Rob Edelman: Gloria Swanson

May 14, 2018

Those who know their film history and relish Hollywood classics surely will savor Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BLVD. It dates from 1950, and it stars Gloria Swanson as a faded silent screen legend. Well, Swanson herself was a silent star of the first magnitude. In her heyday, her looks and screen presence combined to win her enduring fame. SUNSET BLVD. was made just two decades after the silent film era faded into history. At a time in which others of her age either were retired or accepting bit parts-- I could spend hours offering examples-- Swanson triumphed in SUNSET BLVD. as Norma Desmond, celebrated ex-silent cinema legend.  

Kino Lorber recently released a pair of Gloria Swanson gems of the 1920’s. As you watch them, you can come away with an insider’s view of what made her so appealing, and why she remains relevant in the 21st century. The first is titled MANHANDLED, and it dates from 1924. Its scenario involves the struggles and dreams of a young woman of the working classes. Her name is Tessie McGuire, and she’s an overburdened department store clerk who subways to and from work every day. Her loyal boyfriend is a combination mechanic and taxi driver, but Tessie wants more from life-- and the story involves her plight as she mixes with some high society types with low morals. One of them is played by an actor with a familiar face and name. He is Frank Morgan, a decade-and-a-half pre-WIZARD OF OZ.

While screening MANHANDLED, one only can be struck by the manner in which its content-- and specifically, Tessie’s issues-- relates as much to today as 1924. Its scenario offers a realistic look at working folk who are unable to transcend their roots as they struggle to live from month to month while paying their bills and raising their families. For indeed, the scenes in which Tessie is stuffed into a crowded subway car during rush hour remains oh so familiar to any New York City commuter in 2018.

The second title offers an apt description of its central character. It is STAGE STRUCK, from 1925, and here Swanson plays yet another dreamer: Jenny Hagen, a small-town waitress who toils in a busy diner while yearning for fame as an actress. STAGE STRUCK also is of note for its opening and closing sequences which were filmed in two-strip Technicolor, an early motion picture process. In this black-and-white cinema age, only a handful of films employed Technicolor. Today, they are nothing short of fascinating.

Given their central characters, both STAGE STRUCK and MANHANDLED are fashioned as traditional “women’s pictures.” And MANHANDLED opens with a bit of advice which also is as true today as a century ago. To quote directly from its prologue: “The world lets a girl believe that its pleasures and luxuries may be hers without cost. That’s chivalry. But if she claims them on that basis, it sends her a bill in full, with no discount. That’s reality.”

Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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