Sons of the Desert (1933)

sons of the desert 1Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into. 

When I was a kid Laurel & Hardy were a mainstay of the local lending libraries and I viewed many of their pictures from Bonnie Scotland to Flying Deuces to Saps at Sea.  I’m not sure if I can make that point enough. I watched a lot of Laurel & Hardy and a lot of Road Movies with Hope and Crosby. Anyways, I thoroughly enjoyed those comedies which got played over and over in my household. But the point is you only see a limited number. That being said, I never got the opportunity to see of Sons of the Desert until a few years back and it’s yet another quality comedy in the Laurel & Hardy hall of fame.

The film opens with a powwow of the Sons of the Desert society with its many members waiting with baited breath for the proceedings before they are rudely interrupted by two malcontents. None other than our lovable heroes who sheepishly wade through the crowds. They’ve made their presence known and never let up from thenceforward.

But more importantly than their entrance is the solemn oath they take along with the legions of others, resolving to show up at the annual convention in Chicago no matter the obstacles in the way. For Stan and Ollie that’s means getting their wives to let them attend or better yet pulling the wool over their eyes because that’s a lot more entertaining from a comedic perspective.

Chance events like meeting relatives and sinking ocean liners are really inconsequential insertions into the already nonsensical storyline. After all, if something’s already absurd what’s the difference if it gets even crazier? The bottom line is that Sons of the Desert keeps Stan and Ollie at its center and they don’t disappoint getting into mess after mess as they always do.

In this particular iteration, a bit of the battle of the sexes is going on although there’s no way either of these men can dominate their wives and that’s the funny part. Ollie’s the instigator, blustering his way into the scenario with his typical overconfident ways, dragging Stan along with him and getting them both into a heap of trouble. They’re up on the roof in the rain without a paddle or any prayer of keeping dry. And in precisely these types of moments, you see the irony of Ollie’s catchphrase. Stan might unwittingly add to the chaos but Ollie is the instigator of every mess.

They try and exert their dominance and when that doesn’t work they try deception, putting on a false front for their spouses. And when that doesn’t work they run and hide, snivel and beg for forgiveness. Either that or get all the contents of the kitchen cabinets hurled their way. In the end, Stan has a fairly amiable homecoming but Ollie can’t say quite the same thing.

Some memorable moments involve Stan snacking on wax fruit and trying to string along some flimsy lies about how they “ship hiked” across the ocean, highlighting his perpetual struggle with the English language. Meanwhile, Ollie is trying his darndest to fake an illness with Stan’s help and the boys end up hiding out in the attic away from their wives before they’re forced to sneak down the drainpipe in the pouring rain. They can be conniving buffoons but there’s also very rarely a moment when we’re not on their sides.

As if having each other was not enough already, they always have the backing of the audience. They give us that same gift of Chaplin or Keaton or Lloyd or The Marx Brothers or Tati or any of the other great comics. They give us laughter in droves. The mode isn’t all that important. It’s simply the fact that they too have a timeless ability for evoking giggles.

3.5/5 Stars

Limelight (1952)

limelight 1The glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth centers 

A story of a ballerina and a clown… 

In Limelight it quickly becomes evident that Charles Chaplin was well aware of his own legend and how couldn’t he be? For years he had been held in the highest regards, loved by the masses worldwide as one of Hollywood’s founding royalty. He was at the center of the universe and the limelight was burning brightly around him.

I’ve recently been reacquainting myself with Chaplin’s early works most notably those that paired him with the indelible Edna Purviance as well as the gargantuan behemoth of a bully Eric Campbell. But Limelight is a major flashforward in his career, really at the end of it all. By now Chaplin is in his twilight years.

In fact, Limelight is one of his last prominent roles and the feature where he audaciously placed everything in the public eye–a picture that is unequivocally autobiographical in nature, accented with Chaplin’s own romantic dealings and tumultuous history from his entire career up to that point. And yes, he faced scandal in his later years, not simply for his past indiscretions but also more overtly for his political affiliations which unquestionably must have made him an easy target during the supercharged age of McCarthyism.

Still, in a simple heartfelt narrative once more, for one last time, Charlie Chaplin captured his audience. The title card reads much like his old silents would have in setting the scene. It’s 1914, back in the days when he was probably just making it big in real life. However, as Calvero, Chaplin is a washed-up comedian prone to alcoholism with a career that has suffered dearly. But in a moment of action, he saves an aspiring dancer (Claire Bloom) from a self-attempted suicide and from then on becomes a sort of guardian angel for the girl.

Calvero heeds the doctor and allows the girl to stay in his flat, away from the trauma and although it receives the ire of their landlady, he calls Thereza his wife in order not to cause a local stir. It’s one half human drama, other half stage production because while he looks to lift her spirits in any manner possible, he daydreams of his past forays in comedy. He was the man who could pull off a whole gag with a pretense of performing fleas and he had wall to wall crowds.

limelight 2But now no one’s there. The seats are empty, the aisles quiet, and he sits with a dazed look in his flat the only recourse but to go back to bed. It’s as if the poster on the wall reading Calvero – Tramp Comedian is paying a bit of homage to his own legend but also the very reality of his waning, or at the very least, scandalized stardom. It adds insult to injury.

Still, in real life and on celluloid he put up the front of respectability for people. Although he went through 5 wives and now has a young woman living in his home less than half his age, he believes that after all his years of experience, “a platonic friendship can be sustained on the highest moral plane” as he puts it.

And it’s true Calvero is perfectly civil. This isn’t some passionate romance though he does try and call Terry to action in other ways. Chaplin composed his scripts of many great lines, monologues and sonnets where he himself gets to deliver beautiful rhetoric and impassioned rallying cries of truth to anyone who is listening. In this case, it’s the girl who sits despairingly in her bed but it’s for everyone else too. It’s like he took the stalwart speech from The Great Dictator and economized it into smaller bite sized pieces (That’s the problem with the world. We all despise ourselves, There’s something just as inevitable as death. Life! Life! Life!).

But there is something rather tragically demoralizing about watching crowds walk out on Chaplin even if it’s his fictional alter ego because you get the sense that his once faithful viewing public undoubtedly did the same thing–driven by the tides of the times and their own fickle ways.

But even as his fictional self fades, he watches Thereza ascend to the top of the dancing world as a prima ballerina and she looks to take her beloved Calvero along with her. There’s a necessity in life to never subsist, never cease fighting that she learns from him and takes to heart. So the second half is the role reversal. He began as her good samaritan and now in her bounty, she looks to take care of him going so far as professing her love for him and her desire to get married.

limelight 3It’s important to know that he writes off such an assertion as nonsense and one can question whether this is Chaplin’s chance at revisionist history or more so an affirmation of his life’s actual trajectory–working through his current reality that the world questions (IE. Marrying a woman much younger than himself in Oona O’Neil who he nevertheless dearly loved).

It’s ingenious really because there’s positively no way not to empathize with him, no matter our position and as he always was a premier master at, Chaplin once more tugs at our heartstrings in a very personal way–pathos overflowing from his performance one last time. He casts himself as the great sacrificial martyr and stepping down from his post as one of the luminaries of the cinema, his legacy burning brightly in his wake.

It’s also easy to suspect the tragedy of the Blue Angel or the madness of The Red Shoes displayed for all to see on the center stage will reveal itself in due time but Chaplin allows himself go out on his own terms since he’s a master of his own fate, in the film at least.

He’s reflected on his life and deemed it as about as good as it can be. That’s enough. Whether it’s his earlier marital troubles, his current marriage, the criticisms of the public, or even a real or fabricated feud between himself and Buster Keaton if there ever was such a thing. It is all laid to rest. It’s like old times even as the new age begins.

4/5 Stars

 

Girl Shy (1924)

girlshy1Harold Lloyd’s feature Girl Shy is not so much a comic gag reel as a character-driven story. The first type I would equate more with Keaton, the second feels more like the sentiment of Chaplin. Lloyd does both very well and in this case, he plays Harold, a tailor’s apprentice with a stuttering problem — which actually is very pronounced — despite the lack of sound. Of course, his nervous bouts only come along when he has the harrowing experience of interacting with the opposite sex.

Instead of attending a town-wide dance in Little Bend, Harold resolves instead to stay in his basement and type away at the novel he’s writing. It’s called “The Secret of Making Love” and it’s his manifesto for all the boys who don’t quite know how to act around girls. Really, he’s penning it for himself and within its pages, he details how to win over anyone from a vampire to the flapper. To him, it’s going to be the next great thing and we cannot help but admire his ambition — misguided as it may seem.

Aboard the local train he helps a pretty young woman (Jobyna Ralston) stowaway her dog from the conductor, and then he excitedly regales her with his book, when he’s not shaking. The lovely time is broken up when they reach their final destination, but as parting gifts, they trade a box of dog biscuits for a pack of cracker jacks. Perhaps not the most romantic of gestures, but neither one cares. In fact, Mary detours through Little Bend several more times until she finally runs into Mr. Meadows again. They sit by a pond where Harold mistakes a tortoise for a rock and gets in a bit of a sticky situation. However, the gags do not overshadow the human aspect, which is still at the forefront of our tale.

When Harold finally has his date with the publisher everyone laughs at his joke-of-a-book. It dashes all his dreams and he knows he cannot get Mary now. So he puts up a false front, not wanting to string her along, and so, of course, the heartbroken girl goes to the only other person she can. The token rich middle-aged suitor, who is stuffy and boring.

But on the advice of a proofreader, the publishers decide to spin Harold’s book as a humorous read and unbeknownst to him a check comes in the mail. He’s dejected at first because these aren’t the terms he wanted, but then he remembers Mary, and upon seeing news of her marriage, he rushes to stop the impending wedding.

girlshy2At this point Girl Shy loses its heartfelt narrative thread in favor of Lloydian acrobatics, a la Speedy, but don’t get me wrong, it’s still thoroughly enjoyable watching Lloyd frantically try to hitch a ride to the wedding by any means possible. I was half surprised he didn’t try to pull a little girl’s bike away from her because he tried about everything else imaginable. In case you hadn’t guessed, he gets the girl in the end.

Going back to Chaplin, I think he tugs at the part of our hearts that feels sympathy for the poor and unfortunate masses. Lloyd on the other hand channels a different vein, relatable to all those who have ever been rejected or made fun of for being awkward and uncool. He suggests that there is still hope for those people. I relate to the quiet stoicism of Keaton certainly, but the nerdish charm of Lloyd hits home too. I think a lot of us can relate to Girl Shy.

4/5 Star

Kid Brother (1927)

kidbrother1Kid Brother is a departure for Lloyd from the general hubbub of urban life as he finds himself on a ranch, living with his two older brothers and his father, who is the local sheriff. His surname this time around is Hickory an aptly brawny moniker for a frontiersman, except he’s hardly the physical specimen of his father and brothers. They spend their days chopping down timber and hoisting logs on their broad shoulders. Harold does his daily work collecting the laundry and ultimately chasing after it when it blows away.

He unwittingly gets himself into a jam when he puts on his father’s sheriff garb and is approached by a traveling medicine show looking for a permit to perform in the local town. Not wanting to lose face he plays the role and lets them have their show. When father catches wind he’s not very happy and sends young Harold to end the show, but he’s not much at laying down the law. Instead, they make a mockery of him, and he is truly a pitiful figure hanging helplessly by his arms at the road show.

kidbrother2But there is one person who likes him a lot. Mary, who is part of the traveling show. And Harold does a seemingly unheard of thing of inviting her to spend the night at his family residence. She does something even more unthinkable and accepts. It’s probably the happiest Harold has been in a long time, and it spells a turning point for him. Mary winds up staying somewhere else as not to cause a scandal, but nevertheless, Harold’s ego is boosted.

After his father is accused of stealing a large sum of money, the town is in an uproar. All three sons go out to try and clear his name by bringing back the culprits. Of course, it is brother # 3 who is on the right path and finds the shady members of the traveling show hiding out on a boat. This ending set piece in some ways hearkens back to Keaton’s The Navigator and Lloyd rather ingeniously subdues his foe, although he seems woefully outmatched.

He regains the family honor and earns the commendation of his family. Most importantly Harold Hickory walks off into the sunset, love in arm, rather like Chaplin, but there’s no doubt Lloyd is his own man. He wears glasses, and he’s most certainly his own creation.

In fact, it brought to mind Woody Allen’s Love and Death. Harold Lloyd makes as good a pioneer as Woody Allen makes a Russian, but then there is a great deal of comedy from appearances alone. Their personas are at odds with the worlds that they place themselves in. However, while Woody Allen is always weighed down by cynicism and fatalistic thoughts, Lloyd’s glasses character has not been besmirched by the ways of the world. He maintains his sense of innocence and hope throughout his journey. That’s what allows him to get the girl and conquer all obstacles, winning his audience over in the process. His outlook is summed up by the intertitle, “no matter what anybody else thinks, have confidence in yourself and you can’t lose.” Perhaps it’s idealistic stuff of the past, but then again 90 years ago is in the past. Maybe even today there’s at least a bit of truth we can glean from it.

4/5 Stars

Speedy (1928)

speedy1It’s hard not to appreciate Harold Lloyd. His life was less tumultuous than Buster Keaton and during the 1920s he was more prolific than Charlie Chaplin. So if you look back at his career you can easily argue that he was not playing third fiddle to the other silent titans. He was their equal in many respects, and it’s only over the years that he’s fallen behind the others. But he deserves acknowledgment at the very least and his comedies such as Speedy make his case with rousing gimmicks and gags aplenty.

The film opens with Pop Dillon, the last of the horse-drawn streetcar drivers. He’s a kindly old man who lives with his radiant granddaughter Jane, who is faithfully by his side. But a corrupt railroad magnate is trying to buy him out, and he’s ready to go to great lengths to get what he wants. It’s about what we expect to happen, so the real entertainment factor comes with how we get there.

Enter Speedy (Harold Lloyd) a baseball-loving soda-jerk turned crazy cab driver and the sweetheart of Jane. It’s true that he starts out working the coffee counter with great dexterity while keeping up to date with the latest box scores of Murder’s Row. However, after a major blunder, he knows he won’t have a job when he gets back. Rather than stew in his misfortune, Speedy heads out on a Sunday afternoon in Coney Island with Jane. This proves to be a wonderful aside rather like in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and there are a lot of great little gags being pulled by Lloyd, and others occur unwittingly. He tricks a myriad of folks with a dollar bill on a string and a crab in the pocket causes a lot of chaos. He even picks up a new unwanted friend in a hungry dog. But perhaps most of all the sequence is a fun nostalgia trip to the fair, showing off all the attractions circa 1928. It’s an eye-opening experience, and it still looks like quite a lot of fun.

speedy3The other section of the story begins with Speedy garnering a job as a cab driver, but he has an unfortunate aptness for picking up tickets. He does, however, pick up some precious cargo in Babe Ruth (playing himself) and it leads to a wonderfully raucous ride to Yankee Stadium courtesy of Speedy’s crazy maneuvering through the streets of New York. Even Lou Gehrig sneaks in on the fun with a wry grin.

As the last order of business Speedy must save Pop’s cart from utter extinction and what follows is a rip-roaring brawl in the streets between the young thugs and the old-timers. Instead of being suspended from a clock, Lloyd must race against it to get Pop’s stolen livelihood back to its track in time. Once more he puts his madcap driving to good use.

Speedy lives up to its name and certainly justifies the popularity of Harold Lloyd. Its strengths include a plethora of sight gags that play off the audience’s sense of dramatic irony. Put them in the hands of such a nerdish icon and it spells true comedic gold. It’s Lou Gehrig approved no less.

4/5 Stars

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

sherlockjr1When I was just learning about silent comedy I would have said that it started and ended with Charlie Chaplin no questions asked. And it’s true that he most certainly is a starting point, but if you want to get even a small understanding of comedy you have to look at Buster Keaton (as well as Harold Lloyd). I’m not claiming a great deal of knowledge about silent films (I still have much to see and learn), but Keaton astounded me with his prolific output during the 1920s and his physical prowess. I did not appreciate The General (1926) that much the first time around, however, by the time I got to Our Hospitality (1923), Seven Chances (1925), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928), The Navigator (1924), and of course this film, I completely changed my initial evaluation.

Since Sherlock Jr. is shorter than most of his other features it’s almost like Keaton cut out all the dross and what we are left with are sequences of cinematic gold. In this story about a projectionist obsessed with being a detective, there is surprising depth and inventiveness that is still magical today. The plot really is a film within a film, starting with Sherlock Jr. trying to win over the affections of his love (Kathryn McGuire) with a box of chocolates. But his rival (Ward Crane) does the same by more shady means and pins his dastardly deed on Jr. Now our hero is banished from the house and resigns himself to his projection room where he enters into a dream-filled sleep. It mirrors the film that is playing on the screen as he enters this world as a detective and fills it with all his real-life acquaintances. The fact that the girl comes back to him at the end feels rather superfluous because we automatically assume that is the case. It’s how Keaton gets there that’s ingenious

sherlockjr2It easy to marvel at some of the visuals as Buster Keaton literally leaves his body and walks onto the screen, shifting between an array of backdrops in a thoroughly entertaining sequence. He’s pulling crazy stunts without CGI mind you, and many of them put his life and welfare on the line. He tries his hand at pool with impressive skill and pulls off some amazing parlor tricks including a disappearing act that not only stumps the thugs pursuing him but the audience as well.

Even after reading a full breakdown of how he was able to literally vanish into thin air I’m still utterly baffled. Every time it causes me do a double take. Then, of course, there’s his wild ride on the handlebars of the motorcycle, which has some beautifully comic stunt work. It’s stuff you certainly would not want to try at home and it would be unthinkable today, but that was the brilliance of “The Great Stone Face.” He was literally willing to put his life on the line, and whereas Chaplin was adept at pulling at our heartstrings, the often emotionless Keaton does not try that. He wins us over with his resilience. In him, I find a figure of a very relatable temperament although he was more of a daredevil than I could hope (or want) to be. That just makes me respect and marvel at what he can do. If you want to see slapstick and sight gags at their zenith then take a look at Buster Keaton. Sherlock Jr. is always a good starting point.

5/5 Stars

L’Atalante (1934)

LatalanteHere is perhaps one of the greatest wedding processions we could ever hope to see. Buster Keaton is more outrageously funny in Seven Chances, but this one is solemn, and somehow still funny in its own way. And that’s what is most striking about L’Atalante (which also serves as the name of the boat of choice). This film seems so serious and strait-laced, you might say, and yet it brims with comedy. It’s the type of everyday comedy that makes us laugh even now. Funny looking characters, odd voices, a plethora of cats all over the place. There’s no way for that to get lost in translation, and it remains quirky and engaging 80 years later.

It also happens to be a beautiful film exemplified by a newly-wedded bride walking the prow of a boat with the fog billowing around her. Or perhaps it’s two lovers embracing passionately and a smile bursting on the face of the woman. It’s so visceral, so engaging in its displays of love, energy, and emotion. In this way, it brings to mind other love stories of the age like Sunrise, It Happened One Night, and certainly the early works of Jean Renoir. Except the thing here is that director Jean Vigo never made another film after L’Atalante. He entered bad health even during filming and died soon afterward in his early 30s, but he left behind a masterpiece.

In short, the story revolves around four main characters living life together on a boat named L’Atalante. Jean is the captain and groom who has picked a beautiful wife named Juliette who is going to share his existence on the sea. His first mate is the weathered and scruffy Pere Jules. He might have a rough exterior, but he and his cabin boy are full of bumbling and buffoonery that endears them to all.

For the two lovebirds, Paris is the enchanting destination for a fantastic makeshift honeymoon, but it also proves to test their relationship from the get-go, since Jean is extremely jealous and a street peddler openly flirts with Juliette. It’s a tragic turn in their love story which leads to Juliette looking for a way home and Jean sinking into a state of depression aboard his boat. That’s what makes their ultimate reunion all the sweeter.

Thus, L’Atalante blends a timeless topic like love with little moments of magic that bubble up from within these scenes. Whether it is Juliette walking the streets window shopping, or Pere Jules giving a lens into his past with all the souvenirs he has accrued over the years. Without a doubt, he was my favorite character. I have never quite seen anything like him.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Playtime (1967)

playtime1Playtime is a film that really can be broken into a number of set pieces elaborately constructed by director Jacques Tati. The vignettes begin, surprisingly enough, in an airport terminal, and a group of excited Americans are getting ready for a Parisian vacation. Mr. Hulot (Tati himself) is waiting to have a meeting in a glass office building, however, he soon gets lost in a maze of cubicles, playing cat and mouse with his contact.

Quite by accident, he wanders into an international trade exhibition and the tourists just happen to be there too. While there they are introduced to the latest gizmos, gadgets, and inventions to move society forward. They include silently slamming doors and retractable glasses. In typical Tati fashion, he gives us a glimpse of the old world from Mon Oncle. All that is left is one meager flower stand and a brief reflection of the Eiffel Tower.

Bumping into an old war buddy, M. Hulot is invited over and thus begins a long sequence in an apartment building. What makes it unusual is that the audience is left out on the street, but we can see multiple interiors through the glass. Thus, the conversation becomes unimportant, and the charades inside paired with the street noise is all we notice.

One of the most substantial sequences takes place in a place called The Golden Corkscrew. It is a packed house and the nightclub barely seems prepared for such an evening. Tiles are loose, food runs out, a band member comes late, the chairs leave marks on the backs of patrons, and much much more. Hulot stumbles in and comes in contact with several previous acquaintances. He also makes a few new friends including a boisterous American and a friendly female tourist.

After the crazy night, the morning comes and Hulot says goodbye to his new American friend but not before leaving her with a parting gift to remember her memorable time in Paris. It may not be the Paris of old, but it is still a cheery place made by its people who still remain the same even when the times change.

Jacques Tati’s Playtime took numerous years to complete and it was the most expensive French production at the time. It makes sense though because it truly is a magnificent piece of cinema. It is full of beautifully choreographed sequences and elaborate sets. Mr. Hulot often finds himself wandering through this labyrinth of modern Parisian humanity. Tati teases us, however, filling his world with Hulot doppelgangers.

Even when the gangly protagonist is on screen, he often pops off and on for minutes on end. He is no longer the primary focus of the film. Tati also takes great interest in the sterile modern society of glass, steel, and technology. The screen is filled with a wide array of individuals, which makes it fascinating to simply people watch. Furthermore, Tati almost refuses to use closeups, thus allowing the camera to capture more.

Playtime is slightly slower, to begin with than I remember, but it has wonderfully subdued humor paired with social commentary. Tati’s film may not have a lot of decipherable dialogue, but there sure is a great deal of noise. His sound effects seem to rival The Three Stooges in comical impact, often filling the void usually devoted to talking. It is moments like these where you see similarities to the old silent comics like Chaplin and Keaton.

Playtime is all about the minutiae and these moments are probably exhibited best at the nightclub. So much happens and much of it goes unnoticed, but oftentimes when you pick up on something the payoff is great because you slowly begin to notice more and more. Tati does not have to announce it, but he puts it there to be seen. For instance, there is the fish that is never served but is constantly being seasoned. Then, the doorman who opens the door without any glass. Finally, there is the waiter who gets all the ripped, torn and otherwise ruined articles of clothing. Together all these moments create some immensely funny sequences.

Another thing about Tati’s film. There is really no conflict. He is addressing the changing times, but at its heart, Playtime is just that. Light-hearted recreation.

5/5 Stars

Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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“Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. It’s about five o’clock in the morning. That’s the Homicide Squad – complete with detectives and newspapermen. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses in the ten thousand block. You’ll read about it in the late editions, I’m sure. You’ll get it over your radio and see it on television because an old-time star is involved – one of the biggest. But before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth.”

So begins one of the most caustic dramas ever constructed in Hollywood, or about Hollywood, and it was gifted to us by screenwriter-director extraordinaire Billy Wilder. His previous hard-edged film noir Double Indemnity had its own cynical narrator with a memorable voice-over of his own. However, Walter Neff was only on the verge of dying. When we hear the voice of Joe Gillis he is already speaking from the grave. It is a fantastic angle in which to look at this seemingly perfect Hollywood construction, and Gillis never ceases to tell his story until we wind up at the pool as the story comes to a close.

For now, we learn that six months back Joe (William Holden)  is a writer who is having difficulties being published, and some men want to repossess his car. Desperate, he pays a visit to a friend at Paramount named Mandrake to pitch an idea, but the script is of little merit according to a pretty young script reader. That’s a dead end so Joe leaves, but the men are waiting for him and he zooms away. A flat tire leads him to drive away into an empty garage connected to a dilapidated old mansion on Sunset Boulevard. 

There he is mistakenly introduced to drama queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who used to be big on the silent screen, back in the day. Now all she has is money, fan letters, and old memories to rehash, while her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) watches over her. The theatrical actress believes her big comeback is soon at hand, and when she learns Joe is a writer, she takes an interest. He needs the money so he takes a look at the rough script meant to be a vehicle for her. A small commitment turns into a life-consuming undertaking. Desmond constantly hovers and dotes over Joe, going so far as having his things moved into her home and buying him new clothes and trinkets. He reluctantly accepts the first class treatment, not minding the cushy lifestyle. But to Norma, it’s more. 

He is her closest companion. Her love. Joe cannot bear to tell her that she is washed up and that there will never be anything between them. He ditches her intimate New Years party for a more friendly affair where he crosses path with his old bud Artie (Jack Webb) and his girl, the previously critical script girl Betty Schaeffer (Nancy Olson). She takes an interest in a few of his past ideas, but he does not, and after getting shocking news from Max he is pulled back to his lavish prison.

Eventually, Norma is prepared to drop off her script with her former collaborator the great Cecil B. DeMille. However, it becomes all too clear that her story will amount to nothing, but her friend cannot bear to break her heart. She is sent off again with the strong conviction that her day is coming. Makeover’s, diets, and facials follow in preparation. Joe is indifferent to it all and secretly begins working at nights with Betty on a new screenplay. 

Desmond finds the script and jealousy takes over, causing her to call Betty to ruin the romance that is rapidly budding there. Joe hears it all and angrily tells the disbelieving Betty to come see his set-up on Sunset Boulevard. He acts as if he likes the life, and Betty leaves broken-hearted. Soon after, a fed-up Joe packs his bags to head back to Ohio. Thus, begins the systematic breakdown that we had expected for so long. Norma Desmond completely falls apart and does the one thing she knows to hold on. 

Back in the present the crowds and journalists have turned out to see the has-been movie star who is stark raving mad, and one last time Norma does not disappoint. She glides seamlessly down the stairs with a serenely ethereal look on her face before preparing for her closeup. So ends the career of one Norma Desmond and the life of Joe Gillis. We can only hope that Betty got together again with Artie, otherwise this would remain one of the bleakest tales of all time.

However, that is part of the power of this film. It is strangely dark and ominous. Franz Waxman’s score is fit for a Gothic melodrama and Desmond’s mansion is a creaky old foreboding castle that hardly sees the light of day. Max is a solemn figure who we learn brought Norma stardom, married her, got divorced, and then could not live without her. Joe Gillis gets caught in a cycle he cannot get out of, and in the middle of the whole mess is Desmond herself. She is so preoccupied with herself, so obsessed with her own former glory, and yet she is a lonely, insecure aging actress. In many ways, she is Citizen Kane’s female counterpoint. A person with so much money, prestige, and power who slowly drifts away into oblivion without anyone caring except ravenous journalists. Much in the same way, although Norma is so petty and vain in so many ways, I cannot help but feel sympathy for her sorry existence. She is an utterly pitiful person in the end. No one deserves her fate.

In this way, Sunset Boulevard seems to critique Hollywood, a place that makes stars like Norma Desmond and spits them back out just as easily. It is not easily figured out or understood it just does at is pleases. For instance, Billy Wilder became an immigrant writer and director of great repute. Cecil B. Demille was a longtime respected director. Erich von Stroheim had early success with silent films then had to turn to acting. Gloria Swanson was a silent star then struggled in the 1930s. William Holden broke out in the 30s, hit his peak in the 1950s and continued to act into the 70s. Nancy Olson went on to make a few classic Disney movies and Jack Webb, of course, went on to create the TV Show Dragnet. Each Hollywood career starkly different from the others. 

 There is also such an authenticity in this film so much so that sometimes the line between fiction and reality is blurred. First, Wilder cast Gloria Swanson to play former silent star Norma Desmond in the film, so it seems like she is playing herself (Complete with old promotional photos and silent footage). He also had appearances by both von Stroheim and Demille, who had each directed Swanson in her silent days. Some of Desmond’s bridge friends include other real silent stars including Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and the legendary Buster Keaton (His career had also crumbled). Even gossip columnist Hedda Hopper gets into the mix to tell the tragic story of Desmond, and it all works. 

So whether you watch Sunset Boulevard for the Hollywood angle, or as a film-noir, or a love story, or a tragic drama, the beauty of it, is that it functions as all of those things simultaneously. Gloria Swanson is absolutely loopy, William Holden is as cynical as ever with his smoked-out gravelly voice. Von Stroheim is haunting as the faithful Max, and Nancy Olson is the one young friendly face in juxtaposition with Swanson. Billy Wilder’s script with Charles Brackett is inspired a multitude of times, but instead of telling you I will give you a taste: 

“There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world! But that wasn’t good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! TALK!”

That’s Norma Desmond in a nutshell for you. That’s Sunset Blvd.

5/5 Stars