Tuesday, December 28, 2010

TV Bites: Sunset Blvd.

Dr. Bieler's Detoxifying Health Broth

Once upon a time, in the last quarter of the 20th Century, I lived in Los Angeles. One New Year's Eve, a couple of friends of mine all shared the same dream - that we all wished we could be transported to Artie Green's New Year's Eve party in that little apartment on Las Palmas Blvd. It was agreed it was the best New Year's Eve party we could imagine. And I'll stick with that belief, even today.

And so as I began this adventure some months ago now, I knew that for New Year's I would write and do something for Sunset Boulevard in this blog. Is this a perfect movie? Yeah. And if you've ever spent any time in Hollywood, and ever met any aging, forgotten movie stars, you'll know that this movie is so close to the reality of what it can be like, and how heartless it can be to some poor man or woman who was once somebody and is now nobody.

It's the price we charge in our society for a moment of celebrity. Today we have a whole tier of reality television programming where we continue to poke at the embers of yesterday's stars who've used up their 15 minutes of fame.

But do not despair, friends. It's a time for renewal, right? Out with the old, in with the new. Say goodbye 2010, and hello to 2011. Bring it on, baby.... Happy New Year!

Sunset Boulevard is available for streaming @ Amazon and it's rentable from NetFlix.


"I didn't know where I was going. I just had to get out of there. I had to be with people my own age. I had to hear somebody laugh again. I thought of Artie Green. There was bound to be a New Year's shindig going on in his apartment down on Las Palmas - the hock shop set - not a job in the room, but lots of fun on the cuff."

Co-writer and director Billy Wilder once reduced Sunset Boulevard to this: It's about a man who “wanted a pool, got a pool, and ultimately drowned in a pool.”

Nancy Olson, who played Betty Schaefer, remembered, “Billy said, ‘Every character in Sunset Blvd. is an opportunist.’.”

Given that, it's hard to believe that when Wilder and co-writer/producer Charles Brackett first conceived the idea, it was to be a comedy. They wanted to do a film about an aging Burlesque star. And so they went to see Mae West. She turned them down, believing that audiences wouldn't believe that a younger man would ever leave her once he was hers. (It is said that Brackett was so angry with Wilder for turning the film into a drama that it led to fights and finally, by the film's completion, dissolving their decade long partnership. They never worked together again.)

Wilder's friend and fellow director George Cukor was the one who wound up suggesting Swanson, but noted that even though West turned them down, she greatly influenced the screenplay. “[Mae] lived with a man who, unknown to her, not only answered her fan mail for her, but also wrote the letters. She even had a pet chimpanzee, Boogie, whom she loved like a child. The part was too close to her own life, but she didn’t recognize it.”

Wilder also tried Pola Negri and Mary Pickford, who both turned him down. It was then Cukor told him, “There is only one actress for the part. Gloria Swanson.”

I knew she wanted to get back to movies, and she was good,” Cukor said. “People didn’t give her credit for being as good as she was because we all knew Joe Kennedy was keeping her [at the time]. It worked against her like it did against Marion Davies, who had Hearst. But they were both damn good actresses." (In the 1930's, Katherine Hepburn had a similar perception problem due to her relationship with Howard Hughes, which was discussed in the TV Bites of Holiday.)

Swanson had been married several times and in between numbers three and four, she had an affair with Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. père of the Kennedy clan. He was already a millionaire when he moved to Hollywood in the 1920's and co-founded RKO Pictures (later owned by Howard Hughes). He personally bankrolled several of Swanson's pictures.

I think when Cukor is speaking of "people" he means "certain movie business people", not audiences. For as Wilder stated, “Now remember, here was a star who used to ride in a sedan chair from her dressing room to the set. When she married the Marquis de la Somebody and came by train to Hollywood, people were strewing rose petals on the tracks in front of her. She’d been one of the all-time great stars...."

Though, that's where the similarity between Norma Desmond and Swanson pretty much ends. After leaving Hollywood in the mid-1930's (she did one other film in 1941), Swanson moved to New York City and "founded her own very successful hosiery and cosmetics companies, and launched a dress line... During World War II, she helped four Eastern European Jewish inventors form a company... which developed a metal ore used for tanks. In 1948, she debuted her own variety show on television, then a fledgling medium, the week after WPIX went on the air in New York." It was a year later she received the call from Wilder to play Norma Desmond.

"When Swanson made Sunset, she was 50 years old, that’s all," Wilder said. "But for some reason, there was this abyss between silent pictures and talkies, and some people thought she was 70 or 80 years old." (After the film came out, Swanson did some print ads for Jergens Face Cream. The tag line was: “Will you look as young as Gloria Swanson at 53?”)

So while early on Wilder & Brackett knew they wanted to do a film about an aging glamour queen, the male lead and the story was still a little hazy. "We saw the young man as a screenwriter,” said Charles Brackett. “He’s a nice guy, maybe from the Middle West, a man who can’t make the grade in Hollywood, and is really down on his luck.” Wilder, Brackett, and another writer they brought in to help, DM Marshman Jr., were stymied until Wilder pulled out his notebook where he scribbled ideas down and saw this one: “Silent picture star commits murder. When they arrest her, she sees the newsreel cameras and thinks she is back in the movies.” And now, they had a story.

In fact, when Swanson got to LA she asked to see a copy of the script. Wilder & Bracket told her they only had a few pages. “We’re working on it, Gloria, but we haven’t quite yet decided how the picture ends,” Brackett said. “Well, what’s it about?” she asked. They told her the basic story line and that there would be a murder in the end. “Who murders whom?” she asked. “We honestly aren’t sure yet,” Wilder told her. (But that also may have been that they were hiding the script from the censors.)

Montgomery Clift had signed a contract to play Joe Gillis, the screenwriter/gigolo, but then “about two weeks before we started shooting," Wilder recalled, "he sent his agent in, who said, ‘Mr. Montgomery Clift, the great New York actor, will not do the picture, because what would his fans think if he had an affair with a woman twice his age?’" The story goes that Clift was, in fact, having an affair with a woman 15 years older than him and she nixed it because she thought people would think Norma was based on her.

Wilder then tried to get Gene Kelly, but MGM wasn't interested in lending him out. And so, he turned to William Holden. "It was too late to shelve the picture. So we took William Holden, who was playing 2nd lieutenants in comedies at the time," Wilder noted. "It took [him] two hours to read it, drive to my house, and say yes," he said.

Bill [Holden] was the perfect person for Joe Gillis at the perfect moment in life,” said Nancy Olson, who made three more picture with him. “His career was beginning to slide. He was playing roles like the husband.... [l]ow budget, churned-out films. He was already drinking too much, and he was just a little frayed around the edges.

Holden's drinking problem never subsided though he went on to have a career of great roles. He died a death more tragic than any character in Sunset Boulevard. In 1981, he was alone, drunk and slipped. He cut open his forehead, and died, too inebriated to realize the severity of his wound until too late. It would be four days before his body was found.

He was a natural leading man, people didn’t notice how good an actor he was," Wilder once said. "He could please everyone but himself. He wasn’t a happy person. He got everything in life but happiness."

Wilder had his own personal experiences he drew on for the film, having been a struggling screenwriter in Hollywood himself. And as a young man in Berlin, he supplemented his writing by working as a "taxi dancer," getting paid to dance with older, lonely women in a dance hall.

The character of Betty Schaefer was loosely based on Billy’s wife, Audrey, who grew up in Hollywood," recalled Nancy Olson. "She was born in LA, and her mother worked in wardrobe at Paramount, the same as the mother of my character. But Audrey was much more sophisticated that Betty.... [She] would have caught on to Joe Gillis sooner, which would have ruined the story.” Actually, Wilder proposed to Audrey at the end of production, and they were married shortly after the picture was released. It has also been suggested that the fact that Audrey was 15 years Wilder's junior, that his emotions surrounding their age difference found their way into some of Norma's character.

Wilder was famous for welcoming creative input from others, as well as incorporating new ideas as he filmed. Though he made it clear that, "My scripts never are finished, but that is quite different to shooting it off the cuff."

Swanson recalled, “When I walked on that film set, the whole crew... I’ve know them all their lives... they hadn’t seen me... it was like the prodigal had returned. There was such an atmosphere of camaraderie, it made everything so easy. I had every bit of help you can imagine.” Wilder was inspired by that moment and copied it during Norma's visit to DeMille’s set.

The great silent film director Eric von Stroheim was cast as Max, the butler. Von Stroheim was another victim of the end of the silent film era, one of the greatest silent directors ever. He was living in France, and reluctant to take the part but needed the money.

Von Stroheim volunteered some suggestions because he wanted to beef up what he'd started referring to as "that goddamned butler role." “Wouldn’t it be nice,” he told Wilder, “if people find out subsequently that I was Max von Mayerling, the director who directed Swanson? That I was her husband, and now I’m her valet, the butler? That I am the one who is writing the fan letters to make her feel better?” Those ideas were incorporated into the film. However, von Stroheim took it to the next level with his next suggestion.

A few days later, Von came," remembered Wilder, "and said, ‘I think that we should dramatize that he still loves her.’ I said, ‘Well, what did you have in mind?’....[A]nd he says, “I would like to wash and press her panties.” Wilder didn't agree: “He wanted me to have him laundering Gloria Swanson’s lingerie and finish with a shot of him ironing her panties, a close-up. The audience would have laughed.”

Sadly, there was still laughter to come. Sunset Boulevard originally began with a scene in the morgue as dead people on slabs discuss amongst each other how they died. Test audiences laughed and couldn't get past that scene. They did several test screenings and each time audiences laughed at the opening and hated the picture. The film was held for six months while Wilder replaced it with the pool scene opening and narration. They tested it again and now it worked.

With all the fixes in, they had their first Hollywood screening. Apparently, Barbara Stanwyck got on her knees and kissed the hem of Swanson’s gown afterwards. On the flip side, legendary producer Louis B. Mayer wasn't in a kissing mood and apparently screamed at Wilder outside the theater, “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” According to the story, Wilder responded, “F--k you.”

Swanson received several movie offers when the film was released, but they were all riffs on Sunset Blvd. "Every script I received, every one of them, offered me a chance to play an aging actress, usually one who was crazy," recalled Swanson. "I’d had a very successful career for years but one film dominated. Sometimes I wasn’t glad I did the film....When I die I want to be remembered as Gloria Swanson, not as Norma Desmond.

Von Stroheim also received offers - to play more butlers. He went back to France instead.

Holden was nominated by the Academy for Best Actor, Swanson for Best Actress, von Stroheim for Best Supporting Actor, and Nancy Olson for Best Supporting Actress. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. However, it only took home three Oscars - Best Score, Best Screenplay, and Best Art Direction.

In addition to its well-known Broadway musical adaptation, it was also remade as a teleplay in 1956, starring Darrin McGavin as Joe Gillis (who starred in our last TV Bites, A Christmas Story) and Mary Astor, as Norma Desmond.


At one point in Sunset Boulevard, Norma & Gillis are sitting on her couch, watching a film which Max is projecting for them. This is not some fake footage cooked up for the film, but it is a real film, Queen Kelly, which Swanson starred in and was directed by von Stroheim. It has its own sad tale which led to the end of both star and director's careers. It was the one film Wilder wanted to have shown in the film, and it's almost like the whole twisted cosmic purpose for Sunset Boulevard was to bring these two together and confront them with that footage.

In 1926, at the height of her career, Gloria Swanson left Paramount Pictures to join up with United Artists to independently produce and star in her own pictures. With Joe Kennedy footing the bills for her productions, she felt she could do whatever she pleased. The first film she tackled was an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's Sadie Thompson, the story of a prostitute, a story which had been deemed "unacceptable" by Will Hays (see earlier posts for more about Mr. Hays) and those who were just starting to try to clean up Hollywood's image as America's Sodom. Swanson sweet-talked Hays and it would be remembered as her last truly great role (until Sunset Blvd.). She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance (as she would with Sunset Blvd.).

Swanson wanted to do an "important" film for her next project. Kennedy assured Swanson he could "handle" director Erich von Stroheim who had developed a reputation not only as one of the true geniuses of film directing but as Swanson feared von Stroheim was "growing [a] reputation for being an undisciplined spendthrift, a hopeless egotist, and a temperamental perfectionist."

The couple met with von Stroheim and listened as he told his original story about a nice Irish Catholic girl in a convent who is abducted by a handsome Prince who professes his love and then makes love to the innocent girl. But the Prince is engaged to marry his cousin, the deranged & decadent Queen Regina who catches them in flagrante delicto grabs her whip and gives them both a severe lashing. She imprisons the Prince, but Kelly makes her way back to the nunnery where a letter from her dying Aunt sends her off to Africa. The film would be called Queen Kelly.

Now at this point, as far as Swanson knew, the story would continue in Africa where the Aunt ran a dance hall and eventually would return to the freed Prince and live happily ever after.

However, right from the get go, von Stroheim was going over budget, changing the script, and up to the rest of his usual tricks (more sex scenes and spending hours filming small details). Swanson claimed later that she had hired two men to keep Stroheim in check and since neither of them were calling her or Kennedy, she assumed she had nothing to worry about. But as they completed the first act and began the African set 2nd act, Swanson started to freak. The budget was skyrocketing and they were weeks behind schedule. But the big shock to her was that the dance hall was no longer a dance hall - it was a brothel. She had promised the censors there would be no problem, so this was not good.

The final straw was a scene with the creepy degenerate (played by Tully Marshall) whom the Aunt was making Kelly marry in the brothel.

According to Swanson, "Mr. von Stroheim began instructing Mr. Marshall... how to dribble tobacco juice onto my hand while he was putting on the wedding ring. It was early morning, I had just eaten breakfast, and my stomach turned. I became nauseated and furious at the same time.." Swanson walked off the set, called Kennedy to tell him what was going on and that she was pulling the plug on the movie.

In order to help recoup some of the lost money, an ending was tagged on in which Kelly commits suicide. Apparently, a version with some of the African footage was also shown in some theaters. In 1985, according to Wiki: "Kino International had acquired the rights to the movie and restored two versions: one that uses still photos and subtitles in an attempt to wrap up the storyline, and the other the European 'suicide ending' version."

You can watch Swanson introduce her version of the movie on the WNET/TV show, which is pretty cool.

When the film was released briefly, in a Berlin audience sat young Billy Wilder, who wrote a review of the film for a local literary journal.

Erich von Stroheim's career was over and he never directed another film.

Swanson made a couple of other films afterwards, but within a few years her career was also done. "I was a star at 22 and a has-been at 33," she once said.

She saw von Stroheim once, she said, at some formal party in the 1940's, which was the first time she'd seen him since walking off the set. She didn't speak to him. The next time she saw him was when they began filming Sunset Boulevard. The past was the past, and they were both older and professionals. But next time you watch Sunset Blvd., think of what must have been going through their heads as they both watched, together, on that stage set, Queen Kelly for the first time in decades.


I’ll tell you how I started on this food business,” Gloria Swanson once said. “It was in [1927] and I was being a movie producer and therefore thought I had to have an ulcer, so I went to this doctor, Dr. Harry Bieler, Hal Bieler, of whom I since became a disciple...." (And do note that the year 1927 tells us that the ulcer as caused by the making of Queen Kelly, see above.... it's all connected!)

In the back of his "pioneering nutritional classic," Food Is Your Best Medicine, Henry Bieler's bio reads thusly: "For over 50 years, he was a doctor and treated great motion-picture stars, coal miners, politicians and professional men, farmers and Pasadena dowagers. He brought thousands of healthy babies into the world, including his own children and grandchildren. He died in October 1975." Among the other celebrities he treated were Greta Garbo and Lucille Ball.

While studying medicine, Bieler suffered from severe asthma. Regular Western medicine seemed to have no cure for his ailment. He met and became a disciple himself of one Agustin Levinson, a professor from Malta, who was an advocate of diet and nutrition therapy. Through helping himself and others, Henry Bieler spent his life promoting proper nutrition as a way to cure and prevent disease.

"Dr. Bieler prescribed this simple soup to help restore alkalinity and mineral balance, thereby supporting the organs, especially the liver," according to this article. "As well, the endocrine glands, such as the adrenal and thyroid glands, are greatly benefited by a cleanse using Bieler’s Broth."

But Gloria Swanson didn't just eat healthy, she became an outspoken organic food activist. In 1952, she went to Washington DC to lobby for organic food and spoke at the Congressional Wives Club. Swanson lectured the wives about hormones injected into livestock and pesticides on their vegetables. Her efforts led to some of the first anti-pesticide legislation in the United States. In addition, she also lobbied for farmland to be allocated for growing organic rice, according to self-proclaimed “Chef to the Stars” Akasha Richmond in her book Hollywood Dish. As well, Swanson created a successful line of all-natural cosmetics, Essence of Nature.

She once told her lover & producer Joe Kennedy, “[I]t’s not only what you eat that helps your body heal itself. It’s what you stop eating.” In another interview, Swanson added, "It’s quite true, There’s nobody who can chew your food for you. And so if you really want to be well, you have to do it yourself.”

Dr. Bieler taught me... that your body is a direct result of what you eat as well as what you don’t eat. Every day I live merely reinforces his lessons," she said.

So I thought to myself what a perfect recipe after a night of New Year's Eve festivities - kick back at home, watch Sunset Boulevard, and drink a tasty, detoxifying, healthy soup. There are many different permutations on Bieler's recipe, all with the same ingredients, but slightly different measurements, since Bieler was a little vague other than "equal amounts," kind of thing. This is the version I did, and well, I'm feeling all detoxed and ready for the New Year after a bowl.

And so here we are. I hope 2011 is a good year for all of us. And as always... cook, watch, eat and enjoy!

Dr. Bieler's Detoxifying Health Broth
adapted from Food Is Your Best Medicine by Henry G. Bieler, MD
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 2

2 medium zucchini, roughly chopped
2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
1 cup green beans, fresh or frozen
3 cups water, preferably filtered
1/3 cup chopped parsley (about 1/4 bunch)
1 clove garlic (optional)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil

Steam or boil zucchini, celery & green beens vegetables with 3 cups of water for 8-12 minutes until soft. Pour veggies & water into blender or food processor, add parsley and garlic. Blend until smooth. Add a little butter or oil. Serve.

PS - I don't know if Dr. Bieler would approve, but a little sea salt really made all the difference.

Sunset Boulevard Screenplay
Billy Wilder's Rules of Good Filmmaking @ NPR
Sunset Boulevard @ FilmSite
Critic's Pick: Sunset Boulevard, by AO Scott @ NY Times
At 76, Gloria Swanson Has a New Crusade—and a New Mate to Go with It @ People Magazine
TCM's Sunset Boulevard Page

Sunset Boulevard: Centennial Collection DVD
Sunset Boulevard [Original Motion Picture Score]
Close-up on Sunset Boulevard, by Sam Staggs
Swanson on Swanson, by Gloria Swanson
Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography, by Charlotte Chandler & Billy Wilder
Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age at the American Film Institute, edited by George Stevens, Jr.
Billy Wilder: Interviews, edited by Robert Horton
Billy Wilder in Hollywood, by Maurice Zolotow
Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder, by Gene D. Phillips
William Holden: A Biography, by Michelangelo Capua
Queen Kelly DVD
Food Is Your Best Medicine, Henry G. Bieler MD
Hollywood Dish: More Than 150 Delicious, Healthy Recipes from Hollywood's Chef to the Stars, by Akasha Richmond

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