There’s a reason why some actors/actresses decide to steer clear of living in Hollywood, it’s full of crazy people who have lost touch with reality. Out there to chase their dreams that may never happen. Taking a normal job, going to auditions, writing scripts, following any lead that could be their big break. It stinks of desperation and dreamers who have lost the plot, or are driven and won’t be pulled back into the world of the living, the sane with us who know to stay on the right side of the silver screen. Only the lucky few are picked, get the call and go over and make the big time. Then you have to apply the old saying “whatever goes up, must come down” tell that to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) one of the victims of the introduction of sound. The screen didn’t get smaller, in fact its blown wide open by those early talkies as everyone began to rush to that “gimmick” with all they could, seeing actors old and new change in a matter of years. You can see the effect of progress crystallised in a few films, but none of created a victim of that progress as frightening as Billy Wilder in his chilling take on Hollywood with Sunset Boulevard (1950). Having been in tinsel town for almost 20 years he had he own fair share of stories to tell, but they would be true, and that would be unfair on those who have given him all he has made in this foreign country he calls home.
It’s been a few years since I first caught this striking film, a dark comment on an industry that Wilder was more than willing to use as material. My thoughts on the film have had time to mature and change over that time. I’ve taken in many, many more films, a small portion commenting on the industry that produces them. We’ve just seen a film briefly win Best Picture before being snapped away due to an admin error. Hollywood loves the praise itself, but sometimes the ego’s been stroked a little too often and a conscience for the better film to be honored props up, declare Moonlight (2016) the winner over La La Land (2016) which was a front-runner for what seems a year since it was first premiered.
However if we go back to 1950 it’s a very different time and the golden age is starting to crumble after the studio system was being broken down by both Washington and the stars who made the studios so powerful. The only real power was censorship, which was skirted by Wilder. American cinema was entering a new age of the psychological, the fear of the Soviets, the first decade of peace, after WWII was still uneasy with the war on communism being fought in Korea. With all this going on Hollywood is ripe for he picking.
If we go back to the dawn of sounds we see numerous careers being ended, the fear of rejection and uncertainty in an industry of replace and progression. Culminated here in Norma Desmond, one of the first film stars to be let go or forgotten, or as we learn simply too much to handle, one of the first diva’s. Of course the dark twist is that she’s played by Gloria Swanson one of those much forgotten once celebrated actors whose own fame had since faded. Was this a version of herself, a pastiche of the silent era stars, would the audience be able to tell the difference. A dastardly piece of casting, of course Swanson knew exactly what she was doing. A heightened version of what her generation could now be. The self-awareness she brought, the history which could still be hers if she hadn’t found another career, whilst also having a minor acting career was all but forgotten. The fact she carried on, shows how she adapted to the introduction of sound. Just where did she find the unhinged Desmond that is very much part of that desire to be famous, once the attention has gone, how does the individual adapt to life post-fame? Desmond is the ultimate forgotten star.
Add to that a version of Wilder and Charles Brackett who co wrote this film, their view of the system for an aspiring script-writer. Is Boulevard a culmination of their experiences, did the encounter a Greta Garbo or Mary Pickford who was lost in the transition now living in a delusion of grandeur in the Hollywood hills. The writer and the narrator here is Joe Gilles played by William Holden an actor of the new confident age of sound, two generations sharing the screen. Gilles the struggling writer is knee-deep in debt, he can’t get a script green-lit for the life of him, his cars threatened with repossession. When will he get a break? It’s only when he gets a flat during a car chase does he find a mansion that wouldn’t look out-of-place in Citizen Kane (1941). Shelter was the storm that is his collapsing world. On meeting Desmond a has-been, his life’s being turned on its head, both using each other to their own ends, nothing new there.
So who has the upper hand here? It starts out as Gilles who takes on Desmond overblown untamed screenplay meant for the silent screen rather than a contemporary audience, OK maybe the arty world might like it. A script that relied more on the eyes, the facial gestures rather than dialogue to progress the plot. Relying on titles of varying length instead. It’s Gilles’s task to adapt and tame this beast of a script, without upsetting the original writer’s ego. Of course this soon gets out of hand, the writer finds that he’s been moved in to the house now. His life is no longer his own, in a trap of gifts and love of an older woman who see’s him as her way back to the big or small screen – depend who perspective you look at it. He want to use her script for his next big film, can he make it work for both.
It’s a film ultimately of professional back stabbing, who can walkover who first and hardest and still prosper. We see from the beginning that it hadn’t worked out too well for someone who is hovering dead in the swimming pool. A classic trope of Film noir, start at the grizzly demise of someone and work backwards, just how did this guy end up in the pool, I don’t think he tripped? What we see in the course of the film is two figures hungry for fame eat away at each other. One with step in the door, whilst another is just a shadow. Littered with figures from a forgotten age of cinema, a nod to them and a reminder that they were still around, they just be playing cards had to carve out a life post fame.
Last it also works perfectly as a comment on an industry, Paramount Pictures included that released the film is ultimately a business that will pick up and drop the next big thing to make a few bucks. The kind of cynicism that Wilder is known for. It’s a method that still works to this day, one day your hot, then you make a flop and out you go NEXT!! That’s show-business for ya.
I began this film knowing that it should be good, coming from the direction of Richard Attenborough, a love note to the early days of film, focusing on the UK’s first international stars of first vaudeville and very soon after screen during the silent era. Chaplin (1992) began some what with a clunky beginning for me, after a now dated beginning as we see the man himself played by Robert Downey Jr. taking off his make-up the bare all for the biopic. Which we find is told in fictional retrospect between the aged star and fictional biographer George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins) whose job it seems is to tease more out of the actor/director/comic who now is living in Switzerland with his fourth wife. Probably acting as a way in for a modern audience who have little idea of Chaplin’s private life which would form the basis for this film. I knew somewhat of his past but very little if I’m honest. I vaguely remember seeing his silent films as a kid early in the mornings, wondering more what happened to the sound than anything, yet somehow I remained engaged throughout. The first and only so far (shamefully) that I have seen is Modern Times (1936) during a history lesson.
Once I got over the clunky unsure beginning complete with star wipes etc which feel more at home in Star Wars I realised it was all part of the aesthetic of the early films, still finding their feet and defining their language that we have come to love today. What makes this film have real credibility is the involvement of Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine Chaplin playing her own grandmother, a mark of a strong actress who can recreate her own families history on-screen. It brings another layer of authenticity to the film, that relies mostly on a young Downey Jr. who from the trailer doesn’t do him any favours, mostly a cockney accent. What we have in the film is a decent attempt at the accent. He is a good fit for the role which I really can’t see being played by anyone else, he just embodies him completely, allowing us to follow Chaplin, not realising its Downey Jr. playing him.
Chaplin delivers what you want in a film about one of the founders of Hollywood, from his first contract with Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd) the then king of comedy in film who signs him for a one year contract which allowed him to begin to really flex his creative muscles. It would be nothing without seeing both Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline) and Mary Pickford (Maria Pitillo) who together formed United Artists with D.W. Griffith who we don’t see. Both of them are dead-ringers for the silent film stars, which is a credit to both wardrobe and make-up on the film. No detail is left out.
With the addition of footage from Chaplin’s films, from the unknown to the later classics such as The Kid (1921) and The Great Dictator (1940) which add another layer of authenticity to the world of a bygone era of film. A chance once more to see his work, combined with his life story. His work even in this fragmented form made me laugh nearly a century later. A story that is anything but just the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Life beyond the cameras with his four wife, all far younger than him. His political views that cause him to be under surveillance by the F.B.I. that possibly leant towards communism, which were never proven. His early stance towards Nazi Germany which was not taken so seriously until the outbreak of WWII. A man ahead of his time in so many ways.
I always comeback to the flashback format of the film, however much it was based on his own autobiography and biography I am still left feeling unsure. Always bugging me; the fictional biographer teasing out more information to be told for us, when it was already in both sources that were the basis of the film. Feeling unnatural and unnecessary really, just a layer that could be removed to leave his life story to play-out. It does however lead up to the 44th Academy Awards when he is honoured with an honorary Oscar. A moment of melancholy as his past life is now celebrated, whilst he has been living in exile. To be finally be forgiven, having been a victim of the McCarthy witch-hunt which ruined so many lives in Hollywood.
Chaplin however dated it appears today, still works thanks to clever casting, every aspect of this film is near-perfect for a biopic of a film-star of Chaplin’s status. It’s respectful of him, allowing his work to shin through, whilst at the same time not shying away from his private life which lead to his final years.
With the arrival of sound in film, the death of the silent film wasn’t as quick as we believe, after Al Johnson uttered a few words in The Jazz Singer (1927) there were still a few classic silent’s still ready to be released, the power of overacting and subtlety and gestures. Coming from Denmark in 1928 we have Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s The Passion of Joan of Arc/La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) which I only became aware of whilst watching Mark Cousins documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey which itself was fascinating. I have finally found the time to take in this rarity that places acting above all else, even the plot which takes us back to the roots of the Joan of Arc, as the prologue tells us focusing on the transcript of her fateful trial of the daughter of God. A French Inquisition you could say by the church. After Leading France to victory against the English to drive us out of their country. There became more pressing matters, Joan herself who thought God to be more important than the King.
My only other references to the events are through popular culture and a rather pleasant and feeble film Saint Joan (1957) starring Richard Widmark as King Charles VII and Jean Seberg in the title role. It wasn’t what I expected when considering the subject matter. Depicted as a reflective tale of what happens after her execution and life as a saint. We see the events played in retrospect from the first time we see her humble beginnings to trial.
Whereas this film focuses entirely on her trial and execution, we see the real pain and suffering of Joan’s (Maria Falconetti) being tested under the close scrutiny of a large number of priests who want to save her, yet only at the expense of her relinquishing of her declarations and closeness to God. Something that fears them, to have a person in their presence who feels so connected to the all mighty upstairs. Someone who is a threat to their own authority, in a time when religion was still the iron rule over Europe, whatever denomination that maybe.
Of course the film is most notable for the extreme close-ups which I thought would pull away in time to allow us to see more of this world. Instead we see very little of the minimal set. Rightly focusing on the suffering of Jeanne of Arc a now persecuted woman who cries single tears in every other shot. It’s not just for the audience, its as if she really feels the torment of these men who hold her life in their hands. This is real acting of the silent era that cannot be put in the same league as Lillian Gish or Mary Pickford who were more expressive and powerful in a theatrical sense. Falconetti has only her face to work with in this film, and to great effect, as if the hot sun is beating down in her in the hot desert, theres no escaping its power over her. Not many can lay claim to such acting abilities. Whilst men are hovering over her in these extreme close-ups as they decide her future. It seems so futile really but we watch on.
The version of The Passion of Joan of Arc I viewed was accompanied by a soundtrack by Lo Duca which added to the sense of emptiness and despair felt by Joan of Arc. The moments of chunkiness added to the aesthetic of a medium still finding its feet and experiment. Adding a contemporary presence which I also found with a screening of Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) by the Leicester/Yorkshire/Manchester/Londoners Her Name is Calla at the Handmade Festival (2014), Leicester which added extra dread and fear to the subject matter. A live soundtrack is something that cannot be beaten.
I really should catch more silent films, if not only to see film in its infancy, but to see the mostly forgotten classics that are foreshadowed by the era of sound. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is one of them without a doubt that is unrelentingly powerful. It’s minimal sets making way for the acting captured in horrifying and sensitive close ups which make this film something to be treasured for new generations.
- #62: The Passion of Joan of Arc (criterioncollection.blogspot.co.uk)
- Shattering Dreyer Masterpiece ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ is Named Greatest Film of the Silent Era in WitD Polling (wondersinthedark.wordpress.com)
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) (silent-volume.blogspot.co.uk)
- #9 – The Passion of Joan of Arc(1928), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer (fanwithamovieyammer.wordpress.com)
- Review: The Passion of Joan of Arc (chrislejarzar.wordpress.com)