‘Sunset Boulevard’: THR’s 1950 Review

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On August 10, 1950, Paramount’s Billy Wilder-directed drama Sunset Boulevard premiered in New York. The film went on to earn 11 nominations at the 23rd Academy Awards, winning in the art direction, music and writing categories. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review, titled “‘Sunset Boulevard’ Ranks Among All Time Greats,” is below:

A mass entertainment medium is seldom willing or able to support pure creative effort. The propriety or inequity of this situation is not the province of a review except to illustrate that when a picture comes along in which every element of the production (script, technical accomplishments, performances, and direction) is woven into a natural fulfillment of the motion picture art, a Sunset Boulevard can be the marvelous and satisfying result. That this completely original work is so marvelous, satisfying, dramatically perfect, and technically brilliant is no haphazard Hollywood miracle but the inevitable consequence of the collaboration of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. All their previous and distinguished work seems now to be but dress rehearsals for this triumph of motion picture craftsmanship.

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A review invariable fails the measure of a great motion picture, and in the instance of Sunset Boulevard this is particularly true. We write these words in the humble awareness that they, not of their own right but because of the subject, will be studied years hence when the pundits of the screen set themselves the task of analyzing the durability and greatness of Sunset Boulevard. For just as it is certain that the Paramount picture will do record-breaking business in its initial release it will be brought back again and again in revivals, in art houses, in schools and in studio projection rooms as a lesson in the art and science of the screen.

The Brackett and Wilder script, written in collaboration with D.M. Marshman, Jr., is a model of the screenplay form. Dramatic compulsion and emotional subtlety come even from the choice of words. And when the brittle dialogue is implemented by action, rich in detail and persuasive in pantomime, the effect is bold drama that introduces the spectator to totally new responses. You want to applaud Sunset Boulevard frame by frame; you want to see individual scenes over. Yet you must go along with its relentless emotional tide that finally stops from sheer exhaustion.

A stark opening shot in which the camera finds a body floating face down in a swimming pool sets the mood for Sunset Boulevard. The body is that of William Holden, a young writer, who on the sound track begins to tell his story. His travails are familiar vicissitudes of a studio scribbler. A lean year and he’s broke. In trying to elude a finance company bent on repossessing his care he finds refuge in the garage of an old, run-down Hollywood estate. Here he meets Gloria Swanson, a star of the silent screen who lives in the past. She has a story for her comeback on which she has worked for years — a drama of Salome. She invites him to adapt it. As the weeks pass Holden becomes more and more a part of her tragic life. He accepts the jewelry and clothes she lavishes on him. Even as he knows he can not return her love, he is unable to return to his freer but impoverished ways. When finally the inspiration of collaborating and falling for a younger woman impels him to make a break she shoots him in a iealous rage.

This is brief outline of a tragedy filled with penetrating character analyses, primitive passion, and tension whose aura of unreality is its reality. Billy Wilder’s direction floods the story with sympathy and understanding even as he offers biting irony and ruthless comedy. You are going to hear much of the scene in which the feather of the star’s hat comes in contact with the hated microphone, and the “talking instrument” is rudely brushed away. This episode stands out because its point is the essence of Sunset Boulevard, but it is only one of numerous inspired Wilder touches.

For months reports have come out of Paramount about the extraordinary performance of Gloria Swanson in the role of the faded star. If anything, they have understated the brilliance of her acting. Parts like this come once in a lifetime; personalities like Gloria Swanson come once in a generation. The lovely beauty of the silent screen becomes now a distinguished and important actress of the “talkies.” The Medea-like posturing, the dry wit, the frantic moments of remembrance of glories past, the terrible awakening to truth — all are beautifully modulated and superbly directed toward Miss Swanson’s finale tour de force her ending as a woman hopelessly insane.

As played by William Holden the author emerges as a young man terribly confused, tragically entrapped. Only an actor of Holden’s restrained talents and inner sensitivity could keep the characterization within bounds. That Holden was given it shows the rareness of his kind. Erich von Stroheim’s measured reading of the lone servant in the mansion is striking. The tremendous shock value of two particular sequences, the announcement that he is the star’s first husband and a suicide sequence, draw their impact from his artful underplaying. Nancy Olson is perfect in the part of the reader who tries to lure Holden back to work. Larry Blake and Charles Dayton perform admirably as the finance company agents. Cecil B. DeMille proves that he can always go back to acting with his fine, quiet portrayal of himself. Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nillson, and H. B. Warner, also as themselves, provide a nostalgic note. Hedda Hopper runs glibly through her lines as Hedda Hopper doing a job of on-the-spot reporting.

All the genius of Brackett and Wilder in bringing Sunset Boulevard to such a successful culmination would be of no avail without the help of then technical men. John F. Seitz performs an exciting job of photography, and the art direction of Hans Dreier and John Meehan will be as much discussed as the picture itself. The adornments they found to recreate a florid Holly wood era are monstrous and wonderful. Franz Waxman’s score cleverly follows the emotional patters of the script. The editing of Arthur Schmidt is splendid. — Staff review, originally published on April 17, 1950. 

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