Air, a Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical adapted for the screen by the then-unknown Billy Wilder, who at the time knew so little English that he wrote the screenplay in German and then had it translated.
By the late 1940’s, Swanson was acting in summer stock productions, doing radio shows, and trying to keep her company, Multiprises, from going bankrupt. Still, Swanson continued to consider herself one of the greatest film stars in the world; she’d earned the title in the 1920s, and in the late 1940’s saw no need to give it up. As one contemporary account explained, Gloria was “keeping up appearances by spending $7,000 a year on clothes, which, in her special instance, she regarded as more of a professional expense than an extravagance.”
In June 1948, Swanson began earning $350.00 a week on WPIX radio in New York City. (In the latter 1920s, she was earning $20,000 a week, 52 weeks a year.) When Paramount called her in September to see if she was interested in returning to motion pictures, Swanson naturally assumed it was a bit part and said that she might be able to leave her radio show for two weeks. No, the studio told her, it was for the lead in the picture, and she’d get somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 for a ten- to twelve-week shoot. Swanson said she could be in Hollywood by the first of the year (though Sunset Boulevard didn’t start to roll until April.) She promptly divorced her fifth husband, to whom she had been married less than twelve months, and - according to Swanson, anyway - flew to Hollywood and arrived on the set having no idea of the plot of the picture or the role she was to play.
On the day Swanson return to Paramount Pictures, the studio she had indeed helped build, she found a huge likeness of herself on a billboard near the gate. Paramount’s publicity department was working on a self-promotional campaign to tie the studio in, decidedly obscurely, with the centennial celebration of the 1849 gold rush. The billboard featured a huge comet blazing through the sky leaving pictures of past and present Paramount stars behind it. The size of the picture and its position relative to the comet’s tail was determined by the star’s perceived importance to the studio. At the head of the tail was Gloria Swanson. According to her, the chief casting director explained why: “Baby, am I glad to see you. You took me off a helluva spot! If Id put Crosby’s picture on the front end of the comet, Hope would have blown his top, and Crosby would have had a fit if Hope was up there. Stanwyck or Hutton would’ve scratched my eyes out if one got top billing over the other. You turned out to be a real lifesaver.” “That’s when I knew I was home,” Swanson told the press. “Right back in the jungle up to my ears in a rat race.” A more likely rationale is that the studio had already begun its publicity campaign for Sunset Boulevard. They also wanted Swanson to feel the way Norma Desmond feels when she returns to Paramount in the film, except of course, that Normal Desmond is delusional.
Brackett reported that he and Billy had never considered anybody else for the part. To the extent that the extended comedy routine that served as Billy’s memory can be trusted, however, Brackett and Wilder originally wanted another old-time star. “For a long time I wanted to do a comedy about Hollywood,” Wilder claimed. “God forgive me, I wanted to have Mae West and Marlon Brando.” He also said they tried Pola Negri: “We called her on the phone, and there was too much Polish accent.” Then they went to Pickfair, Mary Pickford’s immense estate high in the hills. “Brackett began to tell her the story, because he was the more serious one. I stopped him. ‘No, don’t do it,’ I waved him off. She was going to be insulted if we told her she was to play a woman who begins a love affair with a man half her age. I said to her, ‘We’re sorry, but it’s no use. The story gets very vulgar.’”
Frustrated at his lack of success in casting this most particular, most peculiar role, Wilder turned to his colleague and friend, director George Cukor for help. They were sitting in Cukor’s expansive garden drinking tea when Cukor mentioned Swanson. Wilder probably hadn’t thought very much about her since Music in the Air. He’d predicted in the pages of Der Querscnitt (a German literary magazine) that Queen Kelly, the film Swanson made for Erich von Stroheim, would be a huge hit. Little did he know at the time that Swanson, on the other side of the world, was becoming increasingly horrified at such Stoheimian touches as her costar, Tully Marshall, drooling brown tobacco juice on her delicate hand while slipping a wedding ring on her finger. Queen Kelly died before completion; Swanson’s producer/lover, Joseph P. Kennedy (who was, without her knowledge, using Swanson’s money to finance the film) pulled the plug, and Swanson’s fame began a protracted collapse as well.
One of these reasons served doubly as the solution to another problem - the casting of Max, the servile butler who used to be a famous film director. Erich von Stroheim came naturally to mind. von Stroheim did not become a butler; he became an actor and, at times at least, a very good one. Before playing Rommel in Five Graves to Cairo, von Stroheim played the gentleman soldier von Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir’s La Grand Illusion. von Stroheim was living in France at the time. Wilder approached him through Paul Kohner, von Stroheim’s agent. von Stroheim responded in a letter to Kohner: “I don’t have to tell you that I would not mind at all working against with ‘witty-Billy.” His last endeavor with me had a tremendous success here in France, or was it my extraordinary popularity here that made his picture go over so big? Ask him.”
Montgomery Clift abruptly decided he didn’t want to do the picture after all. He’d just gotten through with The Heiress and didn’t want to play any more love scenes with yet another older woman. What Clift specifically said was that he didn’t think he could be convincing.
Sunset Blvd. was getting ready to roll, and Clift’s sudden departure caused a crisis. Wilder and Brackett (who was also producing) had to debate the merits of various available Paramount stars, someone who could step into a difficult, high-profile part quickly. The most promising was William Holden, who had been kicking around the studio for years. Holden had been great in Golden Boy, but that film was already ten years old. On the other hand, the fact that he’d never really delivered on his Gold Boy promise actually worked to his advantage, for Sunset Blvd. even though he been in pictures of over a decade, audiences still didn’t know William Holden. Paramount paid Brackett handsomely for producing Sunset Blvd - about $130,000 - but only for producing it; Wilder earned all the money for writing the film.
Since this was a film about an industry they knew and loved, they wanted to suffuse it with familiar people and spaces. In this spirit, Brackett and Wilder hired the nudgy Hollywood gossip columnist Sidney Skulsky to appear in a sequence set at Schwab’s Drugstore in the heart of downtown Hollywood. Enticing Skilsky to lay himself wasn’t difficult; as Brackett told him, “It won’t be Schwab’s without Skolsksy.”
Sunset Blvd’s script also contained lots of references to real people, each of whom had to agree to the use of their names. The writers wanted Norma to recognize one of the juicers (industry slang for an electrician) and greet him like a long-lost friend. “Hog-Eye!” Norma cries looking up to where the lights are. In fact, “Hog-Eye” was real - it was the nickname of a former Paramount electricians named John Hetman, who didn’t mind the reference. Billy and Charlie also tried to get two criers for the film’s operatic final scenes, not just one - Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons - each on the phone, one upstairs, one down, neither of them giving up the phone and saying ‘Get off the line, you bitch! I was here first!’ “Hedda I got easily, but Louella knew quite well she would lose that duel because Hedda was a former actress and she would wipe the floor with her.”
(Fun Fact: the magnificent limousine Norma’s butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) drove on to the Paramount lot was a 1929 Isotta-Fraschini 8A which Norma tells Gillis “cost me $28,000.” Turns out von Stroheim did not know how to drive, so the car scenes had to be filmed with the Isotta-Fraschini being towed or by using process shots. Perhaps that’s the reason for William Holden's acute embarrassment in those scenes; it was more than just acting--imagine being towed up and down Sunset Boulevard in that car with Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim in costume!)
The Alto-Nido Apartments at 1851 North Ivar at the top of the hill at Franklin would work well for the drab barracks of an unemployed screenwriter. For Norma Desmond’s mansion, they had to look farther afield than the 10,000 block of Sunset Blvd.,, on which the fictitious house is situated in the script. They found it, about six miles away, at the northwest corner of Wilshire and Irving Blvds. The immense heap of a house, built in 1924 for the then-astronomical sum of $225,000 ($3.7 million in current dollars), at that time belonged to one of J. Paul Getty’s ex-wives, who hadn’t lived there for several years. There was no pool, so Paramount built one. (The ex-Mrs. Getty was said to be thrilled to get a free swimming pool, but the pool the studio built had next to no plumbing and was never used for swimming once filming was completed.)
Costuming Gloria Swanson for the role of Norma Desmond presented designer Edith Head (Edith Posener) with a tricky set of problems. Norma had to remain blissfully unaware that she was a throwback. Thus her clothes had to be both in style and out-of-date all at once. Head’s ingenious solution was to combine Jazz Age materials with so-called New-Look styling.
The script was still incomplete when the production of Sunset Blvd. officially opened on April 18. First came sequences at the Desmond mansion. On may 3, the scene in which Norma invites a few old friends to her house to play a rubber or two of bridge was filmed. Holden’s character nicknames them “the waxworks,” and they look and act accordingly. In one of the film’s crueler touches, the “waxworks” are played by three old, washed-up movie stars: H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nillson, and the perhaps the greatest silent comedian of them all, Buster Keaton. Keaton was actually one of Hollywood’s best bridge players. He was also a severe alcoholic whose once-handsome face had turned puffy and sagging. Brackett and Wilder had approached another former star, William Haines, but Haines turned them down; he was content with his second career as one of Hollywood’s most successful interior designers. (Billy Haines was an immense silent star in the later 1920s. Louis B. Mayer signed him to a million dollar contract . . . with a single stipulation: that he get rid of his “husband,” Jimmy Shields. By then, the two had been together for about a decade. Billy said no, and was quickly fired. Thanks to the assistance of John Crawford, who asked Billy and Jimmy to do all the interior design on her new mansion, the two became well known. The peak of their career was when Ambassador Walter Annenberg has them to do over the Court of Saint James in England. Billy died at age 73; within two months, Jimmy committed suicide. In his note, he stated, simply, that he could not live without the love of his life. The two were together for more than a half century, and were generally known as “Hollywood’s happiest couple.”)
The 3 silent stars who did agree to caricature themselves in Sunset Blvd. worked for precisely one day. Nillson was called at 7:00 AM; the others at 9:00 AM. they performed diligently like the professionals they had once been, needing two or three takes per setup. By 5:25,Wilder was done with them and they were has-beens once again.
It was von Stroheim’s idea to have Max write all of Norma’s fan letters. After filming DeMille’s scenes, Wild is said to have patted C.B. on the band said “Very good, my boy. Leave your name with my secretary. I may have a small part for you in my next picture.”
Sunset Blvd. wrapped in late in late July. August, September, and October were taken up by editing. By October, Sidney Skolsky was on the cutting room floor. Viewing the film with several preview audiences, Wilder concluded that other scenes weren’t quite right either, and the production was forced to reopen yet again on October 20 for location shooting. Brackett and Wilder had decided to preview the film somewhere other than Los Angeles. It was a matter of self-protection. “““We didn’t want Hollywood people to see the picture because it was about Hollywood,” Wilder explained. So they took it to Evanston, Illinois. It didn’t turn out too well. They tried another preview - this time in Poughkeepsie. The Great Neck, Long Island preview began badly as well. Wilder began to see what it was that the audience particularly didn’t like; the film’s opening, which takes place in a morgue.
Wilder was forced to agree. He cut the whole morgue scene out of the picture and filmed a new traveling camera shot of the Sunset Blvd. pavement (and a tilt up to the police cars) and a shot of the cops arriving at the Sunset driveway. Finally, he added a new voice-over narration by Joe Gillis. Then we see Joe, in the pool, obviously drowned.
Louis B. Mayer, who saw the film before its premiere, stormed out of the screening room in a rage. The other movie people may have loved watching Hollywood shoot itself in the back on-screen, but MGM’s in-house emperor apparently took it personally. Storming out of the theater, Mayer is said to have shrieked at Wilder, “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!”
When Mayer attacked the creators of Sunset Blvd., he did appear to be taking his ire out on the immigrant, not the native-born Republican. Charlie Brackett, still president of the Academy, appears to have escaped the incident unscathed.(Unlike the Jewish Billy Wilder, who had immigrated to America from Austria-Hungary-via Paris in 1934 at age 28, Charlie Brackett’s ultra blue-blood family had arrived in America in 1629. Charlie had degrees from both Williams and Harvard.)
The studio sent Swanson on a national promotional tour. Paramount paid her $1,000 per week. When the Oscar nominations were announced in February 1951, Sunset Blvd. was named in eleven separate categories, including Best Picture, and Best Director. Erich von Stroheim was nominated as Best Supporting Actor and responded angrily. The reason? He told the press that he was simply“too big for that category,” and even threatened a lawsuit.
For Wilder and Brackett, the problem was much more clearly defined. Its name was All About Eve, Joseph Mankiewicz’s highly polished back-stage drama, starring Bette Davis. When the Best Picture award was announced, it was Mankiewicz, not Wilder who got up to accept the Oscar trophy.
And yet, Sunset Blvd. is still considered one of the best - if not the best - films Hollywood ever made about itself . . . and all the “lovely people in the dark.”
Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone