Are you a fan of classic Hollywood actress Gloria Swanson?
Maybe you’ve seen her in the 1950 drama, Sunset Boulevard, as an aging silent film star living a reclusive life in a creepy Gothic mansion.
Or maybe you’ve read about her lavish wardrobe + lifestyle in the 1920s. (“The second woman in Hollywood to make a million,” goes the saying, “and the first to spend it.”)
But maybe you know nothing about her, in which case you’ve come to the Right Place.
Gloria Swanson was a big, BIG name in the 1920s. She ran her own production company for a time, and she made a fortune for Paramount Pictures.
She was also very funny.
Swanson signed with Mack Sennett’s Keystone Comedies when she first came to Hollywood, and working in these shorts sharpened her skills in slapstick and comic timing, something she wasn’t initially enthused about.
“I hated comedy, because I thought it was ruining my chance for dramatic parts,” said Swanson. “[But] the mark of an accomplished actor is timing, and it can be acquired only in comedy… Comedy makes you think faster, and after Keystone I was a human lightning conductor.”¹
(We recommend Swanson’s autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, a beast of a book at over 500 pages, but her observations are well worth it.)
You might Get a Kick out of her in the 1925 comedy, Stage Struck, in which she plays a waitress in a greasy spoon restaurant who secretly dreams of being a Great Stage Actress.
Film historian Jeanine Basinger says Swanson was “another of those dinky little women who became great silent film stars. Only four feet eleven inches tall, she managed to strut across the screen in outfits that would have overwhelmed a larger leading lady.”²
Basinger says it was director Cecil B. DeMille who established Swanson’s on-screen brand in the early 1920s. “[H]e turned her into a symbol of a new kind of American woman,” writes Basinger. “She was rich, magnificently and luxuriously dressed, with jewellery to knock ’em dead in Peoria.”³
So in Stage Struck, Swanson pokes fun at her image. Here she is, a poorly-attired young woman who longs for two things: (1) a glam acting career; and (2) her handsome-but-lazy co-worker (Lawrence Gray), a fellow obsessed with actresses.
(It’s hard to see why Swanson’s character is in love with this oaf, but let’s roll with it.)
Imagine her chagrin, then, when a riverboat show arrives in town, complete with a chic, Swanson-esque leading lady (Gertrude Astor), sporting a Swanson-esque wardrobe!
Of course Gray becomes enamored with Astor, and Swanson feels she must Compete for his affections. Let the games begin!
About Swanson in this film: We cannot stress enough how unattractive and un-Swanson-like her wardrobe is. Naturally, as a gal working in a busy restaurant, she must wear Comfortable Shoes (in which she looks adorable), but when she tries to design her own couture wardrobe, it’s both hilarious and a little pitiful.
Her physical comedy, though, is sublime. For example, watch as she carries an overloaded tray of dishes through a rowdy lunch crowd. Her choreography is stunning; we rewound it three times to study her movements.
There are a lot of sight gags in this film, but our favourite is Swanson flipping pancakes:
If you’ve only ever seen Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, we encourage you to seek out one of her comedies. If you’re looking for a place to start, we recommend Stage Struck, and you can watch it for free HERE. Enjoy!
¹Basinger, Jeanine. (1999) Silent Stars. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, p. 207.
²Ibid., p. 205
³Ibid., pp. 208-209
Stage Struck: starring Gloria Swanson, Lawrence Gray, Gertrude Astor. Directed by Allan Dwan. Written by Frank R. Adams, Forrest Halsey, Sylvia LaVarre. Paramount Pictures, 1925, B&W and Technicolor, 70 mins.