This post is part of the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon hosted by CineMaven. Be sure to check out the other posts here!
“All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
For many people that line from SUNSET BLVD is the only indication they have that there was ever any relationship between Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille. The truth however, goes back to the days of silent film when a young actress was trying to make her mark.
In 1914, Gloria Swanson made her film debut as an extra in THE SONG OF SOUL. According to Swanson herself, her initial ventures into silent cinema were just for fun but she soon found herself asked back for several more films for the Essanay company including Charlie Chaplin’s HIS NEW JOB. In 1916 she moved to California to work with Bobby Vernon in Mack Sennett’s Keystone comedies. Gloria Swanson longed to become a great dramatic actress but could only get work in comedy films. All that would change in 1918 when she met director Cecil B DeMille.
Cecil B. DeMille first began working in motion pictures in 1913 with the newly formed Lasky Feature Play Company. His first film was THE SQUAW MAN and it was a huge hit, establishing the Lasky Company. The first years were spent making films almost non-stop and the Lasky Company became Famous Players-Lasky.
“Miss Swanson, please.”
“This is Miss Swanson.”
“Good morning, Miss Swanson. I’m Oscar Goodstadt, the casting director at Famous Players-Lasky and I’m calling on behalf of Cecil B. De Mille. Mr. De Mille would like to see you at your earliest convenience. Could you come in at three today? Miss Swanson?”
“Oh! Yes. Yes, I can.”
Mr Goodstadt started to tell me how to get to the studio, but I said I knew where it was. Everybody knew where it was.It took up a whole block at Sunset and Vine. It was where Mary Pickford worked. And Douglas Fairbanks. And Almighty God himself, Cecil B. De Mille.
Swanson on Swanson (1980), p. 95
This is a quote from Gloria Swanson’s autobiography relating her first interaction with the director who would change the course of her career. She goes on;
Any notion I may have had of style or elegance evaporated the moment I was ushered into Mr. De Mille’s paneled office. It was vast and somber, with tall stained-glass windows and deep polar-bear rugs. Light from the windows shone on ancient firearms and other weapons on the walls, and the elevated desk and chair resembled nothing so much as a throne. I felt like a peanut poised on teetering high heels.
When he stood up behind the desk, he seemed to tower. Not yet forty, he seemed ageless, magisterial. He wore his baldness like an expensive hat, as if it were out of the question for him to have hair like other men. A sprig of laurel maybe, but not ordinary hair. He was wearing gleaming boots and riding breeches that fit him like a glove. He came over and took my hand, led me to a large sofa and sat down beside me. and proceeded to look clear through me. He said that he had seen me in a little Sennett picture and had never forgotten me, and that at the moment he was preparing a picture in which he wanted to use me. He asked me what kind of contract I had at Triangle.
“I have no contract at all.”
“Well, then, who represents you?”
“You mean your parents handle your business affairs?”
“Oh, no, Mr. De Mille. I’m over eighteen. I’ll be nineteen the twenty-seventh of March.”
“Ah, Aries, of course,” he said and smiled.
Swanson on Swanson (1980), p. 95-96
This initial meeting was supposed to be the start of their partnership but legal issues intervened. The Triangle Company, who Gloria was working for at the time, said that even though Ms. Swanson had no contract with the company she had accepted a raise which meant that she had a verbal contract with Triangle and therefore could not work with DeMille. It would take another year before she would be able to do what she wanted.
In 1919 Cecil B. DeMille began work on his third marriage film and he cast Gloria Swanson in the lead. More roles followed including FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE, MALE AND FEMALE, THE AFFAIRS OF ANATOL, and WHY CHANGE YOUR WIFE? in which she posed with a real lion. In the space of two years, her work with Cecil B DeMille had turned Gloria Swanson into a highly sought after romantic and dramatic leading lady. She became the highest salaried actress in Hollywood making $250,000 a week in the mid 1920s. Her time working with DeMille brought her to the attention of many other directors and film companies, and she soon was working with Sam Wood, Rudolph Valentino, Eric Von Stroheim, and even producing her own film.
He called her “young fellow” because he thought her braver than any man he had known and she would always call him “Mr. DeMille”. A few simple scenes in SUNSET BLVD and a few notable lines of dialogue to convey the emotion of a partnering and friendship that had lasted years. Some people say that DeMille made Swanson into a star but I don’t think that it quite right. I think that DeMille gave her the opportunity she needed to make the career for herself that she had always wanted. In fact I would say that Gloria Swanson was always a star and Cecil B. DeMille was just the first person to realize it.
Here is a sample of Gloria Swanson talking about working with Cecil B. DeMille and his methods during filming.