Today is the birthday of creepy-beauty vampy spider lady Gloria Swanson (1899-1983).
Ya didn’t know, did ya? That she got her start with Chaplin at Essanay and then moved on Mack Sennett at Keystone before finally going over to DeMille and starting the career we know her better for? Or maybe you did — but if so, pardon my delight in telling the others.
Swanson started as an extra at Chicago-based Essanay in 1915. Chaplin had originally cast her as the lead in His New Job but reportedly bumped her down to a smaller part when she told him she didn’t think what they were doing was funny. She got her revenge 35 years later in this mortifying scene in Sunset Boulevard:
That same year (1915) she also married Wallace Beery, also a comedian with the studio. The two moved out to the West Coast and Keystone in 1916.
Swanson was the one who got all the attention, though, and she co-starred in a series of comedies with the equally diminutive Bobby Vernon.
She also did some time as one of Sennett’s Bathing Girls:
Reportedly she wasn’t happy with the indignities expected of a Mack Sennett leading lady and so she jumped at the chance to work Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount in 1919 (she divorced Beery, who apparently was a brute, that same year). It was here that she became a vamp superstar throughout the 20s, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
As is well known, the 30s and 40s were lean times for her careerwise until Billy Wilder picked her to star in the iconic Sunset Boulevard in 1950. And even THAT is not her last hurrah; she was to give dozens more film and television performances over the next quarter century.
But Swanson’s ACTUAL last performance is pretty remarkable in its own way. In the movie Airport 1975, she played HERSELF, and it is one of the strangest performances in all cinema. Who thought it up or why it exists, I don’t know. She plays one of the passengers on the ill-fated jet liner, and she spends several extended scenes giving an interview to a reporter about herself, her real self, about her career, her vegetarianism, her sex life. In fact, she won’t shut up, and they keep it in the movie! Just to make matters more confusing, another older Hollywood star, Myrna Loy is also in the movie, but she does not play herself. Papers have been written in NYU film school about far less, and I know, because I have written them.
Don’t miss my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc