I started watching Kevin Brownlow’s 1908 documentary series, Hollywood, this weekend. It’s twelve parts and so far, I’ve gotten through eight. The series is filled with interviews with actors, directors, writers, and others involved in silent films and the Hollywood studio system of the 1920s. One of the most featured interviewees is Gloria Swanson.
I didn’t really care about Gloria Swanson until watching her interview. I saw Sunset Boulevard when I was in college out of some sense of duty I felt to watch “classic American films” that I had never seen before. I assumed that Gloria Swanson had been like the character she played, Norma Desmond, a forgotten silent film star. (But a less crazy version, obviously.) I’ve never seen her act in anything else.
Years later, I’ve discovered that I’m fascinated with Gloria Swanson. Or at least the Gloria Swanson in the 1980 Hollywood interview. In the clip above, which is from an episode devoted entirely to her and Rudolph Valentino, she describes how she convinced Cecil B. DeMille to let her film a dramatic scene with a real lion. In another segment, she talks about easily finding success as a comedic actress in her early career despite not understanding the majority of the jokes and gives the air that she was above such lowly work. She consistently comes across as having always been fearless and in control. (However, in a later episode, a story is told about DeMille forcing her to film a violent flood scene even though she was terrified of water and couldn’t swim. Even the biggest star in Hollywood had to do some things she didn’t want to do.)
I think I’m mostly obsessed with Gloria Swanson because of her whole vibe in the interview. Her hair is perfect. Her eyebrows are meticulously shaped or drawn on. (I can’t tell. The video quality on YouTube is kind of poor.) Here eyes are expressive, even with the presence of what look to be rather heavy false eyelashes. Her voice is still surprisingly girlish. But the thing I’m most impressed with about Gloria Swanson in 1980 is the fact that she’s chosen to be interviewed in front of what I think is a bust of Gloria Swanson.
As I watched her, all I could think was, “Please, please let me be this majestic when I’m older.”