Thanks to her unforgettable performance as Norma Desmond in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, the former Gloria May Josephine Svenson (the Swanson came later) is most often recalled as one of classic Hollywood’s greatest comeback queens. Gloria Swanson, faded silent movie star, returns triumphantly as a — faded silent movie star.
But that narrow interpretation by no means does her justice.
Born in Chicago on March 27, 1899 — “the automobile was not much older than I was”, she wrote — Swanson grew up in the movies. She was making shorts by 16 and a star by age 19. And, we mean STAR. Throughout much of the 1920’s, she was a dominant figure in silent movies, ranking right up there with Charlie Chaplin, whom she famously imitated.
By mid-decade, Swanson was highest paid actress in silent pictures, commanding up to $250,000 per film (that’s at least $3.5 million today). She had an astonishingly long 61-year career in movies and on tv covering 82 credits including 11 tv series before her death in 1983 at age 84.
She was a pioneer in the movie business, a woman who formed her own production company to spawn perhaps the best but perhaps most troubled silent movie ever made. This brought her into scandalous contact with the father of a U.S. president (initials, JFK). Swanson was an independent woman, a working feminist decades before the woman’s movement took formal shape.
Gloria Swanson is well worth knowing more about. So, no matter how much you think you know about her, try today’s Monday Quiz. Our inspiration is her 1980 tome, Swanson on Swanson: An Autobiography. As usual, answers tomorrow.
1) Question: Although Swanson was director Billy Wilder’s first choice for the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, William Holden was NOT the director’s first choice for the role of 25-year-old screenwriter Joe Gillis. Which one of the following was? a) Montgomery Clift; b) Van Johnson; c) Tyrone Power; or d) Tony Curtis.
2) Question: The reason Swanson played Norma Desmond so convincingly was that the character was remarkably like the personality of the actress who played her. a) True; b) False?
3) Question: Swanson was married a total of six times. Which one of the following was NOT a husband of hers? a) Wallace Beery; b) Herbert Somborn; c) Joseph Kennedy; or d) Henri de la Falaise.
4) Question: Which of the following directors influenced the shaping of Swanson’s early career? a) Cecil B. DeMille;b) Allan Dwan; c) Raoul Walsh; or d) Henry King.
5) Question: When Swanson first met Joseph Kennedy, her business adviser, confidante and lover, he was surprised at how short she was. How tall was Swanson? a) 4-feet 11-inches; b) 5-feet 1-inch; c) 5-feet 5-inches; d) 4-feet nine-inches.
6) Question: Swanson’s initial sexual encounter with Kennedy did not go swimmingly. a) True; or b) False?
7) Question: Swanson believed that every genuine movie star, including herself, must have what she called “six great essentials.” Which one of the following characteristics is NOT listed among her “essentials”? a) beauty; b) personality; c) the ability to wear clothes; or d) a pretty singing voice.
8) Question: Swanson and Joseph Kennedy combined forces to produce Erich von Stroheim’s classic and much troubled 1929 silent feature, Queen Kelly. What was the film’s original title? a) Revenge; b) The Rescue; c) Beach Blanket Bongo; or d) The Swamp.
9) Question: Swanson memorably imitated Charlie Chaplin’s the tramp character in Sunset Boulevard. But she pulled off a similar Chaplin imitation in one of her earlier films. Which one? a) Manhandled; b) Stage Struck; c) Zaza; or d) A Society Scandal.
10) Question: Swanson ended her film career with a bang in 1975 in an all-star studio special in which she got to play herself. Can you identify the movie? a) Jaws; b) Nashville; c) Airport 1975; or d) The Passenger.