Beyond ‘Sunset’ – Who is Gloria Swanson?

Gloria the Vamp
Gloria the Vamp – p. E. Steichen [1924]

While studying at University I often poured over my books and essays in a dark room, illuminated only by my computer screen. I was something of a night-owl; preferring to work when everyone else was asleep so I was less easily distracted. Of all the topics covered I remember particularly enjoying my film history module. Our lecturer discussed the origins of film from the very out-set starting with the Lumières, to Méliès and ending up at Michael Bay which was, I have to say, one of the most tedious moments of the three year course. I had always liked old movies but came to realise very quickly that I wasn’t very learned on the topic nor had I seen 1/100th of the films I thought I ought to have. My obsession and appreciation for the art form ensued and I had a particular interest in the silents. I would pour over Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau and others. I ventured into Dr. Caligari’s cabinet, Count Orlock’s coffin, Méliès rocket-ship and the Prospectors run-down shack for a supper of boot laces. While I would appreciate the soft glances of Lillian Gish, the sorrowful whimpering of Renée Falconetti and the joyful exuberance of Buster Keaton a name surfaced during my research. In the darkness as I studied, a sultry Vampyr would pierce me with her gaze through black lace. Thin, darkly painted lips, slanting brows, sepia tones and the iconic mole on the chin. She is undeniably Gloria. She is irrefutably glorious.

“Still wonderful isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces!”

I had liked the 1920s aesthetic for as long as I had liked film. I was a fan of vintage glamour, old Hollywood and the somewhat fairytale mystique of stars long since deceased. Gloria, in a single image, is representative of all these things simultaneously. I assumed that like Marilyn Monroe, Gloria would be hanging on the walls of young adults all over the world; not only a symbol of a beautiful era in Hollywood tragically lost, but a vision of glamour and strength that young people could aspire to emulate. In my mind this incomparable woman ought to have still been the most famous woman the world over. To my dismay I discovered that she was not. Norma Desmond would be, in a way, a foreshadowing of what would become of the real Gloria Swanson; a forgotten face and a forgotten name doomed to exist in a far away annal of popular culture. She was a Titan in her own day but was ultimately destined for obscurity, nothing more than a visual reference to 1920s Hollywood glamour in an Instagram hashtag devoid of her name. The brightest stars always fizzle out the fastest but the name ‘Swanson’ was once a name that everyone knew. In the golden age of silent cinema she was one of the biggest box office draws alongside names like Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. Audiences waited with baited breath to see her next movie on the silver screen. Gloria’s elaborate outfits, latest hairstyle and signature mole were copied by scores of women worldwide and she received 10,000 letters of adoration a week in her prime. Miss Swanson was original Hollywood royalty, the original celebrity and the original cover girl.

Born in Chicago on March 27th, 1899 and moving around a lot in her youth she spent her early years in Puerto Rico while her father served in the US military. Swanson’s mother was constantly making elaborate outfits for her and this is undoubtedly where her love of beautiful, luxurious clothes originated. While in Puerto Rico she starred in school plays and astounded the locals with her beautiful singing voice. Now a teenager, Miss Swanson moved back to the States with her mother while her father continued to serve and just before the age of 16 she was introduced to the movies. While in Chicago she visited Essanay Studios where Chaplin made a series of his early shorts. Brushing shoulders with actors, directors, writers and occasionally Chaplin himself she made a name for herself for being out-spoken and beautiful. People liked her feistiness, her fashion sense and her natural proclivity for the camera. While reading about Gloria in her autobiography Swanson on Swanson [G. Swanson, 1980] I remember feeling so attached to her. Such a liltingly lovely girl but clearly strong, both in will and in mind; naive but sure of herself and unable to be tamed in a way she didn’t want to be. Gloria quickly became a staple extra in the studio and before long was heading the bill. The young Miss Swanson had a number of successes playing in slapstick roles for Mack Sennett comedies and she was the damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks in images most of us have probably seen. Dissatisfied, Miss Swanson found slapstick and pie-in-the-face gags tediously unfunny. Her passion was in singing and for the time being acting was just a means to make a living. Her defiance may have in fact helped her and she was able to negotiate with executives to land the roles that she wanted. Moving between studios she knew she was becoming a key financial attribute and she learned how to barter, using her popularity to her benefit. She was able to secure a higher rate of pay, a home, a car and any other number of extravagances as the months and years went by and at this point she hadn’t even turned twenty.

In the early 1920s Gloria was a number one hit around the world. Her films were a constant success and as she flexed her creative muscles she landed more and more roles that she enjoyed. During this time she had been married twice to men who had tried to manipulate her personally, professionally and financially but Gloria didn’t allow it. She managed to maintain her financial and professional successes despite many attempts to ruin her. It wasn’t just jealous lovers trying to destroy her; she was being taken advantage of at a studio level, too. She was stuck in contracts that paid her the bare minimum even though she was making the studio millions of dollars per year. Showing strength, or maybe fool-hardiness, she demanded more money and not only that but less work as well. Gloria got everything she asked for and more.

Absent from Los Angeles for nearly three years and now away in Europe filming a period piece, Madame sans-Gêne [L. Perret, 1925], the only word reaching back stateside was that she was holding millionaires parties at elaborate Chateaus, spending tens of thousands of dollars on jewels and leading a very French-aristocratic life. This was actually not far from the truth. It was during her absence from the US that she met and fell in love with the French noble-man Henri de La Falaise, Marquis de La Coudraye. They married and returned to the states in early 1925. Their return came just after Gloria had suffered a short but almost fatal period of sickness which had been head-line press all over the world. Now the prodigal son returned, Lazarus back from the dead and Cinderella who had married her prince, Madame Marquise de La Falaise was welcomed by parades in both New York City and Los Angeles the likes of which had never been seen before. One commentator wrote, “…it was such a reception as in the past has been given only to a beloved sovereign…” [A. R. St. Johns, 1925]. Thousands blocked streets and threw so many scores of flowers toward the enclave it was impossible for Gloria to even sit in her car. Miss Swanson was now the undisputed Queen of Hollywood and dare I say, the world.

With her reputation and fame in the highest demand of any Hollywood star to date the studios were obligated to pander to the Marquise every whim. By this time, however, it wasn’t more money or expensive jewels she desired but the freedom to act as she saw fit and in whichever project she chose. Though she undoubtably enjoyed her life-style she was tired of being a ‘clothes-horse’ and she wanted to star in pictures that were more than just superficial fashion curiosities. She wanted to direct and produce; she wanted to take control of her own career in its entirety. Offered $1million a year ($14million in todays money) to continue as she had been doing she refused and instead went to work at United Artists which was a new production company built by the likes of Chaplin and Griffith who were similarly keen to free themselves of the shackles imposed by the studio system. Unfortunately it was her strength and reluctance to conform to the laws of Hollywood that ultimately led to her financial and professional downfall. Miss Swanson saw few successes as she went forward into the talking era. Her winning streak faded, the money dried up and after several unsuccessful pictures and a string of less than complimentary headlines Gloria stepped away from the limelight. She relocated permanently to New York City and for most of the 30s and 40s remained committed to several personal projects, occasional TV and stage appearances and political activism but rarely appeared in films again. Critiqued, put-down and punished for her refusal to be a puppet of the male dominated industry she would only see critical success once more before her death when she appeared in Sunset Boulevard [B. Wilder, 1950].

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

So who is Gloria Swanson? She was not, as many assume, a reclusive figure pouring over images of herself in an empty mansion. Nor do I feel she was a star only relevant in some far away era. Miss Swanson stands before us now, not the ageing Norma Desmond, but the Mesopotamian goddess of Male and Female [C. B. DeMille, 1919] forced to yield willingly to a strident Babylonian king named Hollywood or face being eaten alive by the ravenous Lions of Ishtar. She removed her hand from the outstretched one of a male dominated world and marched willingly toward the black gate of uncertainty and the world sank its teeth into her. Gloria Swanson serves as a reminder now more than ever of strength, courage and a willingness to break the rules. As a girl of less than twenty she confronted male studio executives twice her age and stature; as a woman she fought food corporations as she tirelessly pushed her heathy eating agenda. She was a figure plagued by circumstance; not fully understood in her time but as the decades have passed since her death in 1983 she has been proven right on many grounds. Now she has become something of a martyr to the feminist ideals and an immovable pillar of strength; a siren of silent cinema she has undoubtably earned a spot on every bedroom wall as a guiding beacon reminding us to continue on our own path, regardless of tradition or supposed obligation. Ahead of her time in almost every regard she stands before us redeemed; not saintly by any stretch but a woman willing to accept no less than what she felt she was owed. A sister to every woman suppressed by masculinity and a confidant to all the trodden upon. Miss Swanson was a woman who never apologised to the men in her life, her peers nor studio executives. She was simply, Gloria. When I wake up in the morning and glance at the large framed images of her I have adorning my walls, I see a woman of great importance; a motivating force willing me to carry on even in the face of a future of uncertainty. Finally, of course, as I gaze into her beautiful eyes I am reminded to always be as unapologetically glorious as she.

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