by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Gloria Swanson (1899-1983) is probably best remembered for her Academy Award-nominated portrayal of aging silent movie star Norma Desmond in the classic 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard, and while she certainly had plenty to draw from by experience for her performance, Swanson’s take on Desmond wound up being something of a caricature even as the nomination was a late-stage validation of her talent.
The outsized shadow cast by Desmond clouded Swanson’s stardom during much of the Roaring Twenties when she had few peers in Hollywood. From 1919’s Male and Female, directed by Cecil B. de Mille to Allen Dwan’s Zaza, released in 1923, and the lost Madame Sans-Géne, which was filmed in France in 1925, the diminutive actor was immensely popular and formed her own production company. After making Sadie Thompson, directed by Raoul Walsh and released in 1928 through United Artists, Swanson, who had a three-year affair with financier Joseph P. Kennedy, father of future president John F. Kennedy, agreed to his insistence on making Queen Kelly with director Erich von Stroheim.
The production was marred with all kinds of problems, including Swanson’s dissatisfaction with where von Stroheim was taking the story and he was fired, but the film was not shown in the United States for decades. It was a neat touch that von Stroheim was cast as in Sunset Boulevard as Max, Noma Desmond’s former husband, ex-director, and current butler. Swanson, who contracted significant debts with her production company and was in terrible financial shape after Sadie Thompson was made began her relationship with Kennedy, who financed her new Gloria Productions project, The Trespasser, which was also the star’s first sound picture.
The movie featured Swanson as Marion, a stenographer whose elopement with Jack (Robert Ames, who died just two years later from delirium tremens due to alcoholism) the son of a tycoon is thwarted, but she later gives birth to their son. To raise the child, she becomes the mistress of another, much older, man, Hector Ferguson (Purnell Pratt) whose death exposes her secret while she is left a substantial bequest. She reestablishes contact with her former fiancée, who is married to a woman, Catherine “Flip” Merrick (Kay Hammond), confined to a wheelchair and unable to have children though he intends to leave her, but the child is sent to them. Later, the wife dies and the long-separated council reunite with their child and, naturally, have a happy ending.
The director was Edmund Goulding, who’d made Love in 1927 with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert and who went on to a long career including such films as Grand Hotel (1932) with Garbo and Joan Crawford; the Bette Davis vehicle 1939’s Dark Victory; and the 1946 Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney movie, Razor’s Edge, while he was also a producer, and songwriter/composer. In fact, he composed the music for “Love (Your Spell is Everywhere),” the lyrics for which were written by Elsie Janis, who an actor on stage and screen, as well as a screenwriter and songwriter. Although there is a prior post here about the recording issued for this song and “Serenade,” another tune from the film, this post goes into more detail about the film as well as the music.
While this is not generally known, Swanson possessed a very fine soprano singing voice and it was decided that she would sing the song and another called “Serenade,” composed by Enrico Toselli in the film. Moreover, Swanson was sent to New York City to record the two pieces for the Victor Talking Machine Company, with the Los Angeles Record of 2 August 1929 briefly noting that “Gloria Swanson is in New York making records of two new songs” before sailing for France. The Los Angeles Times of the 11th reported that the actor sailed for Europe after “recording two songs for the phonograph” and then “spending last week-end with Mr. and Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy at Cape Cod.”
The tunes were recorded by the Victor company’s in-house orchestra led by Nathaniel (Nat) Shilkret (1889-1982), a child prodigy on the clarinet and a pianist who played in major orchestras and who joined Victor about 1915. After around a decade, he became the director of the light music area of the firm and may have overseen more recordings than any other figure, while he was also very popular through radio broadcasts. He wrote many popular songs, as well as some classical pieces, with his best-known tune being “Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time,” which sold over 2 million copies.
After the mid-Thirties, he worked in the movie industry writing scores and directing music and the roster of musicians who played for him over the years is remarkable, including the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Artie Shaw, George Gershwin, Jascha Heiftz and Andrés Segovia. Singers who performed with Shilkret and his orchestra included Amelita Galli-Curci, Beniamino Gigli, John McCormack, Jan Peerce, Lily Pons, Rosa Ponselle, Tito Schipa, Gladys Swarthout, and and Lawrence Tibbett.
At the end of August, with the songs in the can and the production completed while the famed bandleader and so-called “King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman worked with her on a broadcast of “Love,” Swanson awaited post-production and the release of The Trespasser, though the specter of the Queen Kelly disaster still loomed. The 31 August 1929 edition of the Los Angeles Express noted that,
Mention of “Queen Kelly” in Hollywood invariably prompts either a snicker, a wisecrack, or a sympathetic tear for Gloria Swanson, who expended more than a small fortune on the Eric von Stroheim story and on his costly direction.
Although work on the picture was discontinued and Miss Swanson proceeded to make “The Trespasser,” now completed, as his [sic] first talkie . . . “Queen Kelly,” if not forgotten, is unmentioned.
Presumably, the star eagerly awaited the release of The Trespasser and its success, while there was additional work done on Queen Kelly in hopes that it could be salvaged with an alternate ending, though this was not filmed until 1931 as Swanson decided to pursue other projects. The Trespasser premiered in New York City on the 1st of November and the Los Angeles Times of the 3rd, reported on her trip across the country, with a stop in Chicago to visit her mother (Swanson got her start in the movies with the Essanay Studio in her hometown nearly fifteen years prior), before coming to the Angel City for its premiere on the 6th.
Notably, she was questioned about whether she would repeat the radio broadcasting of her performances of the tunes for the film and she emphatically declined doing so, saying “it was terrible ordeal” as “everything I had heard of microphone fright seized me.” She chalked up the bad experience to her attempts to write down notes to introduce the songs, but, when it came time to reading these, “everything became blurred” and the actor “laughed and said something exactly opposite to what I intended.”
The film opened, without the usual hullabaloo attending major film debuts, at the United Artists Theatre on Broadway and 9th Street, which opened in December 1927 as one of three (the others in Chicago and Detroit) that marked the first of the chain developed by the studio launched by film luminaries D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Much of the publicity focused on the fact that “Gloria Swanson Speaks” and was breaking her “cinematic silence,” both in terms of acting and singing, with it being noted that “one of the songs that Miss Swanson sings in the picture, ‘Love,’ was especially written for her by Goulding.”
The film was well-received as was Swanson’s performance, with Edwin Schallert of the Times writing that
Yet another popular star achieves her transition from the silents to the talkies, and this time the march may justly be called triumphal. Gloria Swanson, in her first audible expedition, “The Trespasser,” is an actress of both appeal and power. She will perhaps be even a greater success than she was as a personality and a player in the mute cinema.
Miss Swanson’s picture is admirably designed to engage the attention of her public, since, in a way, it is a return to the style of her most successful pictures. It deals unequivocally with an emotional problem. It is a study of a woman’s somewhat pathetic career.
Gloria evinces a rare command over the feelings of her public. Voice adds immeasurably to her range, and endows her work notably with the human quality. She both speaks and sings in the picture, but the singing is of negligible import in contrast to what she is able to do with the word.
Goulding, said to be an early example of a screenwriter and director, was praised for his direction, but the material was considered “rather trite,” so Schallert suggested that Goulding stick to directing, while the actors were briefly credited for their fine work. Meanwhile, Monroe Lathrop of the Express felt that “It’s a more dignified and mature Gloria that presents herself in the new guise” with The Trespasser. He went on to suggest that she was a better actor because movies were improving, as well, and that she transcended her tendency to be a fashion plate in her earlier roles.
In contrast to Schallert, Lathrop felt that “the story is well written by Edmund Goulding, and directed by him with rare technical skill and telling light and shade.” Moreover, “the plot is the reliable old Cinderella theme grafted with modern realism.” Collectively, the cast was considered to be “forceful,” while Swanson was convincing in both the lighter and darker moments of the picture. The critic continued that “vocally, too, she meets the test well,” with it observed that she did well “in her phrasing, which is fluent, pleasing and expressive.” As for her singing, Lathrop more or less agreed with his contemporary, stating that “her singing voice, incidental in the picture and not advanced as a notable talent, is just average.”
Llewellyn Miller in the Record believed that The Trespasser “reveals the star as the possessor of one of the loveliest voices on the talking screen” and added that she had “a light flexible soprano that is capable of joyous swiftness, of flat hardness and of concentrated intensities” while the actor “never seemed more lovely or convincing.” This was largely due, Miller opined, to the fact that Goulding’s screenplay “is both civilized and intelligently adult,” even as there were too many coincidences in the plot.
As to Swanson’s showcased songs they “are introduced rather too obviously,” but, thanks to “unusually fine direction” and the star’s “remarkable, gallant Marion,” the critic felt that “these flaws fade into the background as inconsiderable.” The cast was deemed excellent and Miller concluded his summary with the observation that,
“The Trespasser” is an absorbing picture, made exciting and rare by its dominantly civilized treatment. It should not be missed and will be hard to see for several weeks, unless you are good at battling crowds.
That prediction bore out as the film performed well at the box office, with the Express noting that Swanson’s long absence from the screen (at least by the standards of the day) and the fact that this was her first sound picture, made it of interest to movie-goers. Later, the United Artists played up “The Mystery Of The Voice Of Gloria Swanson” as a “magic power” luring thousands daily to see and hear the star speak and claiming that “Men, Women and Children have been amazed at her acting . . . stunned by the power of her portrayal . . . enchanted with the golden tones of her lovely voice.”
Playwright Robert E. Sherwood, who later won three Pulitzer Prizes for drama and one for biography, while also taking home an Oscar for screenwriting, wrote in his syndicated column appearing in the Hollywood Citizen-News that “it seems that, after all, Gloria Swanson has scored a huge success in talking pictures” though this was “due, surprisingly enough, to the extraordinary skilfull [sic] manipulation of sound.”
With his exacting theatrical standards, Sherwood called the screenplay “just simply awful” that was too often improbable and with plot points and characters “from the archives of hokum.” Goulding was credited with holding the viewer’s attention “by means of the eloquent noises that he makes,” while “Miss Swanson sobs her little heart out, [and] you sob with her, even though there is no legitimate reason for her tears or for yours.”
Swanson traveled to London for the premiere there and conducted “an experiment that made motion-picture history” as “she made her radio debut” and her singing of “Love,” the origin of which was discussed in the Times of 11 November as emanating from whistling of the basic melody by Goulding on set, was carried by short-wave radio signals to New York City and rebroadcast and recorded onto “R.C.A. Photophone talking film.” This was the first trans-Atlantic transmission and recording of its kind and required some 100 engineers, yet the star expressed discomfort with the experience, telling reporters,
The terrible part about it is that in broadcasting, once a thing is done, it’s done. A poor note goes on forever. It cannot be recalled. Whereas in making a talking picture or a record ‘retakes’ permit the elimination of mistakes. I’d give anything if I could rush out to a receiving set in time to hear myself singing on the air.
The star was shocked to learn that her performance was recorded and that she could hear it when she returned to New York City (the recording was rebroadcast on KFI in Los Angeles on 8 December). The good news is that her appearance in London drew 5,000 fans and it took a dozen “bobbies” to create a formation allowing Swanson to alight from her car and the Record of the 20th added, “when the audience saw her enter the theater it began applauding and cheering so insistently that the picture had to be halted in the first reel and the star to appear on the stage immediately” instead of after the conclusion of the film.
Swanson was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress, though, as with Sunset Boulevard, for which she was again nominated in that category, she did not take home the statuette. In fact, while the star made several films through 1934, there was a long hiatus until Sunset Boulevard, though the actor did not live in seclusion or suspended animation like Norma Desmond. After her great comeback, there were few film roles and another lengthy gap until her last appearance in the disaster flick, Airport 1975.
As for Swanson’s recording career, there were two more studio sessions, in Hollywood in July 1930 for Victor and May 1931 for Brunswick, though the first, for the film What a Widow!, were apparently destroyed and, of course, not released, while the second, in New York for the picture Indiscreet, did yield some recordings that were issued.
Was Gloria Swanson a good singer? You can judge for yourself with these recordings of the two songs from The Trespasser, including “Love (Your Spell Is Everywhere)” and “Serenade“. As for the film, it has survived and can be viewed on the website of the George Eastman Museum, so check it out and see the star’s Oscar-nominated performance.