Sunset of an Era

Towards the end of the Redford Theatre’s showing of Sunset Boulevard (1950) on February 7, 2009, the images and the atmosphere combined to give me a deeper feeling for the significance of both the theater and the movie. Sunset Boulevard is a strange tribute to the silent movie era, thanks in part to the performances of two people who helped make the history of that era (Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim). 

The opening of the Redford 81 years ago on January 27, 1928 can in part be credited to screen images created by stars like Swanson and directors like Von Stroheim.  In the 1920s, grand theaters were needed to match the grandeur of stars like Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, and Greta Garbo.  Sunset Boulevard included a clip from the 1928 film Queen Kelly, in which Swanson was directed by Von Stroheim, in one of the last big films of the silent era.

As I watched Sunset Boulevard, several layers of nostalgia and history filtered my view of this classic film. 

It was released 59 years ago, and that by itself made it appealing to old movie buffs like myself.  There was William Holden, at the beginning of his run of classic 1950s films (that also included Stalag 17, Picnic, and The Bridge on the River Kwai.).  Holden’s best friend was played by a young and slender Jack Webb, before he became famous as Joe Friday on Dragnet.

In the book The Story of Cinema (1982), David Shipman writes about Sunset Boulevard: “…its strongest quality, permeating the entire film, is its veneration for an earlier age of motion pictures.” 

I was delighted by Swanson’s imitation of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp figure.  The card table scene with silent film stars H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, and our old friend Buster Keaton was very poignant.  And in my reading about Swanson and Von Stroheim, I discovered that Swanson fired Von Stroheim as director of Queen Kelly because of cost overruns—giving deeper off-screen meaning to their relationship in Sunset Boulevard.

All of this came through powerfully thanks to the unique texture of the Redford—its shadows and echos that reveal so much history as you fully absorb its atmosphere.  

This Saturday night showing of Sunset Boulevard drew a larger number of young adults, maybe drawn by the campy, grotesque performance of Gloria Swanson.  For many, it seemed like the perfect warmup for their Saturday night partying.

And only in a theater like the Redford can you fully experience the power of the final scene, as Gloria Swanson moves towards the camera, a strange look in her face and eyes, fading away forever.

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Copyright © 2009 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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