Saturday, March 27, 2021

Born Today March 27: Gloria Swanson



To call Gloria Swanson a movie star would almost be an understatement. She was a superstar and one of the few silent films actresses to be still recognized by people today even if they they have no knowledge of, or interest in, silent films.  She was born Gloria Josephine May Swanson on this day in Chicago. Though born into a military family that moved often, her earliest connection to films also came in Chicago and Essanay studios headquartered there. She still had family in the city and on visit to an aunt, as the story goes, she was taken on a tour of the studio (she said due to a crush on matinee idol Francis X. Bushman, who was under contract to Essanay at the time); while touring the studio, she caught the eye of either some film makers or the tour guide and was offered a small walk on role on the spot. It was 1914 and she was just 15 years old. That film was The Fable of the Club Girls and the Four Times Veteran (December 1914). The only other credit in the cast that has survived is Lillian Drew, who was the lead.  It is certainly one of the most accidental beginnings to an acting career for someone so clearly talented.  And clearly the experience spiked a sincere interest into going into that line of work. And, it was at Essanay where she started that work, where they quickly increased her pay from $3.25 a day to $13.25.  Her first named credit came in 1915 in the Gerda Holmes short melodrama At the End of a Perfect Day, where she played the maid. At Essanay she would also cross paths with another superstar of the silent screen in his earliest days of acting in the U.S.:  Charlie Chaplin. Still just 15 years old, she had a role in His New Job released in February of 1915, she had the uncredited part of the stenographer. Also at Essanay in 1915, she had a fully credited role in a film with Wallace Beery: The Broken Pledge (June 1915), a comedy short, where she is credited as "Gloria Mae" (Beery would become the first of her six husbands the next year). Her very next film was her first at Keystone; Sunshine (May 1916), another short comedy starring funny men Jack Cooper and Hank Mann. While at Keystone she also acted in couple of Charly Chase comedies; before settling in under the direction of Clarence G. Badger where she got her first leading lady roles. In 1918, she landed a role in her first feature, the Frank Borzage melodrama Society for Sale over at Triangle studios.  It was high profile work and she had the female lead in the film.  Once she entered feature film work, there was no looking back to short film work for her; and stardom was just around the corner.  She was next highly recommended to director Jack Conway, who put her at the top of the bill in his melodrama Her Decision, where she is once again playing a stenographer.  Between 1918 and the start of 1920, she was in eleven features, all of which she was the star of, all of which had posters featuring her name and face. The last three of these were Cecil B. DeMille films while she was "on loan" from Triangle to Famous Players/Paramount. She was only just 20 years of age.  When Triangle got into financial difficulty, she eventually made the change to Paramount permanent, and her first film of the new decade was also a DeMille film: Why Change Your Wife? (May 1920-wide release).  DeMille would be the director who brought her superstardom and it was one of his films, The Affairs of Anatol (1921), that often makes essential viewing lists. Other than DeMille, Sam Wood was the other director who used her in the female leads of his films at the studio, most were melodramas with the odd comedy here and there. It was in a Wood film that Swanson starred along side Rudolph Valentino in 1922: Beyond the Rocks.  In 1923, she had a walk on cameo--along with almost all of Tinsel Town it seems--in Hollywood, directed by James Cruze, with whom she shares a birthday; the cameo is a testament to how famous she had become (among the cameos was Cecil B. DeMille, it would not be the last film with Swanson that he would have a cameo in...). In the mid portion of the decade, director Allan Dwan became the studio's "Swanson director;" directing her in some of her most well known silents, including Zaza (1923), Manhandle (1924), and Stage Struck (1925).  In 1927, she started her own production company Gloria Swanson Pictures; though the company would only turn out three films(two of them silent), the first of which was The Love of Sunya.  The other Gloria Swanson production from the decade is the now restored Sadie Thompson (1928), with Lionel Barrymore and directed by Raoul Walsh, who has a role in the film.  Her last film of the decade was also her first talkie (though it was also shot as a silent); The Trespasser (November 1929) was one of only two productions of Gloria Productions, was written and directed by Edmund Goulding and was nominated for an Oscar (Best Actress for Swanson). Although Swanson was a first rate actress who had no real issues with the transition to sound, nonetheless her career began to slow in the 1930's, at least on the silver screen. She took up radio acting, and when she moved to New York in 1938, stage acting.  She did of course make occasional films, some of them absolute classics. That is certainly the case with her performance as Norma Desmond, the aging and psychotic silent film star with dreams of a come back, in Sunset Blvd. in 1950! The film sports cameos a-plenty by a number of people from the actual silent era; DeMille's appearance is the most famous.  Swanson also did some television: there was the short lived series that she hosted in 1948 The Gloria Swanson Hour and numerous appearances on early talk shows. She even did some live television in 1953 in the season 2 episode The Pattern of the live anthology series Hollywood Opening Night that aired the 16th of February.  She made two films in 1974 (one of which was for television); making her appearance in Airport 1975 (October 1974) her last film. She died from an heart ailment in her beloved adopted home town of New York City on the 4th of April in 1983 at the age of 84. She was cremated and interred there in the columbarium of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan.  

[source: Bobby Kelley (Find a Grave)]

[source:  Randy McCoy (Find a Grave)]



Find a Grave entry 

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