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Norma and Delilah

Mark Rappaport

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I don't know how many times I've seen Sunset Boulevard (1950). I've never counted. A dozen, perhaps? More? The last time I saw it, on a DVD, I noticed something that I never caught in previous viewings. In the scene in which Joe Gillis (William Holden) goes to Artie Green's apartment (Jack Webb, who was soon to become a huge TV star in his show Dragnet) on New Year's Eve, he wants to use the phone to call Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), to have him send all of Gillis' clothes to Artie's house. He's decided to move out of Norma Desmond's mansion on Sunset Boulevard and stay at Artie's until he gets his bearings. Two blondes are sitting on the couch, laughing hysterically as one of them is talking on the phone, which is on a side table next to the couch. On the table, in the lower right hand corner of the screen, there is something else, which I never paid attention to. After seeing the film umpteenth time, I realised it was a model for the statue of Dagon in the temple that Samson brings down in Samson and Delilah (1949). Samson and Delilah was made for Paramount, as was Sunset Boulevard, and shot around the same time. In the huge temple seen on the screen at the end of the movie – the famous set piece of Samson bringing down the temple – there is a roaring fire in Dagon's belly. A nice little touch, barely visible in Sunset Boulevard, are cigarette butts stubbed out in the belly of the Dagon maquette.

Ever since the Nouvelle Vague in the early ‘60s, filmmakers have been making references in their films to other films. Part homage, part pointing the way to their influences, it's somewhere between a joke and a genuflection to the directors they admire. They are actes gratuites – perhaps références gratuites would be better – which are planted strictly for the cognoscenti to recognise. As for those who do not, maybe footnotes can one day be appended at the end of the film. Michel Piccoli, in Contempt, always wore his hat, emulating Dean Martin in Some Came Running. 1963, the year Contempt was made, was not that far away from 1958, in which Some Came Running was produced – and Godard's audiences at the time could easily make the connection. But now, over forty years later, young viewers might need a special study guide to help them identify Some Came Running and even who Dean Martin was, much in the same way we need notes in reading Shakespeare in order to know what certain words meant in Shakespeare's day. François Truffaut names his main character Lachenay in The Soft Skin (1964) after Marcel Dalio's de la Cheyniest in Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game (1939), and has an inn called La Colinière – the name of the country house in Rules of the Game – and expects some people, if only his friends and fellow cinephiles, to recognise them.

In Hollywood, this was a rarity. When a poster advertising The Proud Land appears in the ‘Girl Hunt’ ballet in The Bandwagon (1953), we know it's a joke that Vincente Minnelli intended for himself and his pals, but for not the rest of us. The Proud Land was the name of the movie which Kirk Douglas (the unscrupulous, arrogant producer in Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful, made a year earlier) directs – a huge turkey of a film after firing the director. The title also appears earlier in The Bandwagon, on a movie house marquee when Fred Astaire is on 42nd Street. But you would have to attend a Minnelli retrospective to make the connection.

In film comedies, however – from Warner Brothers cartoons, to Bob Hope/Bing Crosby ‘Road’ films, to Frank Tashlin and beyond – pop culture, and especially movie culture, was always fair game. Talking about Billy Wilder, in his The Seven Year Itch (1955), Tom Ewell cracks wise when he's asked whom he's hiding in the kitchen, ‘Wouldn't you like to know! Maybe it's Marilyn Monroe!’ – a reference that not only acknowledges the film we are watching but also the mechanics of the film’s production. The audience is engaged in a double vision – the movie it's watching, as well as isolating the star in the movie (the main reason for seeing the film in the first place) from the movie itself, and reincorporating her as a gag. Even if it's not quite what Brecht had in mind when he wrote that he wanted his plays performed with the house lights up, it's a step in some kind of direction.

But that's comedy. Sunset Boulevard is something completely different. It is a Paramount film that uses the Paramount studio as a location and even the Paramount gateway serves an important function in the film. Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond, as a once famous silent film star and also herself a once famous silent film star, announces (as she drives through the gates) that it was the successes of her silent movies that kept Paramount afloat. Even the studio itself is inveigled in the fiction of the fiction that is being presented, becoming as much a presence in the film as the actors themselves. Cecil B. DeMille, in the film, is one of the studio's most important directors, as indeed he was in real life, and was with Paramount Pictures from its very inception, in 1914. His entire career was spent at that studio. And he directed Gloria Swanson in several movies that, in fact, were big hits. Even his nickname for her, ‘little fella’, and her addressing him as ‘Mr DeMille’, recounts their real-life relationship.


1. One thing I noticed the last and only time I saw the film as an adult is that the extras and bit players are all old, whereas the leading players are not. Even the soldiers are old. There's a strange dialectic and a divide between the two elements of the movie as if there are two movies. One, the kinky part, with the stars, which accounted for its success; and the other filled with the elderly background players, who by their very presence suggest that whatever happened in the Bible happened a long, long time ago. It is, after all, a story from the Old Testament. Even the soldiers are old. Cecil B. DeMille, like John Ford, loyally offered employment to silent movie actors who had seen better days, long after they were forgotten.






He is shooting a Biblical epic on Soundstage 18. And he was, on that same soundstage, when Sunset Boulevard was being filmed. When Norma Desmond visits DeMille's set, he is preparing a scene from Samson and Delilah. All the players are old and, very likely, people who (like Swanson) worked with DeMille in the silent era. (1) One can even glimpse, if just barely, Henry Wilcoxon, who played Prince Ahtur in Samson and Delilah, as well as Julia Faye, who plays Delilah's handmaiden – a former mistress of DeMille's who had appeared in almost all of his sound movies, even though their affair and her career had ended many years ago.

It's hard to imagine the mansion in Sunset Boulevard without the suffocating presence of Gloria Swanson's countless framed photographs of herself on every tabletop – or without Gloria Swanson, period. But, originally, Wilder had Mae West in mind for the role of Norma Desmond. When he approached her, she was insulted that he would even think that she play an actress who is past her prime. West, fifty-five at the time, never much of an actress – more like a found-object or a self-made one – clearly couldn't distinguish between an actress playing a role and the role itself. If only in that respect, Mae West would have been right for the film, although wrong in every other way. Although it's true that the success of West's films really did keep Paramount from going under in the early ‘30s, it's hard to imagine West in her unrelievedly, before-the-fact camp style playing the alternately monstrous, alternately pitiful Norma Desmond. Considering, or despite, her initial response, luckily for the film and for Wilder she did not accept.

Before he wrote the script, Wilder had signed Montgomery Clift to play the part of Joe Gillis. But once the script was done and Clift read it, he refused to do the film, partly because Gillis has an affair with an older woman. Clift himself had, if not an affair, some kind of close relationship with Libby Holman, a once-famous torch singer of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s who was about twenty years older than Clift. She had been involved in the shooting death of her then-husband, which ended her singing career for good. Clift thought it referred more than indirectly to him and Holman. The parallels were too great to ignore. Reportedly, Holman threatened to commit suicide if he agreed to be in the film. He bowed out. Again, it's hard to imagine the neutral and neutered Clift playing cynical, corrupt and corruptible, and sexy Joe Gillis. Wilder wound up settling for William Holden, a contract player at Paramount. If these casting strokes were partially luck, there are other elements of the film that go beyond the borders of chance.

When Erich von Stroheim talks about the three greatest directors of the silent era in Hollywood, D. W Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and himself, Max von Mayerling (the name of the character he plays in the movie), he wasn't kidding. Stroheim himself, without the mask of von Mayerling, was, of course, one of Hollywood's most important directors before talkies. And of course, the bitter irony and sadness of him projecting scenes from his unfinished Queen Kelly (1928), surely one of the greatest movies never completed, adds a poignancy to the fact that the character has willingly subsumed his own life to serving his former wife and former star. Swanson herself used the money of her then paramour, millionaire Joe Kennedy (scion of the Kennedy clan) to finance the venture that was ultimately aborted. The reason given was that the movie was made in the cusp period, just between silent and sound movies, and could never be released – although it was released in Europe in a somewhat altered version. So, the clip of Swanson praying was the first time anyone in America had seen the film. The real reason the movie was shut down was because of friction between Swanson, as producer, and von Stroheim. The unfinished version was seen in America for the first time in 1985.


2. Obviously, in Hollywood you were paid as much as they thought you were worth. Clearly, there was no parity. You were paid what they thought they could get you for. Von Stroheim got the highest salary among all the talent, which indicates that Wilder knew how crucial he was to the film. According to IMDB, these were the salaries for Sunset Boulevard: Gloria Swanson – $50,000; William Holden – $30,000; Nancy Olson – $5,000; Fred Clark (Sheldrake the producer) – $4,000; Cecil B. DeMille – $10,000; Hedda Hopper – $5,000; Buster Keaton – $1,000; H. B. Warner – $1,250; Anna Q. Nillson – $250. Montgomery Clift was offered $5,000 a week for twelve weeks, but von Stroheim still would have been the highest-paid performer in the film.














Erich von Stroheim's role is another example of the collaborative effort, if we want to think of Paramount and its history a vital ingredient that was responsible for the remarkable outcome of this film. Can anyone else have ever been considered? Who but von Stroheim to play the role? And clearly Wilder knew it. Von Stroheim was paid $5000 a week plus 1,500,000 French francs (equivalent to $36,000 in 1950) upon completion of the shoot. (2) When a director hired von Stroheim to appear in his films, he was getting two people for the price of one: von Stroheim, the scene-stealing actor, who could draw attention away from the other actors merely by letting his unsmoked cigarette burn down to his finger tips; and also a brilliant director who would invest his character with a variety of attention-getting costumes, props and acting tricks. It was he who suggested, to Renoir, that he wear a neck brace in Grand Illusion (1937). His electric, over-the-top presence enlivened many dull, barely-remembered French films of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, in which von Stroheim, directing himself, imbues the character he plays with a richness and complexity that the writers and directors were unable to furnish. As for him playing the once-famous director, his tribulations regarding Greed (1925) were already the stuff of folklore. The half-finished Wedding March (1928) and the unfinished Queen Kelly confirmed his reputation as some kind of undisciplined, profligate director, and Sunset Boulevard doesn't hesitate to capitalise on that tarnished reputation.

These are the things we know for sure about von Stroheim vis-à-vis the two films he acted in, directed by Billy Wilder. He wanted a riding crop with him at all times in his previous appearance in Wilder's film as Rommel in Five Graves to Cairo (1943). He advises Mouche, the French chambermaid (played by Anne Baxter) to remain five feet away from him at all times, as if she were a fly that he could swat away with his riding crop. In Sunset Boulevard it was he who suggested to Wilder that Queen Kelly be used as the movie that Swanson watches. It was he who suggested to Wilder that Norma receive fan mail, all written by him. ‘I wouldn't look too closely at the postmarks’, he advises Gillis. He came up with the idea of the Maharajah from Hyderbad who begged for one of Norma's stockings. ‘Later, he strangled himself with it’, a line that is echoed in Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959) – Joe (Tony Curtis as Josephine) to Jerry (Jack Lemmon as Daphne): ‘I heard a very sad story about a girl from Bryn Mawr. She squealed on her roommate and they found her strangled with her own brassiere.’ Von Stroheim also suggested to Wilder that he be filmed, as von Mayerling, ironing Norma's underwear, an offer Wilder could refuse. In any case, von Stroheim had already done this earlier in Queen Kelly – Prince Wolfram keeps a purloined pair of Kitty Kelly's panties and sniffs them. We'll never know for sure whether it was Wilder or von Stroheim who came up with the bit in which Max, driving Norma to the studio, looking at her through the rear view mirror, points out that her eye shadow is ‘not quite balanced’. Once on the Paramount lot, he points out to Gillis that his offices (could they actually have been his offices when he was making The Wedding March at Paramount?) were where the readers' department is now. He adds, ‘I remember my walls were covered in black patent leather’. Neither of these two moments – the eye shadow and the leather-covered walls – sound like details that Wilder would have been interested in, but they sound very much like the obsessive, fetishistic situations and details that abound in von Stroheim's films.





3. Mitchell Leisen was the only director in Hollywood whose credit as director in the title cards was purportedly in his own signature. This is an indication of how important a director he was to the studio. That was long before the days when a Hollywood film was signed ‘a film by … ‘, although Hitchcock, DeMille and Capra were the only directors famous enough to have their names above the title. Hitchcock went Leisen one better when he used a caricature of himself that he drew as the logo for his television series. But that was in the ‘50s.

  In Hold Back the Dawn (1941), an earlier script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (Wilder's writing partner for many years), directed by Mitchell Leisen for Paramount, Charles Boyer plays a sleazy refugee, a gigolo (like Joe Gillis), and maybe even Wilder himself in his Berlin days, stuck in Mexico without a visa. Unable to get into America, he marries Olivia De Havilland, an American citizen, which automatically permits him to enter the country. Desperate for cash, he wants to sell his unusual life story to a film company. The movie opens with Boyer crashing Paramount studios. The person he gets to is Mitchell Leisen, the director of the film we're watching, playing a film director (just as DeMille does in Sunset Boulevard) – although he is not addressed as Mitchell Leisen. (3) As in Sunset Boulevard, these scenes frame the tale that is being told in flashback, the story of the film we're watching. When Boyer gets to the sound stage where Leisen is directing, Leisen is shooting a scene with Veronica Lake (uncredited), while Brian Donlevy (also uncredited) is on the sidelines watching. Both Lake and Donleavy co-starred in I Wanted Wings, directed by Leisen, also in 1941, and the scene being shot in Hold Back the Dawn is indeed from I Wanted Wings. This is not necessarily an early harbinger of post-modernism and self-referential cinema - it's the same year as Citizen Kane - but it's a very good indication of the way that Wilder exploited the studio system while at the same time depending on it. To put it another way, it was cheaper to use the actual Paramount entrance than to build one for a ‘let's pretend’ studio, but it also added a richness and depth to the film that could not have been achieved otherwise. Or, how financial concerns sometimes help artists drift to a before-the-fact post-modernist relationship to their work.  

4. Hedda Hopper's lasting legacy in show business might very well be her son, the actor William Hopper. He was Natalie Wood's father in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and also Perry Mason's assistant in the long-running series Perry Mason, which will probably play in syndication until the world ends.



It's hard to imagine what Sunset Boulevard looked like and felt like at the time it was released. The adult moviegoing public grew up on silent films and Gloria Swanson was still a star, although absent from the screen for many years. Audiences knew DeMille not only as a silent director but as the director of epics like Cleopatra (1934), Sign of the Cross (1932) and, of course, Samson and Delilah, which had been the highest-grossing movie of 1949. Now for the waxworks: Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson. Keaton's career as a great comedian and filmmaker was long over. But he was still around, mostly in walk-ons in low-budget films. He played in a musical remake of Lubitsch's Shop Around the Corner (1940) called In the Good Old Summertime (1949), an easy-to-take vehicle for Judy Garland and Van Johnson (featuring baby Liza Minnelli in her first screen role). H. B. Warner had played Christ in DeMille's 1927 King of Kings. A casualty of the sound-era, he was a supporting actor in several Capra films and had a bit part in DeMille's 1956 The Ten Commandments. As for Anna Q. Nilsson, apparently she was a big star in the teens and early ‘20s, but was also a casualty of sound. It's important to remember that in 1950 the silent era had ended only twenty-one years earlier; many of the silent movie allusions and stars mentioned passingly in the film – Valentino, Vilma Banky, Mabel Normand, Wallace Reid and, of course, Adolphe Menjou, who was still working at that time – were still familiar names to the movie-going public, and former Paramount stars. To put it another way, Sunset Boulevard, made over fifty-five years ago, is much further away from its initial audience than the silent film was to talkies.

Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist phoning in her story of the murder at the end of the film, when Norma is being taken into custody, was in fact one of the two most influential newspaper gossip columnists in America at the time. Hopper, famous equally for her hats and her venom, had been – before becoming a gossip columnist (4) – a moderately successful actress playing supporting roles in Paramount films, most notably in DeMille's Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and Leisen's delicious and undervalued Midnight (1939, with a script by Wilder and Brackett). In the latter film she plays a snooty society lady who also is a customer in a milliner's shop that specialises in extravagant and outlandish hats. Parenthetically (or not so parenthetically), Leisen himself started in films by designing costumes and then serving as art director on several lavish DeMille spectacles before becoming a director. One could go on. Leisen was hated by Wilder, who co-wrote with Brackett three scripts (Arise, My Love [1940] in addition to Midnight and Hold Back the Dawn) that Leisen directed. Wilder felt that Leisen so mangled his scripts that he resolved, in the future, to direct his scripts himself. Which, of course, he did. If there is a direct link from DeMille to Leisen to Wilder and back again, it's hardly a coincidence. I'm not in the least suggesting here a conspiracy theory that ripples out endlessly and turns in on itself. But studios have histories and traditions and overlapping stories, relationships and gossip that build up into an overwhelming dense texture that runs parallel and sometimes spills over into the film itself. Perhaps another way to put it is that Sunset Boulevard is only enhanced and enriched by what is sometimes called ‘the genius of the system’, constantly referring to its own vertical and horizontal archaeology.

But it's not just Paramount's past that the film trades on. Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) is a reader at Paramount. And her boyfriend, Artie, is an assistant director, presumably at Paramount. At Artie's New Year's Eve party, two guys are pounding out a popular song at the time, ‘Buttons and Bows’, a tongue-twisting ‘novelty' number which won the Oscar for Best Song the previous year. It was written for Paramount's Bob Hope movie, The Paleface (1948). Playing and singing the tune are Ray Evans and Jay Livingstone, the bespectacled writers of the song, under contract to Paramount. This kind of cross-amortisation of music is not uncommon. Studios, having paid for the music to be written, could use it in the context of any film they chose to. This is found to a remarkable degree in MGM films – MGM, the home of the movie musical. It's usually used as background music. In this film, however, the music is very much foregrounded, another Paramount-reflexive moment, but with a very big difference. In this case, the words have been altered to fit the situation. The original song was such a hit at the time that viewers were assumed to know the original words and appreciate how the song was subverted:




Hollywood for us ain't been so good.
Got no swimming pool, brand new clothes
All we earn are buttons and bows. (5)


5. ‘Buttons and Bows’ lyrics (choruses only):

East is east and west is west
And the wrong one I have chose
Let's go where they keep on wearin'
Those frills and flowers and buttons and bows
Rings and things and buttons and bows.

Don't bury me in this prairie
Take me where the cement grows
Let's move down to some big town
Where they love a gal by the cut o' her clothes
And you'll stand out, in buttons and bows.

My bones denounce the buckboard bounce
And the cactus hurts my toes
Let's vamoose where gals keep a-usin'
Those silks and satins and linen that shows
And I'm all yours in buttons and bows.

Gimme eastern trimmin' where women are women
In high silk hose and peek-a-boo clothes
And French perfume that rocks the room
And I'm all yours in buttons and bows.

6. To television viewers, however, William Demarest is best known for the long-running sitcom My Three Sons, in which he plays Fred MacMurray's father-in-law. MacMurray, incidentally, was offered the part of Joe Gillis after Montgomery Clift turned it down. He turned it down because he thought it was too sordid. MacMurray, of course, played in Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and The Apartment (1960).

7. Her grandmother, she says, was a stunt double for Pearl White, the star of the silent The Perils of Pauline serial. Coincidentally, or not, Betty Hutton starred in a Paramount film, The Perils of Pauline (1947), a musical about Pearl White.













The impression given is that everyone at the party works in films, in some underpaid, lowly capacity or other, and probably for Paramount – hence, the statuette of Dagon. In addition to referring to how little everyone gets paid, it also refers to Joe Gillis' situation – he has gotten his swimming pool and lots of brand new clothes. There are in the film, in addition, references to scripts being tailored for Bing Crosby as well as for Alan Ladd and Betty Hutton (who is not mentioned in the script, but is in the final film), all of whom were big Paramount stars at the time. The name of William Demarest, a character actor at Paramount now mostly remembered for his roles in the movies he made with Preston Sturges, also crops up. (6) When Betty (Nancy Olson) tells Joe about her childhood aspirations and her life as a third-generation Hollywood brat, they start by walking through the Paramount backlot streets. (7) They pass through the Western street, stop and talk, and leave via Washington Square as Gillis lets us know – the same Washington Square set used in the previous year's William Wyler's Paramount film, The Heiress, which starred Olivia De Havilland and Montgomery Clift. Paramount is more than a backdrop – its history and present-day production both play an active role in the film.

Sunset Boulevard has all these echoes, tethering it to the real Hollywood, thus lending the film an air of unimpeachable authenticity – as opposed to The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), which never attempts to suggest that the people in the film or the films within the film have any relation to an existing studio, much less MGM. It's some made-up studio, with made-up stars and fake names in made-up movies. The movies within the movies in no way trace their lineage to other MGM productions or refer to the meta-studio with the authenticity, affection and distaste that Sunset Boulevard does. None of the films glimpsed or alluded to in The Bad and the Beautiful have any MGM reality quotient. There are indirect allusions to Val Lewton and Cat People (1942) – even though The Bad and the Beautiful is supposed to take place in the ‘30s – and to John Barrymore and his alcoholic daughter. But these are, at best, half-hearted feints. The generic German director, von Ellstein (played by Ivan Triesault), complete with cigarette holder, is, of course, a genius and a tyrant, as we know all German directors are or were, but it's a caricature that has no teeth. Although in his later Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), another movie about filmmaking that might have had more suggestions grounding it in the reality of its milieu of Hollywood-on-the-Tiber, Minnelli references The Bad and the Beautiful as one of the greatest triumphs of Kirk Douglas (who plays a washed-up actor) and the fictional director (played by Edward G. Robinson), and shows a clip from the earlier film. Here is a movie about movies and nothing at all is made of the fact that Erich von Stroheim Jr (sic!) is Minnelli's assistant director – as he was on Nicholas Ray's Party Girl (1958)! Similar opportunities are either missed or deliberately avoided in George Cukor's A Star is Born (1954), in which one could easily imagine many real-life hints encrusted in the screenplay referring to the legendary Judy Garland's personal history, much of which was public knowledge. Nor is there any Warner Brothersness about the film in the way that Sunset Boulevard incorporates and blends in Paramount in its own Sunset Boulevard myth-making. These possibilities are also ignored or remain unpursued in Joseph Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa (1954), despite the Howard Hughes-like character in it played by Warren Stevens. However, when Ava Gardner recognises Harry Dawes' name (Humphrey Bogart) as the director of stars like Harlow and Lombard, there's very little conviction or solidity to the claim. In other words, the ‘Paramountness’ of Sunset Boulevard is not just a prop or a backdrop for the film; it is inherently part of the story. Strip the film of all of its ‘Paramount’ elements and what do you have? You may have a movie but not the same movie. Paramount is part of the DNA structure of Sunset Boulevard.

So what does all of this mean, if anything? It adds a texture and an underpinning to Sunset Boulevard that is unparalleled in movie lore. Its self-referentiality is not only proper and earned; it grounds the film in the real tinsel beneath the tinsel in tinseltown. We are watching two films at the same time: the one on the screen, and the associations that are triggered by the extra-curricular references it alludes to – suggesting, more than is usually the case, the possibility that the feverish melodrama being presented is entirely plausible.




In those days, many of the major companies had a ‘news’ division that usually interspersed a light sprinkling of major news events with primarily shots of glamorous stars under contract to the studio, attending premieres of the studios’ latest films. These news features were used to round out a programme, along with cartoons and coming attractions before the film began. Today, of course, these so-called ‘newsreels’ from fifty years ago serve a different purpose. They have assumed historical importance, not for their news coverage (which was negligible), but for their celebrity quotient. Seeing Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell planting their handprints in cement in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater in conjunction with the release of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) is a document that more than transcends its origins, although at the time it was merely part of the movie studio’s publicity machine. As Norma makes her final descent down the staircase, in her greatest role as Salome, pathetic, over-the-top, and unbearably moving, the newsreel cameras are there to catch it all. The news cameras filming Norma Desmond's descent into hell are, fittingly enough, of course, those of Paramount News, which called itself ‘the eyes and ears of the world’, a slogan that is emblazoned on the camera crew truck. Once again, we're in a bitterly ironic mode. Norma says, earlier in the film, ‘There was a time when this business had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn't enough for them. Oh no! They also wanted the ears, too.’

At this point, Norma is completely deranged and is off, most likely not to prison, but probably to the same place where they will put Blanche Dubois a year later (although Blanche will work for another studio). Norma is Salome. She has become the creature she invented in her own script, written for her to play. Erich von Stroheim is standing in between the two Paramount newsreel cameras. She is confused. She thinks he is DeMille. Why hadn't we noticed before what she, in her madness, notices - how much DeMille and von Stroheim look alike? Did DeMille and von Stroheim run into each other during the Sunset Boulevard shoot? Can anyone imagine what they might have talked about? ‘What is the scene?’ He, von Stroheim/Max von Mayerling/Cecil B. DeMille barks out: ‘This is the staircase of the palace.’ The cameras start rolling. Erich von Stroheim is now finishing the unfinished Queen Kelly with Gloria Swanson. He, von Stroheim, is behind the cameras once again, for the first time in almost two decades. We can be sure that the irony of the situation was not lost on him. He is directing in a film but he is not directing a film. In Swanson's slow, tragic descent down the staircase, Wilder, subverting DeMille for his own purposes, wryly commenting on the man and his kitsch Biblicals, is creating a tragedy about cinema and delusions and illusions, glamour and aging in a culture that adores the former and abhors the latter, shot through with a dizzying orgy of intertexuality and self-referentiality that places the movie and its themes in a completely different arena from other movies. In a sense, it is the first meta-film, a film that is not only commenting on itself but also on the process of, the apparatus of, and the meaning of filmmaking itself. (Other meta-films? The Killing [1956]. Once Upon a Time in the West [1968]. Le Samourai [1967]. And perhaps even Keaton's Sherlock Jr [1924].) Finally, the cameras are turning for Norma again. With the Paramount newsreel division there to film it.




  When von Stroheim made Five Graves to Cairo for Wilder, his character, Rommel, has to wear field glasses and a camera around his neck. Von Stroheim insisted on real German field glasses and a Leica camera. He also wanted actual film in the camera. Wilder asked him why, since the audience would never know. Von Stroheim replied: ‘An audience always senses whether a prop is genuine or false.’ The cameras are finally there for Norma. But they are only used as a ruse to get Norma down the stairs, even though they were originally called to document the crime. The cameras are turning for Norma one last time, but there are no concessions to von Stroheim's philosophy this time. There really is no film in the camera recording her last soliloquy. But the ultimate and most awful irony of all – in a movie stuffed to the gills with ironies, intentional and otherwise – is that, even if there was (let us suppose) film in the camera, could the film ever be and would the film ever be shown? Would it be put it on the screen next week, preceding another Paramount film? The empty cameras are turning for Norma, the real cameras are turning for Swanson. The image becomes blurry and out-of-focus and suffused with light. Fade to black. Fade in, the Paramount logo, which forms a perfect halo of stars around Norma's now absent image, awarding Norma the apotheosis she desperately wanted and Swanson the one she richly deserved.  

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© Mark Rappaport and Rouge December 2006. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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