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Tag Archives: Cecil B. DeMille

Sunset Boulevard (Aug. 10, 1950)

Sunset Boulevard
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Directed by Billy Wilder
Paramount Pictures

I first saw Sunset Boulevard at Cornell Cinema a long, long time ago. I never attended Cornell University, but I grew up in Ithaca, NY, and I was spoiled by Cornell’s cinema program from a young age.

On Saturday afternoons I used to get dropped off and see “kid classics” like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Magic of Lassie (1978), Oliver Twist (1948), Captains Courageous (1937), and even silent movies like Peter Pan (1924) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), which I saw with my grandmother, who was a freshman in high school when The Kid was first released. I remember them showing a Laurel & Hardy short first, but I can’t remember which one. My grandma and I both laughed a lot that afternoon.

It’s no wonder I turned out how I turned out.

Anyway, I can’t remember exactly when I first saw Sunset Boulevard at Cornell Cinema, but I think it was some time when I was home from college, which means I was nominally an adult, but not really grown up yet.

sunset-boulevard-pool2a

I’ve seen a lot of movies as an adult (like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon) that resonated much more deeply for me than they did when I first saw them in my teens or 20s. But Sunset Boulevard wasn’t one of those movies. It was exactly as amazing as I remember it. I loved it when I was younger, and I love it just as much now.

Of course, there were things I contemplated in a slightly different way this time around — like what the larger meaning of a character like Norma Desmond in Hollywood is, or the interesting gender reversal of William Holden’s character exposing himself as a “kept man” to his sweetheart, which is roughly equivalent to the cliché of the “fallen woman” but much less common.

But for the most part, I was thrilled and captivated by all the same things; Gloria Swanson’s over-the-top but utterly human portrayal of a reclusive former superstar, William Holden’s relatable Everyman, Erich von Stroheim’s semi-autobiographical performance as “Max von Mayerling,” Norma Desmond’s devoted butler who used to play a very different role in her life, and the cameos by real silent film stars like Buster Keaton.

Holden and Swanson

Another thing I love about Sunset Boulevard is how it works on so many different levels. Billy Wilder is one of those rare directors (like Alfred Hitchcock) who made movies full of wit, style, and interesting ideas that can also be enjoyed strictly as popcorn entertainment. For instance, Sunset Boulevard frequently and shamelessly veers into horror-film territory. The scene early in the film where Norma Desmond and her butler Max conduct a nighttime funeral for her deceased pet chimpanzee looks eerily similar to the funeral that opens Dracula’s Daughter (1936), in which Gloria Holden and her manservant lay her father, Count Dracula, to rest. (In fact, there is probably an entire essay to be written about the connections between Dracula’s Daughter — and other Universal horror films — and Sunset Boulevard.)

Like every great classic film, Sunset Boulevard continues to speak to us while occupying its own unique place in history. (Hollywood is still a cruel place for older female actors, but Norma Desmond’s fall from the limelight is intrinsically linked with the transition from silent films to talkies.) It’s one of the greatest films about Hollywood every made.

Unconquered (Oct. 10, 1947)

Cecil B. DeMille’s Unconquered is an overblown, bodice-ripping Technicolor epic that’s equal parts high drama and high camp. It’s also a whole lot of fun.

DeMille was 65 years old when he directed Unconquered, and by that point in his career he knew his way around an over-budget spectacle. (Unconquered cost almost $5 million to make, a king’s ransom in 1947.)

Most of the money shows up on screen, though. This is a great-looking picture. It drags a little in places, but for the most part it’s a fun ride. There are a few standout action set pieces — like a canoe chase that ends with a drop straight down a waterfall — but the talky bits are pretty enjoyable, too, even if they’re straight out of a potboiler.

Unconquered, which is based on Neil H. Swanson’s novel The Judas Tree, takes place in 1763, when Fort Pitt marked the end of the known and the beginning of the unknown in America. Located where one can now find Pittsburgh, the fort was the last outpost of civilization in the New World, surrounded by a vast forest filled with hostile Indians.

A beautiful Englishwoman named Abigail Hale (Paulette Goddard) stands trial for the murder of the royal officer who was killed when she was helping her brother fight off the King’s press gang. She is given a choice, face execution in England or be sold as a bond slave in Norfolk, Virginia.

Naturally, she chooses life over death, but life as a bond slave is no picnic, especially when she’s bought by the villainous arms trader Garth (Howard Da Silva). The handsome Capt. Christopher Holden (Gary Cooper) outbids Garth and then casually gives Abby her freedom, but the treacherous Garth makes a deal with the slave trader to double-sell her and retakes possession of her.

Garth’s villainy isn’t limited to his treatment of beautiful white female slaves. He also has a monopoly on the lucrative beaver-fur trade west of Fort Pitt, and will do anything to maintain it, including arming the hostile Indian tribes to prevent white settlement beyond the Alleghenies.

The chief of one of those hostile Indian tribes is named Guyasuta, and he’s played by Boris Karloff, who’s always fun to watch. Guyasuta’s medicine man, Sioto, is played by Marc Lawrence, a regular in gangster movies. The scene in which Capt. Holden tricks Guyasuta and Sioto into releasing the captive Abby by using his “magic” compass was the high point of ridiculousness in the film, but in a movie like Unconquered, once you’re along for the ride, the more ridiculous the better.

Cooper and Goddard were both a little too old for the roles they were playing in Unconquered, but they were both still extremely attractive, so it didn’t bother me that much. The action in the film is well-staged, especially the final battle for Fort Pitt, which is heavy on the pyrotechnics. Who cares if it’s all a little hokey? No one does epics like Cecil B. DeMille.

Incidentally, Unconquered was the highest grossing film of 1947, with total ticket sales of more than $6 million. So at least it made its money back.