Sunday, January 01, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Sunset Blvd. (1950) at the Bay Theatre

SUNSET BLVD. was the last title on a list of 10 classics I had made it a goal to see in 2011. When I recently learned the movie would be playing at a theater near my home on New Year's Day, I was happy to push seeing it into the year 2012!

SUNSET BLVD. is, of course, the Billy Wilder film about struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), who happens upon the decaying home of faded movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Dead broke and with his car about to be repossessed, Joe takes a job rewriting the awful screenplay Norma has created for a planned comeback. Joe then turns into a gigolo, becoming Norma's lover in exchange for a comfortable, if creepy, lifestyle.

I reacted to SUNSET BLVD. about as I expected, given what I'd read about it over the years. On one level I enjoyed watching and analyzing it, and I appreciated the artistry behind it, but it wasn't really my kind of movie. Although the film has a distinctive visual look, I found it too ugly and creepy to really like. Dead monkeys, a mausoleum-like house, and Gloria Swanson with nasty-looking patches all over her face just aren't my particular cup o' tea.

The parts of the film I really enjoyed were the scenes Holden shares with Jack Webb, as his assistant director pal, and Nancy Olson, playing the spirited young woman who becomes Joe's screenwriting partner. I was so relieved in each scene when Joe was out in the "real reel world" with normal people!

Holden and Olson had marvelous chemistry and starred in four films together in the early '50s, also including UNION STATION (1950) and SUBMARINE COMMAND (1951); I recorded their other film, FORCE OF ARMS (1951), not long ago.

I found it quite interesting trying to figure out Joe and his motivations. He had been having a tough time financially, but it was hard to understand him being desperate enough to pay the price he paid. Sure, he was going through a rough patch, but he also had a nice friend willing to lend him his couch, and I didn't see his future as entirely without hope. Indeed, as the film moves along, he and Betty (Olson) enthusiastically work on a story for a film, and while it may have been tough selling it, he wasn't alone in the fight to be a screenwriting success.

I was also confused by the New Year's sequence when Joe plans to leave Norma and has asked Artie (Webb) if he can bunk on his couch. When Joe hears about Norma's suicide attempt, he races out of the party and back to Norma. Why? If he planned to leave, he couldn't have been sad that his meal ticket was endangered, and I never really felt that he cared emotionally. What was Norma's pull?

I also wondered about Norma's financial resources. On the one hand she seems hard up for cash, with the exterior of her house gone to ruin. On the other hand she had enough funds to buy Joe clothes, serve caviar, and put the pool back in good working order.

And what were the motivations of Max (Erich von Stroheim), the man who keeps Norma living in her fantasy world? I don't feel that was adequately explained and had the sense he was, in his own way, as mad as his ex-wife.

Maybe this is a film, like VERTIGO (1958), that requires multiple viewings to figure it all out!

My daughter, who accompanied me, now works in the development end of the film industry and reacted with hilarity to some of the scenes. She said some of the crazy ideas for rewriting scripts were very true to life, and Hollywood hasn't changed in that regard, even decades later! She said she sure got a lot more out of the movie the second time around than when she was a college freshman.

Fred Clark has a single scene as a studio exec, and Cecil B. DeMille was quite good in an extended sequence where Norma visits Paramount Studios. I thought I saw Henry Wilcoxon flash by in the DeMille sequence, and according to IMDb, it was him! Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, and Hedda Hopper have small roles as well.

The film runs 110 minutes.

All in all, I'm glad I finally saw SUNSET BLVD. and filled in an important gap in my film viewing, even if I wasn't especially enthused about it.

This was my first visit to the Bay Theatre in Seal Beach, California. I'm not sure how it is I'd never been there before, given it's just 10 minutes or so from my home. The Bay has been in operation since 1947, and it alternates showing well-known classics with newer releases.

The interior of the theater is a bit shabby, but it was clean and our seats were in good shape given their age. The theater had a slight musty smell, which only added to the overall mood of SUNSET BLVD.! The print was excellent, save for one tiny patch in the middle of the movie where some dialogue skipped. It was fairly well attended for a holiday, with perhaps 60 or 70 people in the audience.

I've had a wide variety of movie viewing experiences over the years, including a revival theater that projected movies onto the equivalent of a sheet and another set in a converted swimming pool, and I found the Bay very acceptable. I will definitely return. It's nice to know there's a theater showing classics so close to home!

Southern Californians who might visit the Bay may wish to know there is only street parking; on this visit I had no difficulty securing a spot near the theater. The other important thing to know is that the box office takes cash only. This necessitated raiding my coin purse but we scraped together enough quarters and dimes to pay for our tickets without needing to make a fast ATM run!

The other nine films on my list of 10 classics to see in 2010: SHANE (1953), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1941), BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955), STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), THE LADY EVE (1941), BALL OF FIRE (1941), THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), and VERTIGO (1958).

8 Comments:

Blogger Karen said...

Your insights were fascinating to me, Laura -- I guess because I love this movie so much that I can't imagine that everyone in the world doesn't feel the same way. LOL. I'd like to think I could clear up some of your confusion -- although who knows if any of my perceptions are correct – but here goes. I think that Joe stayed on at the mansion (despite the promising screenplay he was working on) because he'd frankly come to enjoy the benefits of being kept by Norma. He certainly didn't have many prospects for Vicuna coats, tailor-made suits, and gold cigarette cases or living in a mansion with a swimming pool out in the real world. Despite his own revulsion at what he’d allowed himself to become, I think it was hard for him to easily give it up to go back to the hand-to-mouth struggle that he’d so narrowly escaped. As for why Joe rushed back to Norma when he learned of her suicide attempt, I think he did this because he had grown to care for Norma, and felt a sense of guilt that she had tried to take her life because of her love for him. And Max -- I think that he'd been madly, wildly in love with Norma from the beginning, and even though they were long-divorced, and even though he now worked for her, and even though she treated him like nothing more than a servant, he was still devoted to her -- content to still be part of her life and do all that he could to make her happy, which meant maintaining the illusion that she was still loved and remembered by the public. And I think her house was rundown on the outside because Norma's life was inside the house -- where she was surrounded by the endless beautiful images of herself, her pipe organ and her movie screen, her marble floors and gothic furnishings, the endless letters from her fans – and, of course, her beloved monkey/child. I don’t think that she was at all strapped for cash – I believe she was very wealthy, with more money than she would ever be able to spend. She had created an illusion of reality, but it was removed from the outside world. I get the impression that she seldom ventured out, so I doubt that she even gave much (or any) consideration toward spending her money to make sure that the pool was cleaned and filled or that the lawns were manicured. That was not her world – until Joe came along, and she was compelled to expand and, therefore, improve her world in an effort to ensure that he was content. (Also, her failure to maintain her home's exterior was, undoubtedly, impacted by the fact that she was more than a little, shall we say, eccentric.) Whew! That said, I really enjoyed your post, your thoughts, and your analysis! ;o )

10:29 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Karen, I really loved your comments; I so enjoy "figuring out" well-made films and discussing them with others! You gave me a lot to think about. I especially liked your comments about the exterior of Norma's house and her life being in the house. Very perceptive idea there! Including her having to expand to a nice outside, at least around the pool, to "keep" Joe.

I also liked your thought that part of what drove Joe back to Norma after her suicide attempt was guilt. I'm not convinced on first viewing that he did more than tolerate her -- perhaps I'll discover some new insights on that on a future viewing -- but guilt does make sense to me, after all she'd done for him.

Thank you *very* much for taking the time to share your thoughts, Karen! Part of the fun of seeing movies is hashing them over afterwards! :)

Best wishes,
Laura

10:38 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Another classic film in an old movie house, boy are you doing the town right. I got a kick out of your daughter's insights on rewriting scripts based on her present day knowledge of the industry.

Yes, it's another one of those movies that you need to see more than once. It's engrossing, but in the absence of any lightheartedness, you really have to be up for it, I guess. I agree with Karen's assessment of Joe's motivations.

I particularly admire Swanson's bold parody of her 1920s career. There were few actress of the day that would have taken a role which so cruelly scraped off the glamour of former days. Most actress "of a certain age" in 1950 were grasping with both hands the illusion of carefully maintained glamour.

6:04 AM  
Blogger readerman said...

Very nice write up. I like the film more than you, but over the years Double Indemnity and the Apartment have replaced it as my favorite Wilder. It would have been interesting to see how Monty Clift would have played Holden's role. Seems like Clift was offered every big role at the time. Joe sticks with Norma because he lacks confidence to give up the gravy train. Sure it's a creepy relationship, but deep down, Joe's not all that nice a guy.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Irene said...

I have been to a number of films at the Bay. My daughter and her boyfriend recently went to see It's a Wonderful Life and they dressed up in the period of the 40's to do it (they love doing that kind of thing. Today they dressed up to go see The Artist)
The history of the bay and it's current reincarnation are very interesting. It was purchased back in 1975 by Richard Loderhouse, a gentleman from New York, primarily to house his pipe organ. For a number of years they showed silent films there to the accompaniment of the organ. I was fortunate enough to attend the organs final performances several years ago. This Mr. Loderhouse was in ill health and had moved to Florida to live with his daughter. But he and she and several other family members and friends were there that day. The place was packed with fans and pipe organ enthusiasts. I ended up sitting up front right in front of him and spoke with him at length. He used to live in an apartment that is located right above the theater. It is now used for storage but I've been told it still looks like it did in the 70's with shag rugs and stuff. The daughter from Florida still owns it but I believe she is trying to sell it. I'm glad to hear there was so many people there and it was the same when Jennifer and Darrel went. You can find the Bay Theater web site on the web and keep up that way with the films offered there. They also show current films, usually the more artsy ones (though not right now - it's a Twilight movie currently, yuck).

12:44 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Jacqueline,

Enjoyed your input on the film! It was an interesting enough film I'd go back and see it again in the future, even though I wasn't that big a fan of it. It had a lot of "meat" worth dissecting!

I was kind of amazed, as I watched it, that Swanson was willing to do that part!

My daughter told me a couple stories of script/story overhauls which were funny enough to rival those discussed in the movie. :)

Best wishes,
Laura

5:47 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Readerman,

I think that's an interesting point, that Joe wasn't that nice a guy. It seems as though he realized it when he backed out of a relationship with Betty, sending her back to his friend, and ultimately sending himself into the swimming pool!

Best wishes,
Laura

5:48 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Irene,

Thanks for the very interesting background info on the Bay. If the theater is sold I hope it will continue in operation.

It looks like the classics shown don't stray too far away from very well-known titles likely to draw bigger crowds, but that can definitely fill a niche. I've never seen A PLACE IN THE SUN and will consider heading over there for it later in January.

Hope to see you there sometime! :)

Best wishes,
Laura

5:49 PM  

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