“We Had Faces Then”
“Old films” are often lumped together as one genre. I have seen many inaccurate descriptions of Marilyn Monroe as a flapper girl of the silent screen, or of Clara Bow as a pin up bombshell. Obviously, past decades are completely diverse and unique from one another in their fashion, celebrities, films and culture.
One film that proves this point is the dark, dramatic comedy of 1950; Sunset Boulevard. This film was made as an exploration of legendary writer/director Billy Wilder’s fascination with Old Hollywood. The film deals with a story line that would still be extremely relevant today, a huge, celebrity movie star who as she aged has fell from fame, struggling to cope with the change of being adored by millions to ignored by the world.
The film starts in typical late forties Film-Noir style. With a dramatic narrator reminiscing on the story; speaking in a now archaic, fast-paced American idiolect, strewn with quick, Vaudevillian wit which flourished in vintage Hollywood when risque jokes and suggestive romance had to be subtly disguised amongst more socially acceptable language.
Even the music and the shots are over the top. The whole film feels like a comically camp build up to the moment we are introduced to the character of Norma Desmond. The black and white cinematography is draped in shade and long, black shadows. The music is brooding and melodramatic.
Norma Desmond is introduced in a suitably eccentric and unsettling scene, where she mistakes the protagonist as an undertaker come to bury her pet monkey. She lives in a crumbling mansion, once lavish and extravagant now decaying and empty. Much like the flamboyant, exquisitely glamorous Hollywood that thrived throughout the roaring twenties when Norma Desmond was in her prime. Her staunch unwillingness to change is portrayed through her still very twenties wardrobe. Wearing feathered headdresses, long beaded gowns and other fabulously recherche attire when the other women in the film are in grey war-time skirt suits gives the character a melancholy nostalgia and creates a similar sinister glamour as Charles Dickens’s Mrs Havisham.
The film is laced with subtle insider jokes. Norma Desmond is played by the Goddess of the silent screen, Gloria Swanson who herself had fell from the heights of fame to being cast in low budget films and was on the verge of being forgotten by the public. The character is rather conspicuously based on Gloria Swanson’s once rival, Norma Talmadge who completely lost her career once talking pictures came in. Other cameos are played by faded 1920′s superstars and directors throughout the film and in one scene, aged stars such as Buster Keaton sit around playing cards with Norma in a sad shot of faded grandeur.
The film is wonderfully acted throughout. Norma’s desperation to land herself a starring role in a new film and the doomed romance between her and the protagonist, Joe is tragic, clever and thrilling to watch. Memorable one liners stand out in the script such as “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small”.
The film climaxes in a fitting conclusion, a theatrical fight culminating in a murder. In an odd way, the character of Norma Desmond concludes her story by finding the fame she longed for. When the police and press storm her house after she has committed murder, it brings her the attention she craved for so long and she fantasizes that it is all taking place on the set of a hit movie, as the police lead her down the stairs she says the most famous line in the film, “Alright, Mr De-Mille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
It is easy to see why Sunset Boulevard was nominated for ten Oscars (it won three) and why it is always featured on American Film Institutes top 20 lists. It is a legendary and unique piece of cinematic history from which we can learn about Hollywood culture of years gone by, but also recognise patterns in today’s celebrity culture.