Mary Astor a Different Norma Desmond

Sunset Blvd. is one of the most revered films of the 20th century.  It is hard to believe that this was not always the case.  When the film was in production there were plenty of people who were not happy about the tenor and tone of the script.  Writers Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder apparently got around some of the objections anticipated from the Breen Office by submitting portions of the script a page at a time.  Once production had been completed.  There were plenty of howls after the film had been screened.  The dark, gritty underbelly of the industry had been there from the very beginning.  That underbelly was just not something brought up in polite conversation.  It was the equivalent of biting the hand that fed you, so to speak.  Silent siren of the “bee-stung-lips,” Mae Murray, was purported to exclaim after seeing the film, “None of us floozies was that nuts.” 

 America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford was considered for the role of Norma Desmond.  It is not clear to me whether or not she was actually approached by Wilder for the role.  In the 1950’s Pickford was not the quiet recluse she would become in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.  It’s a little ghoulish, in hindsight, to think of the Mary Pickford who had retreated behind the walls of Pickfair.  One hopes she was not so much living in the past, but living in a small space with her younger and more affable husband acting as gatekeeper.  Siren Pola Negri turned it down.  If the film had been offered to Lillian Gish, she might have taken it and run with it as a slightly older version of a mad Ophelia.  Mae West was considered as well, which seems quite hilarious given she was very active with her nightclub act and still going strong leaving her Hollywood career in the dust.  Silent Vamp Nita Naldi would have been high camp and a precursor to the grand guignol Bette Davis in  Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? had she even been considered.  Let’s face it, at that point, she could have really used the paycheck, too.

The role ultimately went to Gloria Swanson who turned in a performance that was both heartbreaking and scary.  Her Norma Desmond is a towering achievement.  It’s quite operatic and it is absolutely iconic.  I’m not going to do a detailed examination of the Wilder film, but you’ll find a great take on it here at my pal TinkyWeisblat’s place for the Film Noir Blogathon.  Goodness knows, plenty of people have examined this wonderful film.  Forget the analysis, just see it if you have not.

Swanson richly deserved the Academy Award nomination for the tour de force performance.  She also deserved to win the award, too.  Her competition for the Oscar was pretty darn stiff:  Bette Davis and Anne Baxter (both for their roles in All About Eve), Judy Holiday (Born Yesterday) and Eleanor Parker (Caged).  In the end, Judy Holiday won for her portrayal of Billie Dawn for which she was brilliant.  In my heart, even though I was not alive at the time, I’m still bitter that Swanson was denied the ultimate award. As an aside, Swanson, was nominated for an Academy Award three times and was a three time loser, in 1927/28 (the first awards) for Sadie Thompson (for which she received a certificate of honorable mention), in 1929/30 for The Trespasser, and in 1950 for Sunset Blvd.  Sadly, she never received even a lifetime achievement nod from the Academy.
Jose Ferrer and Gloria Swanson at the Academy Awards, Judy Holiday had just won.
(Bert Glinn, Magnum photos)
Sunset Blvd. the musical production was a huge success for Glenn Close and those that followed as Norma Desmond on stage.  I’ve never seen it and can’t possible comment to paraphrase Frances Urquart.

This brings us to the point of today’s posting and a much more obscure version of Sunset Blvd. Telecast live on December 3, 1956 The Robert Montgomery Theater presented a version of Sunset Blvd. starring Mary Astor as Norma, Darren McGavin as Joe and Gloria de Haven as Betty Schaffer.  Because I adore Mary Astor and Sunset Blvd., I was very curious to see this and thankfully the film has been preserved.  It’s available thanks to for insanely curious people like me.  As a fan of Mary Astor and of Darren McGavin this was must see TV for me. 

Mary Astor and John Barrymore from the 1924 film Beau Brummel

The average movie fan might be unaware or forget that Mary Astor was a silent film star of some note.  Astor is so identified with her many excellent performances in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s people forget she began in bit parts in 1921 and soon made it big in the 1924 film Beau Brummel with John Barrymore (her acting mentor and romantic paramour).  Astor went on to star with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. (Don Q Son of Zorro), John Barrymore (Don Juan utilizing the new Vitaphone synchronized soundtrack).  Rightly so, Astor is better known for her work in the sound era in films such as Dodsworth, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Palm Beach Story, The Maltese Falcon, Meet Me in St. Louis and for her Best Supporting Academy Award in The Great Lie.  Astor was nothing if not a trouper, playing femme fatales, fallen women, smart women, rich women, tough dames, warm and supportive mothers (or girlfriends) and killers with aplomb.  Her distinctive, throaty and warm voice along with her mellifluous delivery made her a natural for the sound stages and she had style.  Astor, I think it’s safe to say was relaxed in front of the camera, her confidence showed in comedy and drama.  Therefore, the casting of Mary Astor as silent screen goddess Norma Desmond is no real stretch.

Screen Grab from
The teleplay is introduced by host Robert Montgomery who sets up the story, much like the film Joe Gillis does.  We miss the opening sequences from the film and dive right in with Joe arriving at Norma’s house and being mistaken as the undertaker for Norma’s pet monkey.  Watching this you have to just forget the film, this is early TV, the sets are cheap and sparse (though I was impressed with the set that had the pool).  He enters the mansion and instead of being treated to “Norma Desmond everywhere” there are only a couple of really beautiful vintage portraits of Astor from the 1930s on display.

The hour passes quickly, it’s like a “Cliff-Notes” version of Sunset Blvd. with many scenes that seem to integral to the film, on the cutting room floor, so to speak.  Obviously, in the teleplay setting, there is no Isotta-Fraschini to be seen.  Again, I was impressed they managed a serviceable pool.  Cecil B. DeMille, Sheldrake and Joe’s agent were all rolled into the one producer.  There are no real exteriors and one set with moveable walls acts as the Sunset Blvd. mansion.

Astor is rather understated as Norma and while they did have rehearsals, this was live television and her nerves show a little bit.  The lights were hot, her makeup not too flattering which lends to the illusion of Norma being older than in her heyday.  It’s impossible for anyone to think this modest production would have erased Gloria Swanson, it did not and could not.  To her credit, Astor did not attempt an imitation, she made Norma her own creation.  Her Norma is not the operatic tragedy, but a sad, not terribly reflective Norma, who is not entirely unaware that Salome might be a somewhat gritty end to a golden career.  The lack of opulence in the sets of Norma’s house adds to the threadbare life you imagine this Norma Desmond to lead.  She writes her Salome script endlessly and is tended for all her other needs by the devoted Max (Walter Kohler).  She has money, but, she's not keeping up appearences.  In the end, it’s not the gut wrenching sadness you feel as her Norma descends the stairs, either.

Also, the Joe Gillis of Darren McGavin is not the snide, cynical Joe of William Holden.  He first recognizes Norma with the right note, a little awe, a little bit impressed and with some genuine respect.  He finds himself trapped by being the kept man, but he does not seem to be quite as bitter or confined as Holden’s Joe.  Not, at least, until he meets Betty Schaffer (Gloria de Haven).  I did not see any real chemistry between McGavin and de Haven, both were a little too long in the tooth to portray the youngsters of new Hollywood. 

Darren McGavin and Mary Astor rehearsing Sunset Blvd.
(Darren McGavin Tribute Pages)

In the end, while it was interesting to watch I came away feeling like I’d missed something, and I had.  The Wilder film is so ingrained, so well loved and well known to me, it’s hard to overcome what really was a cheap knockoff.  I had hoped that Mary Astor would really have cut loose as Norma, but, in the end I was glad she did it her own way, a quieter Norma.  This is worth viewing as a curiosity and it reminds me, Mary Astor really does deserve a closer look, and fresh examination by an author.  In thinking here of her body of work, she really was quite fabulous.

 Here's a clip from youtube for the curious:

This is my belated birthday post and belated promised post for the Mary Astor Blogathon.  Initially I was going to post about her book A Life on Film.  I may still do that, but this was so much more interesting.



Unknown said…
Very nice analysis. Having seen the Astor Norma Desmond recently myself, I agree with your take on it.

It does nothing to erase the memory of Swanson's Norma, but it is quite interesting as an exercise. A very great actress (Astor) straying into someone else's territory. For that, I think it is a must see for both Astor AND Sunset Boulevard fans.

I saw the Broadway Sunset Boulevard with Betty Buckley rather than Glenn Close. I imagine the overall effect was similar. Betty a better singer, but perhaps less an actress, but still a formidable Norma. But the musical itself is more a musical simulacrum of the story, rather than compelling in its own right.
FlickChick said…
Jeese Louise - I had no idea Mary did Norma. I would just love to see this. I adore Gloria, but in ,y eyes Mary could do just about anything. Thanks so much for this.
Vienna said…
What a lovely surprise. I too had no idea Mary Astor played Norma Desmond. Thank you for the information and review.

Vienna's Classic Hollywood

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