Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – The Eternally Glamorous Gloria Swanson
If you hear the words “glamour” and “movie star,” which famous name comes to mind? Chances are someone like Marilyn Monroe or Sophia Loren. Or perhaps – hopefully! – you thought of Gloria Swanson. Heck, her name even sounds like “glamour”. For a small gal (she was about 5’ 2”, and didn’t mind joking about it), she left a big legacy.
A former “military brat” growing up around various army bases, by the time Swanson was a teenager her family was living in Chicago. She developed a crush on screen heartthrob Francis X. Bushman, which gave her Aunt Inga the idea of taking her on a tour of Bushman’s Chicago-based Essanay studio. This was a dream come true to young Swanson, and delightfully, it led to another dream also coming true. Swanson, who had decided to doll herself up, was spotted by an Essanay casting director and he allowed her to do a walk-on role in a Gerda Holmes film. Meeting Essanay’s approval, she was then hired as a bit player and extra. The girl’s life-long career had begun.
Deciding to drop out of school and work in “moving pictures” full time, she stayed busy at Essanay and was soon graduating to larger roles. In 1915 she acted in the comedy Sweedie Goes to College starring Wallace Beery (known today as one of the silent screen’s go-to villains). When Beery was hired by Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio in Los Angeles, Swanson also headed west. She and Beery married in 1916.
The marriage didn’t last long–Swanson had regrets about the mismatched union almost immediately–and Beery only worked in a few films at Keystone before being fired. But happily, Swanson was a hit at Keystone. She was costarred with the equally diminutive Bobby Vernon in comic romances such as The Nick of Time Baby and Teddy at the Throttle (both 1917). And contrary to popular legend, she had never been one of the Sennett Bathing Beauties – frequently-circulated photos of her in an old-timey bathing suit were publicity for her starring role in The Pullman Bride (1917) (Bathing Beauties always acted as an uncredited group).
While she was popular, the lofty-minded Swanson disliked the Sennet slapstick and aspired to more “moonlight and magnolias” types of roles – in later years she drily said, “In those days, I was rather a prissy young lady.” She got her chance in Triangle’s 1918 dramas Her Decision and You Can’t Believe Everything. These films caught the attention of legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, who offered her a contract. Moonlight and magnolias were finally within reach.
DeMille would direct six of her films, where she often starred alongside matinee idol Thomas Meighan. These light comedy-dramas, centered around romantic complications, were set in wealthy homes and featured ballgowns and pricey parties aplenty. Swanson proved game for more than posing in elegant frocks, too–in a fantasy sequence in Male and Female (1919), she insisted on acting in a dangerous scene with a real lion. Under DeMille’s direction, she quickly attained her rightful place as one of the 1920s’ biggest movie stars.
Of her many popular 1920s features, noteworthy appearances included sharing the screen with Rudolph Valentino in Beyond the Rocks (1922), starring in the French-American Madame Sans-Gêne (1925) filmed at historic Napoleon-related sites, and starring in the eyebrow-raising Sadie Thompson (1928), filmed by her own Gloria Swanson Productions. The latter became noteworthy for the number of curse words lip-reading moviegoers were able to spot.
Swanson was not only known for her beauty and talent, but her extravagant lifestyle befitting one of the Jazz Age’s most bankable stars. She was said to receive 10,000 fan letters a week and had a mansion in Beverly Hills staffed with a dozen servants. She recalled later on: “We lived like kings and queens, and why not? We were in love with life…We had just fought the war that was to end all wars, and everyone believed there was nothing but peace and pleasure ahead.”
Her personal life also frequently made the gossip columns, since she would marry six times in all. One marriage was to a marquis (albeit not a wealthy one), and in between husbands she was usually involved in affairs (both real and rumored). Her final and longest-lasting marriage was to William Dufty in 1976, which would last until her death.
As talkies became popular at the end of the 1920s she attempted a final silent: Queen Kelly, directed by Erich von Stroheim. The expensive production was riddled with problems, including long hours and Swanson’s objections to unnecessary innuendo and a “grim” storyline set in Africa. Stroheim was eventually let go and an edited, milder Queen Kelly would have a limited release in 1932.
With her busy career finally winding down throughout the 1930s, Swanson began to make fewer screen appearances and turn her attention to other pursuits. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, she was an avid painter and sculptor, designed clothing, appeared on radio and on the stage, advocated for healthy lifestyles (she was a vegetarian), was a politically active Republican, and even hosted her own television show, The Gloria Swanson Hour. Always staying busy, in 1954 she also distributed a newsletter called Gloria Swanson’s Diary.
In 1950 she was offered a prominent role: the aging former silent film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Swanson was game to play the role, which other former silent-era actresses had turned down and threw herself into it. Surreally, Erich von Stroheim played her butler, and in one scene he runs a projector so Norma can give a showing of Queen Kelly. Her “comeback” of sorts (maybe we should call it a return) earned her an Academy Award nomination.
For the remainder of her career, Swanson would frequently appear on talk shows and make appearances in television shows like Burke’s Law and The Beverly Hillbillies –while not appearing on the stage. Her final film appearance was as herself in the hit drama Airport 1975 (1974). She and her husband William Dufty would also give talks about nutrition, especially macrobiotic diets. After a full and busy life, she passed away in 1983 at a New York City hospital from heart disease. An icon in her time, she remains so today, an elegant symbol of the glamour Hollywood used to have.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.