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Audrey Kupferberg: Zaza

Looking over the current crop of films available in theaters or on home screens, it is worth noting that a number of screen veterans are back in the spotlight, adding a strong late act to their respective careers.   Richard Gere is receiving very positive reviews as the complex and quirky title character in NORMAN.  Shirley MacLaine has scored points in WILD OATS and THE LAST WORD. Susan Sarandon,  Jessica Lange, and Christopher Plummer are among the veteran actors who also continue to have active careers. 

However, in the early days of motion pictures, few actors were able to hold onto stardom for more than two or three decades.  Many of the most adored silent film stars faded into the background of talking pictures – often having few or no lines and simply appearing as wallpaper.  Garbo is an exception, of course.  Many silent film stars were deprived of careers in the talkies because they had voices that did not record well, or they were foreign-born thespians who spoke only bits of broken English. Many of the female stars were growing too old to be cast in romantic lead roles.  Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish are examples; they were heading towards forty at the arrival of sound films.  Forty was too old for sex appeal and romance.  Glamour mainly was for the twenty-something women in those days.

Now consider iconic silent film star Gloria Swanson, who entered films when she was a teenager in 1915.   While she is remembered – probably best remembered – for her Academy Award-nominated performance in 1950 as Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s stunning homage to Hollywood stardom, SUNSET BOULEVARD, her silent film career is fascinating.  Along with Pickford, she was one of the first international female stars.  Hollywood royalty.  She was given royal welcomes in the U.S. and Europe during the 1920s. 

This status was well-deserved.  She was an energetic, expressive actress, and she glowed like stardust on the silver screen.  She worked with some of the greatest directors of the silent era.  Allan Dwan, Cecil B. DeMille, and the legendary Erich von Stroheim are examples.  Some of Swanson’s silent films are lost, such as MADAME SANS-GENE.  QUEEN KELLY is a masterpiece available for home screening, but this much-chronicled film project, produced by Swanson’s then lover Joseph Kennedy, was never completed.  DON’T CHANGE YOUR HUSBAND, MALE AND FEMALE, BEYOND THE ROCKS, and SADIE THOMPSON are all available.

The good news for this month is that another Gloria Swanson feature has been made available for home screening.  It is a 1923 feature called ZAZA in which Swanson plays a French showgirl who falls in love, only to be disappointed.  By coincidence or not, the object of her affection happens to be H.B. Warner, who three decades later shows up as one of the card-playing guests in SUNSET BOULEVARD! 

ZAZA, a Kino Lorber Blu-ray release, is fast-paced and full of life.  At one point, Zaza laments: “If you ever have the choice between a broken neck and a broken heart, take the broken neck.”  It is the unusual story that makes you feel very sad for the victimized heroine of the plot, and at the same time allows you to laugh at the young woman’s plight.  Why?  Because Zaza is a plucky gal. 

ZAZA is based on a late-19th-century French play.  Many top stage stars sought to play the title role, including Eleanora Duse and Geraldine Farrar, and ZAZA was filmed a number of times.  Having viewed much of Swanson’s filmography over the years, I have to say I never have seen her as animated and larger-than-life brilliant as she appears in ZAZA.  She dazzles.  When so many years later, Swanson as Norma Desmond speaks the famous words, “We didn’t need voices.  We had faces then,” she might well have been thinking back to her own powerful acting in ZAZA.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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