Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, March 27, 2015

Gloria Swanson: A Force to Be Reckoned With

Gloria Swanson (born 27 March 1899)

Although she is most remembered--if she is remembered at all--as the aging, crazed Norma Desmond in 1950's Sunset Boulevard, Swanson's career as a film actor and producer began in 1914. Over the course of nearly 70 years (she died on 4 March 1983), Swanson starred in dozens of silent shorts and feature films, made the transition into talking films and then television, turned down a million-dollar-a-year contract with Paramount pictures in 1927 to join United Artists, and ultimately started her own company, Gloria Productions.

In addition to acting, her film credits include singing and costume design. In 1938, she established Multiprizes, ostensibly a patent and invention company, though its purpose seems to have been aimed at helping Jewish scientists escape Europe and find refuge in the U.S. Swanson was nominated for a best actress Academy Award three times, including in 1927/28, the first year of the awards (she never won).

Swanson in Male and Female, 1919
Swanson was famous for her fashion, her many marriages and sexual liaisons, and her dedication to a vegetarian diet long before it became fashionable. In 1980, she published her autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, and although there are more than a few biographies written about her, her own account of her life seems the best place to start--it's as compelling on the page as Swanson herself is on screen.

If you haven't seen Swanson on film, you of course need to see Sunset Boulevard, but you should also see her in some of her great silent films, especially Male and Female (1919), Why Change Your Wife (1920), Beyond the Rocks (1922, with Rudolph Valentino), and Sadie Thompson (1927). It's too bad that none of Swanson's films is currently on Netflix's streaming service, but many are available on DVD, and they are frequently shown on Turner Classic Movies.

For an excellent review of Gloria Swanson's contributions to the emerging film industry, see the profile at the Women Film Pioneers Project. This site includes biographical information, a bibliography, and a well-documented filmography. And, obviously, there's great info on Swanson at IMDb

Swanson in Sadie Thompson, 1928