When the Spider Woman Looks: Two Glorias- “Wicked Love, Close ups & Old Jewels”- The sympathetically tragic villainesses of Sunset Blvd (1950) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936)


This is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy* Shadows and Satin & *Silver Screenings from April 20th – 26th 2014

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”– T.E. Lawrence

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”- Mark Twain


Gloria Swanson Norma Desmond

Gloria Holden as Dracula's Daughter

Are these wicked women? Do they exemplify the monstrous feminine? I dare say NO! They are sensual yet tragic figures!


Gloria Holden’s Countess Zaleska is a victim of her bloodline (literally)–her father Dracula’s legacy, desperately seeking out redemption and’ release’ from the torture of her relentless desires. (lesbianism in the form of blood lust) And Gloria Swanson‘s enduring Norma Desmond an aging silent screen star pushed out by talkies-a victim of a punishing Hollywood institution that forces older women into self-delusion. Though her beauty did not fade, the praise and recognition have.

Both women are literally immortal!

Ironically without realizing the connection, there are two threads of synchronicity that revealed themselves after I decided to pair both Glorias. A) Both women have male servants who show a stoic undying co-dependent worship of their mistress and B) Hedda Hopper appears in both films…

“She gives you that weird feeling!” –tagline from Dracula’s Daughter

Two Glorias, two dynamic forces on screen- Written about endlessly, on the surface spider women, vamps and villainesses perhaps… but to the thoughtful observer and film fanatic like myself… they are sympathetic figures in a cruel world…

“Cast out this wicked dream that has seized my heart.”- subtitle from one of Gloria/Norma’s silent films.

The staircase climax

First, let’s begin with our ‘close-up’- on Gloria Swanson as the eternally mesmerizing Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece! Norma is in actuality the one trapped in an orbit of ambivalence about her own primacy which ultimately devolves into a vulnerable, needy, discontented, and brooding personality whose dependency upon men and (one opportunistic man in particular) is self-destructiveness turned outward.


Sunset Blvd film poster

Written and directed by auteur Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity 1944, The Lost Weekend 1945, Ace in the Hole 1951, Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution 1957, Some Like It Hot 1959, The Apartment 1960 which won BEST PICTURE that year, beating out ELMER GANTRY!).

Considered the last motion picture in the film noir cannon. The first is Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity 1944  with his notoriously sexified femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson who’s got a great pair of gams showcasing that diamond ankle bracelet, dark sunglasses, and Barbara Stanwyck’s cool exterior. And Wilder’s last noir Sunset Boulevard unofficially marked the end of classical noir’s heyday. Sunset Boulevard truly pushes the conventions of noir to its limits.

Written for the screen by Wilder and Charles Brackett (The Lost Weekend ’45, Edge of Doom, ’50, Niagara ’53).

Music by Franz Waxman  (Magnificent Obsession ’35, The Invisible Ray ’36, A Day at the Races ’37, The Man Who Cried Wolf ’37, Gone With the Wind -uncredited, Humoresque ’46 I Married a Monster From Outer Space, Home Before Dark, there’s so much more– see IMDb profile). Waxman’s score is superb, from the exhilarating opening sequence that accompanies the flurry of police and newsreel camera trucks racing to the crime scene, the vibrant strings and strident horns that accentuate modernity to the more subtle poignant moments that underscore Norma’s internal agony.

Gloria:Norma climax mirror

John Seitz is responsible for the evocative and quirky noir-esque cinematography (Sullivan’s Travels ‘4I, Double Indemnity ’44, The Lost Weekend ’45).

The use of light in key frames showcases Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond who exults whenever she is either watching herself or is thrust into sudden illumination rendering her as somehow lost. The use of shadows and oddly lit spaces evoke the sense of her tragic misconstruction of reality. 

Bruce Crowther on- Cinematographer Seitz who helped to define some of the memorable images of Sunset Boulevard“Rarely does full light intrude upon this movie… Seitz handles the often cluttered sets using lighting to direct the eye to each scene’s key areas. Even when light is used fully, as when Norma steps into the beam of her home movie projector or when a lighting technician at the studio turns the spotlight on her, it serves a dark purpose… Here it shows with appalling clarity the incipient madness that will eventually destroy Norma.”

Arthur P Schmidt, the film editor, died at age 52 (worked on Ace in the Hole and Some Like it Hot with Wilder.)

Art direction by Hans Dreier and John Meehan, fabulous mise-en-scéne by set designers  Sam Comer Ray Moyer who both worked on (Read Window 1954, Vertigo 1958, Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961) Which arranges the landscape of Norma’s World with Art Deco style furnishing, elaborate candelabras, wrought iron scrolled staircases, tapestries, and ornate lighting fixtures. Norma’s bedroom is something out of a Gothic fairytale with its superfluous ruffles and claustrophobic pageantry.

Wilder and his artistic design team create an atmosphere of decadence and decay. Using an ornate baroque visual style that puts emphasis on the surroundings which are careful set pieces of time-worn opulence. The scenes are filled with a cluttered and suffocating mise-en-scéne. Sunset Boulevard reveals the conflict of the old grandeur of the silent era with the hollow clamor of modernity, as a ‘clash of styles and eras.’

Once Joe walks in from the brightly lit Los Angeles hustle and bustle, the tone turns darker, as he steps inside the confines of the mansion crowded with the serpentine wrought iron staircase, large yet dim light fixtures, and ancient-looking columns that appear to be disintegrating in small scattered parts. Set against the crispness of Max’s white gloves and Norma’s black sateen lounging pajamas, it offsets the sense of a perishing house in an odd and creepy way. Again this is where noir meets horror by the elements combined in the visual style.

Most effectively is the central character of Norma Desmond whose electrifying intensity and melodramatic flare projects an other-world style in contrast with the biting and cynical, dispassionate humor of the younger screenwriter from the age of talkies.

Sunset-Boulevard-1950-close up shot

According to Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair, many of the film’s props came from own Swanson’s home and scrapbooks. “One shot pans across the table covered with Swanson’s film stills, the photographs in old frames capturing her young face and heavily painted eyes.”

The portrait in Norma’s living room was painted by Geza Kende. Wilder also borrowed a film clip of “Norma” in her prime from a Swanson film Erich Von Stroheim directed, Queen Kelly 1929.

From Foster Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen- he cites Amir Karimi in Toward a Definition of the American Film Noir as the true period of noir beginning with Wilder’s Double Indemnity and ending with the same directors Sunset Boulevard 1950. He goes on to say that Wilder’s noir drama’s contain “the biting social comment, the stinging disapproval of the American way” Sunset Boulevard “transfers noir psychology to a novel setting, the decaying mansion of a once-grand film star. Wilder’s portrait of the megalomaniacal Norma Desmond is etched in acid; she is the embodiment of Hollywood’s rotting foundations, its terminal narcissism, it’s isolation from reality.”

Norma’s sensational costumes were created by prolific designer Edith Head who resurrected Swanson’s silent era look, the exotic and exaggerated costumes and fashions of an ex-screen Goddess, which point back toward Swanson’s past. She wears a hat, adorned with a peacock feather in the scene where she is reunited with Cecil B. DeMille. This is a visual homage to a headdress she wore in Male and Female 1919 one of the first films he directed her in.

The silent movie queen Norma Talmadge is reported as “the obvious if the unacknowledged source of Norma Desmond, the grotesque, predatory silent movie queen” Dave Kehr,An independent woman, nobly suffering in silents”, New York Times, 11 March 2010.

Sunset Boulevard could not have been cast with anyone better than the dynamic and grande actress who in 1919 was signed to a contract by Cecil B. DeMille. With this, her come-back role Gloria Swanson ignites the screen with her eponymous Norma Desmond -star of the silent screen -Norma Desmond, the tragic central satellite of the story who herself is dreaming of a comeback. Swanson’s performance is as much transfixing as it is exquisite.

gloria swanson-
The intoxicating beauty of Gloria Swanson from the silent era.

gloria swanson & william holden 1950 - sunset boulevard

Sunset-Boulevard-1950-the movie night

Swanson herself was a very hard-working actress in the 1910s and 1920s with Mack Sennett before joining Paramount Studios. She started her own production company in the mid-’20s but only made a few talkies in the 1930s. She made six silent films with Cecil B. DeMille.

As Leo Braudy says in his insightful book- The World in a Frame: What We See– Aesthetically, Swanson faces into the film as the fictional character Norma Desmond and faces outward toward us as the star. He calls her role a ‘meditation’ on her screen image and the relationship between the old world of silent films and the new world of 1950s Hollywood. He refers to the other actors who were her contemporaries playing themselves as ’embalmed’ with her in the past, losing their relevance to the audience and ultimately their power.

Billy Wilder’s film is as James Naremore says in his book More Than Night- Film Noir in its Contents- is an “iconoclastic satire” and “a savage critique of modernity.” Much like Aldrich’s The Big Knife it is a condemnation of Hollywood in the cycle of films released in the 1950s, also notable The Bad and The Beautiful 1952. Naremore points out these films coincided with the blacklist, and the decline of studio owned theater chains summoning the end of an era. Norma’s character is a casualty of changing times.


Co-starring as the ill-fated gutless unemployed screenwriter who becomes Norma’s gigolo, is smooth and sexy William Holden as Joe Gillis. Erich Von Stroheim plays Norma’s devoted butler and ex-hubby Max Von Mayerling. Erich Von Stroheim who had directed Swanson in Queen Kelly ’29 is perfectly suited to play her servant/ex-husband/devotee.

The film also co-stars Nancy Olson (Union Station 1950) as Betty Schaefer, Fred Clark as Sheldrake, Lloyd Gough as Morino, Jack Webb as Artie Green, Franklyn Farnum as the undertaker, and special appearances as themselves, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and composers Ray Evans and Jay Livingston.

The film is a Gothic, poetic nightmare in noir that so often evinces a sympathetic lens toward the forgotten characters who engage the audience like apparitions of another time in Hollywood. The unorthodox narrative embraces a vividly unstable noir identity that dwells within the constructs of American life, pushing the limits of social and sexual convention to a dark place of obsession and excess. Although Wilder scripted this as a black comedy, the noir stylization that had by now run through its re-occurring patterns still manages to create the incessant mood of bleak cynicism and a distant vulgarity.

Bruce Crowthers Reflections in a Dark Mirror- ”Of the other German emigres who worked in Hollywood the most significant contributor to the film noir is Billy Wilder, whose Ace in the Hole perhaps the most cynical movie ever to come out of Hollywood, Double Indemnity with its mesmerizing manipulative spider-woman and Sunset Blvd with its atmosphere of brooding baroque insanity are classics of the genre.”

“Wilder introduces a creepy atmosphere of eccentric ruin that’s strange and destroys lives, yet hypnotically alluring and seductive from a lost indulgent age.”Alain Silver & James Ursini from The Encyclopedia of Film Noir-The Directors

Wilder wanted stark reality and realism to pierce the veil of illusion and fantasy that was the dream factory of Hollywood 1950s. He portrays a corrupt landscape of used-up people, conniving agents, writers hustling to get their scripts sold, and the loneliness and alienation that permeates a world of broken dreams and perpetual struggle. Andrew Dickos in Street With No Name calls Wilder’s noir films “visions are steeped in cruel and corrosive humor, distinctive in its own right and its ability to function apart from the noir universe.”

sunset-boulevard-swanson and holden

In this provocative masterpiece, Billy Wilder masterfully evokes a shudder in us, “by emphasizing its verisimilitude, though, Wilder reveals the hidden truths of the world’s cruelest company town- from the isolation of forgotten celebrities to the crass efficiency of producers. Not only a thrilling and strange piece of entertainment, the film also is an indictment of Hollywood.” –Kashner & MacNair

Louis B Mayer, at a private screening of Sunset Boulevard, was furious with Wilder for his cruel portrayal of the industry that supported him. At the party before the various celebrities, he reproached him, “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” Wilder kept the script hush hush using the innocuous code title A Can of BeansWilder and Brackett feared that Hollywood would respond negatively to their damning portrayal of Hollywood.

He offers us the very typified archetypes of classical noir with his doomed anti-hero, the dangerous femme fatale, and the good girl redeemer. Also present are the familiar themes of entrapment, claustrophobia, instability, corruption, flawed character, psychological crime melodrama and even the police procedural with it’s thrilling opening sequence as the newsreel cameras and police cars, their sirens blaring, tear up the streets as they speed toward the murder scene.

Mae West
The inimitable Mae West turned down the part of Norma Desmond

Originally Billy Wilder wanted the legendary & incomparably sexy and suggestive writer/actress Mae West to play Norma. West declined because she found the story to be ‘too dark’. She also didn’t want a film that portrayed the relationship between an older woman and a younger man that reflected itself as hideous. The two approached Greta Garbo who also declined the offer. Wilder also approached Mary Pickford who was appalled by the offer, they had to apologize to her. It was George Cukor who suggested Gloria SwansonWilder asked Gloria Swanson to screen test for the part in 1949 and she almost said no. She had worked with Wilder who had adapted the screenplay for her film Music in the Air 1934. Norma is a larger-than-life film character though an exaggeration of reality considering Swanson wasn’t ancient she was only fifty at the time!

Wilder had contracted Montgomery Clift to play Joe Gillis. Clift left the picture finding it too uncomfortably close to his own life, because of the younger man’s relationship- he allegedly had an affair with Libby Holman a popular singer of the 20s whose career was ruined by the scandal surrounding the shooting death of her husband. Clift had spent time with Holman who also lived in a sprawling mansion much like Norma’s. Wilder worried that the age difference between Swanson and Holden wasn’t big enough, Swanson was fifty and Holden was thirty-one. Wilder hadn’t been impressed with some of Holden’s more mediocre films of the ’40s, even though he had starred in Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy (1939) with co-star Barbara Stanwyck. Sunset Boulevard made William Holden’s career. While I find Joe Gillis to be a dismissive smarmy ass who sort of had it coming to him, in this picture, I let it be known that I’m a huge fan of William Holden!- he did a superb job of playing it cagey, opportunistic and sarcastic as hell.

Wilder mirrors Joe Gillis’ from his own start as a shaky Hollywood writer having moved from Germany to America after Hitler’s rise to power, He used to be a ‘taxi dancer’ who would dance with any unattached older women who were willing to pay for his services.

One of the most iconic scenes from Sunset Boulevard, aside from the film’s fever dream climax where Norma descends the grand staircase, plunging into her gathering madness, is the scene that illustrates the withering passage of a lost era. The three fading silent film stars play bridge in the parlor of Norma’s decaying Gothic mausoleum. During the scene with the old stars playing bridge, the collectors come and take Joe’s car away, the only passport to freedom he has.

‘The wax works’ cracks-wise, struggling snarky screenwriter Joe Gillis, referring to Norma’s bridge party guests. Wilder envisioned this scene as purposefully macabre or as Kashner and MacNair call it “ghastly.” See figures gathered around the table, as the sequence unfolds, it is revealed that these actors are actually playing themselves. Silent screen actress Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner who had played Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 picture The King of Kings. And the Legendary actor of silent cinema Buster Keaton is there too. Kashner and MacNair describe “his features ravaged by alcohol abuse.” Even Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in a way is paying tribute to herself by recalling the bridge game in the parlor scene- “Came close to giving us all the creeps.”

Sunset-Boulevard-1950-Waxworks promotional

Like the bridge guests, DeMille plays himself with scenes shot on the real set of his 1949 motion picture Samson and Delilah. Erich Von Stroheim himself a once great director, Wilder uses him poignantly as Max who mourns his former life. Wilder touches on the fact that Stroheim in real life had a rough time with his career often going over budget and ultimately making box office flops.

As I’ve pointed out here in this piece for The Great Villain Blogathon, I am using Norma Desmond to argue that she isn’t the psychotic spider woman or villainess that she’s been referred to and that the film neither makes fun of her, yet creates a sense of sympathetic apology to this grande dame mostly revealing her as quite a tragic figure. I neither see her as washed up nor grotesque, but beautifully powerful woman possessed of intensity. She is the one who is ‘trapped’ in the web of an unforgiving culture that demonizes women for their sexual primacy. Norma is possessed of desire. The desire to still be adored. The desire to make a ‘return’ to motion pictures. The desire to be loved as a great star. The desire to be loved by Joe.

It’s Joe Gillis that is not a very likable guy, who is uncaring, weak, too shallow, and powerless. Let’s face it he’s a self-acknowledged heel. Ironically, sadly it is Norma’s story that is being told through this guy’s voice and perspective yet another way that her character is silenced, her personae distorted and perverted through the male gaze.

Once again Silver & Ward point out eloquently-

“Norma herself as portrayed by Gloria Swanson is a tragic figure. imbued by Wilder with powerful romantic presence… A woman obsessed, she clings to her vision with a tenacity that must ultimately be granted a grudging admiration and she is the only character in the film with the possible exception of Erich Von Stroheim’s fanatically loyal Max, who inspires genuine sympathy. Watching herself on screen in an old movie, she leaps into the projector’s murderous blast of light and cries, ‘They don’t make faces like that anymore!’ It is difficult for the viewer to favor Joe’s cynicism over her fervor, however misguided or self-centered it may be…”



From The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the 1950s by Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair-Chapter- The Waxworks: Mae West, Gloria Swanson, and Sunset Boulevard which opens with-
 “Hollywood has never been kind to older actresses…”

Here are just a few of the negative & unwarranted cursory examinations of Norma Desmond’s persona, put here -not because I agree, but to point out how cruel & misguided critics have been.

David Kehr of the New York Times refers to Norma as “predatory and grotesque.”

Alain Silver and James Ursini from The Encyclopedia of Film Noir- The Directors– refer to Norma as a “delusional eccentric, past her prime.” and a “washed-up misfit.” “femme fatale who embodies unstable noir psychosis.”

Foster Hirsch spells it out like this,  “Her fate was monstrous” calling her the “ultimate spider woman hibernating behind closed shutters in a swoon of alcohol and self-deception…{…} her loss of fame and fading beauty turn her into a psychopathic recluse.”

Hedda Hopper describes Norma descending the great staircase at the climax of Sunset Boulevard as her being in- “ a state of complete mental shock!”

Bruce Crowther-Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror actually uses the word ‘demonic’ he says “Yet, in Sunset Boulevard (1950), she succeeded in bringing to demonic life Norma Desmond, an old-time movie star who is on the most grotesque of all femme fatales.”

Janet Place chapter The Spider Woman from Women in Film Noir“with her claw-like hands.”

Actress Mae Murray a contemporary of Swanson’s, was offended by the film and commented, “None of us floozies was that nuts.”

Forster Hirsch calls her -“megalomaniacal.”

John McCarthy- Movie Psychos and Madmen calls her “a monster”

Marjorie Rosen (Popcorn Venus 1973) & Molly Haskell ( From Reverence to Rape 1974) –“a despairingly lonely serpent…” whose predicament is “reduced and trivialized because the source of her misery is merely growing old”cited by Brandon French, who feels they miss the point by merely reducing Norma to a victim of Wilder’s satire.

Brandon French -On the Verge of Revolt- “These fictional villainesses unable to discover or accept an autonomous creative expression of their power are made monsters by it, to one degree or another…{…} Her ludicrous existence as a middle-aged child.” 

From Chapter –Women in Film Noir– by Janet Place- The Spider Woman

In discussing the powerful returning motifs and patterns in film noir, Place talks about the dangerous power of the sexual woman, and how it is visually expressed. She states.

“Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard is the most highly stylized ‘spider woman’ in all of film noir as she weaves a web to trap and finally destroy her young victim, but even as she visually dominates him, she is presented as caught by the same false value system. The huge house in which she controls camera movement and is constantly center frame is also a hideous trap which requires from her the maintenance of the myth of stardom;the contradiction between the reality and the myth pull apart and finally drive her mad.”




A caption that goes with the photo of Norma with a head scarf and dark glasses smoking a cigarette “emphasizes the perverse, decaying side of film noir sexuality, with her claw-like hands, dark glasses, and bizarre cigarette holder.”

She goes on to add that these ‘visual cues’ are a characteristic iconography of the “dangerously explicitly sexual and often violent noir female.” Using signals like cigarettes and their trails of wispy smoke are linked with immoral feminine sensuality and the forces of darkness. The specific use of heavily defined make-up, eyebrow pencil and fully contoured lips, dark glasses, etc. Even the animal print that Norma wears. The power of these particular women is expressed in the visual style by “their dominance in composition, camera movement, and how they are lit.”

From Mary Beth Haralovich– Chapter-Movies and Landscapes in-American Cinema of the 1950s Themes and Variations edited by Murray Pomerance“A character’s mental landscape is written on the mise-en-scéne in the film, the bodies of the actors and in their subjective visions, in their responses to settings that give them solace and to settings that they fear.”
As Joe Gillis comments to Betty Schaefer in Sunset Blvd“Psychopaths sell like hotcakes.”

In fact like the silent cinema which was once her world, Norma is a ghost there, an empty shadow of the past. Now Norma is in a lonely place because the industry that once supported her has forgotten her completely.
“Sunset Boulevard is cast with doppelgangers, fictional counterparts of actual Hollywood players, Paramount’s actual silent star Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, “Paramount’s Silent Star” Like Norma, Swanson’s screen career did not transfer over to sound films until her remarkable performance in Sunset Boulevard.

One issue that is suggestive of lensing Norma as a monstrous female is the prevailing mood of ‘male anxiety.’ Centered around not only her age, (for crying out loud she was only 50), but threatening was also her vivid sexual impulses and desires.


Mary Beth Haralovich points to critic Sarah Street “Sunset Blvd. describes the overwhelming male anxiety about age, morality and career” -from her Mad About the Boy”; Masculinity and Career in Sunset Boulevard 1995

Haralovich points out that in Sunset Boulevard Joe works well with Betty at the studio -it’s a space where creativity can flourish, after hours and is a collaborative effort with Betty for the screenplay first entitled Dark Windows but the new draft is called Untitled Love Story. It shows that energetic youth is taking over the staid and faded ways of the old world.

I defer to Brandon French once again because of his insight and compassionate stance on the character of Norma Desmond, as I also see her. He writes, “In numerous films of the fifties such as All About Eve (1950) The African Queen (1951), The Rose Tattoo (1955), All That Heaven Allows (1956) and Autumn Leaves (1956) middle-aged women are shown to be sexually attractive. What renders Norma less than desirable is her neurosis, not her age.”

So you could argue that Wilder’s film is not only a condemnation of the failed system of Hollywood but also how it marginalizes its older stars, more specifically women. As French puts it, “a protest against Hollywood’s institutional policy of human discard, Wilder put the spotlight on Swanson.”

Gloria Swanson beautiful


The film showcases society’s anxiety about sexual women especially those who have aged out of their place of ‘desirability.’ It’s this repulsion against older women that turns them into screen ‘monsters.’ It only follows that Norma would fall into an orbit of madness when she had once flourished in an industry that co-nurtures narcissism, then punishes their women stars when they no longer have the advantage of claiming that egotism is an earned right. These stars are primed to be egotistical and then damned for it once they no longer serve a purpose for the industry cronies who make pictures.

Again, it invokes, Bette Davis’ performance of Baby Jane Hudson and her self-delusion caused by years of growing neglect and the cruel reversal of attentions that were once foisted on her. These accolades are taken away, creating stars that are relics left in a lonely place. Perhaps Wilder’s script did not make his import obvious or more compassionate through the narrative which would more easily coax the audience’s sympathies and not necessarily gear them toward repulsion of the central tragic figure that is Norma Desmond. 

Norma Desmond was the prototype for the Grande Dame Guignol films that were to follow… of course, the actresses would be faced with the same dilemma– being given a script that would challenge them not to be typecast or appear monstrous.

It is then up to us to redeem Norma ourselves and see her as the victim and not the ultimate noir spider woman, psychopathic megalomaniac, deranged and deluded horror movie queen.

Sunset-Boulevard-1950-norma in bed

The story should work in a way that sheds light on the anxiety surrounding women who aren’t in their twenties or thirties, not framing the narrative or focusing the visual cues on their age as if they are uncanny and dangerous. To tell the story of alienation and madness yes but lens it in a way that doesn’t promote revulsion of the older woman’s sexuality and power. A beauty standard where women can’t grow older and be beautiful at the same time. As people describe Norma as ‘grotesque’ All I see is a very beautiful lonely woman who is yes, filled with a growing delusion. Norma’s misguided fervor is only fueled by her co-dependent side-kick Max as he shelters her from the truth instead of helping her gain awareness through his companionship.

“The attention that Norma Desmond pays to herself, as opposed to the man, is the obvious narrative transgression of Sunset Boulevard.” -Haralovich

Not that Hollywood hasn’t created narcissism in their stars, or that it’s truly a crime for a woman to value herself above all else. Norma gazes at her own reflection in mirrors and in her old motion pictures. As Writer Place points out that the narcissistic independence that the femme fatale seeks is ‘fundamentally and irredeemably sexual’ in noir. Combined with both aggressiveness and sensuality, the dangerous woman becomes the central ‘obsessive’ focus of the narrative. She represents the man’s own sexual freedom, which she must control, repress or ultimately destroy him.

Norma insists on Joe participating in her life rather than being interested in his life. He dreams he is her pet chimp and he actually does become her victim. The victim of Salomé-

From Brandon French’s On the Verge of Revolt-Women in American Films in the Fifties- Chapter 1 The Scarlet “A” Sunset Boulevard (1950) “Sunset Boulevard is a film about ambition and what it allegedly does to the human spirit…{…} On the other hand we harbor a gloomy suspicion that ambition corrodes the soul. America’s negative attitude toward ambition had a critical influence on the transitional woman of the fifties. An Ambitious woman not merely violated the domestic female image; she became a receptacle for America’s most distorted fantasy projections about ambition; a soulless monster of selfish manipulation without moral restraint.”

This was the type of female who film noir had manifested during the forties and fifties. French so aptly points out that ambition is ‘as deadly as the scarlet “A” that is born of our Puritan consciousness’. Sunset Boulevard is a perfect example of how a woman who has more drive and ambition, even more than Joe Gillis, evokes an image of her as a “fallen Eve seducing Adam into sin.”

In Sunset Boulevard French views as do I, Billy Wilder’s depiction of Norma as not a typically “just plain rotten” noir villainess. The film yields a thoughtful perspective on the ambivalence of what French calls ‘the transitional woman in the fifties.” Because Wilder complicates the issue of the typified noir evil predatory woman, misunderstood trapped man, innocent ingenue redeemer. Norma is therefore much more nuanced than a sad tragic figure.

Another sentient point that goes to the entire source of Norma’s ambivalence and state of mind begs the question… who’s responsible for her state? DeMille who doesn’t take any culpability for his own contribution to Norma’s decline-blames the press agents who worked overtime focusing on Norma, creating her goddess-like megalomania. Demille does not come to Norma’s rescue and help her ‘return’.

Sunset Boulevard Norma and de Mille

DeMille fondly recalls Norma’s talent in terms of her as “a lovely little girl of seventeen.” But unlike ‘men’ in the film industry who don’t have to qualify themselves by their age and appearance, they don’t have to suffer the effects of a punishing system of skin-deep values. Also, it’s this atmosphere that nurtures and places value on youth and the function of beauty that has given rise to a Norma with arrested development, living in the past obsessed with her ‘self.’

His girlfriend Betty types while he dictates the script they try to write together. Joe loves that Betty smells like a brand new car or freshly laundered handkerchiefs, and not tuberoses. Betty is ambitious too, she dreams of his career and is content to be behind the camera instead of in front of it. “Self-interest, over devotion to a man, is the original sin of the film noir woman.”Haralovich

In John McCarthy’s Movie Psychos and Madmen- Chapter- The Female Psycho, McCarthy talks about Gloria Swanson’s faded movie queen in Billy Wilder’s biting attack on Hollywood. He frames Norma as trapped by her delusions-“the delusion that her glamour has not yet faded.”

I disagree. I think that Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond is STILL glamorous. Perhaps led by the majority who have profiled her as a has-been beauty queen and here again, the value judgment has been sworn against her, not just as a character trapped by self-delusion and that her career has ended, but that her desirability is an illusion as well…

Gloria Swanson is beautiful as ever as silent movie queen Norma Desmond.


Given the immense narcissism which goes along with Hollywood, Swanson in my opinion does not look like a caricature of her former self nor is she Norma Desmond’s doppelganger. To me… she just looks a little older but still quite sensual and beautiful as ever!

I suppose due to the visual cues by director Wilder and cinematographer Seitz Norma is presented or we are made to believe that she is grotesque like Bette Davis’ Baby Jane whose makeup, hairstyle, and mannerism truly were an exaggeration of a farcical youth that Davis purposefully plays as campy in order to illustrate her detachment from reality and the attachment to a past life that doesn’t translate well in the modernity of Los Angeles in the 60s. Aldrich’s film pushed the boundaries of convention even further by implementing an even more claustrophobic universe in conflict with the outside world, that engenders madness.

It was a combination of fate and opportunity-

Though Norma has been referred to as having snared Joe in her web. She didn’t go out and set a trap for him, he wandered into her world, she didn’t force him to stay, he stayed because he saw a cozy setup’. and money in it for him, he was hiding and was morbidly curious about the ex-screen Goddess as if he saw her as a sideshow freak… if the house was a web, he put his own foot on the silk chord and set off the tremor that signaled the spider to pounce. Joe even remarks via voice-over while he’s being led up to his room over the garage, “I dropped the bait, and she snapped at it…”

It’s a tragedy of psychological entrapment and neurotic purgatory that she desires to be loved for herself by the down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis whom she has turned into her kept man. Tragic that she believes her fans continue to remember and write to her, and finally that the Hollywood she helped build is still anxiously awaiting her return. McCarthy says “unlike the use of her trap of delusion as a vehicle for comedy as in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) about two dotty women… Norma’s psychological entrapment is a tragedy.”

That Norma’s entrapment is as real and not just that of Joe Gillis’ is a tragedy, I would entirely agree. But McCarthy continues by calling her a ‘monster.’ And yes through the lens of Grande Dame Guignol cinema of which Sunset Boulevard appears to be seedling the screen for the sub-genre, with the decaying mansion and dreary atmosphere, and the theme of ‘the monstrous feminine’ Norma has been perceived and written about as having evolved into a monster. Though I’ll never see her that way.


And I dare say she did not create this transmogrification herself. She was created by Hollywood, the fictionalized concept that Wilder attacks, and by the actualization of the character by Wilder who framed her that way. As a result of her delusion, much like Davis’ Baby Jane Hudson– her madness leads to murder. As McCarthy says, “Broken dreams leading to a broken mind” He brings up one good point. That Sunset Boulevard could almost be a horror movie/film noir hybrid. Much like Aldrich’s similar rebuke of Hollywood with his seminal What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? it is a psycho-sexual thriller that breaks apart conventional narratives. And much like Norma Desmond, I will never see Bette Davis’ role as Jane Hudson through the lens of the monstrous. They will always be sympathetic figures to me.


“A Hollywood Story… This is it … the most compelling dramatic story ever unfolded on the screen .. a tale of heartache and tragedy … love and ambition … told against the fabulous background of Hollywood.”

Told in flashback by a dead man set against the blaring sirens of racing police cars to the crime scene, the film opens with police cars speeding down Sunset Boulevard. They’ve been called to a mansion where the body of a man, Joe Gillis (William Holden) is floating face down on the surface of the swimming pool with his eyes wide open-(the camera used a mirror underneath to catch Holden’s face from underneath). The dead man begins to narrate the story of what led to his death in flashback noir style. This is truly a spin on the term, “ghost-writer.”


“Yes, this is Sunset Blvd… the homicide squad complete with detectives and newspapermen. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses… You’ll read all about it in the late editions… You’ll get it over your radio, and see it on television because an old-time star is involved, one of the biggest. But before your hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth… If so you’ve come to the right party.”



CapturFiles_8 There's gonna be fireworks You Say the cutest things
Repo Man-“There’s gonna be fireworks” Joe Gillis- “You Say the cutest things!”

It leads us back- Six months earlier. Joe Gillis is an out-of-work screenwriter with only a few B-movies to his credit. He tries to persuade Paramount Pictures producer Sheldrake (Fred Clark) to buy one of his scripts, but reader Betty Schaefer (Olson) administers a harsh critique not realizing that Joe can hear her. Carrying a folder of papers, she puts them on Sheldrake’s desk not noticing Joe Gillis standing by the door. Referring to Joe’s script Sheldrake-“What’s wrong with it?” Betty- “It’s from hunger… just a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” Sheldrake-“I’m sure you’ll be glad to meet Mr. Gillis. He wrote it.”


Betty is embarrassed, she would like to ‘crawl into a hole and pull it in after her.’ She says to Joe, “I’m sorry, Mr.Gillis but I just don’t think it’s any good. I find it flat and banal.” He asks “Exactly what kind of material do you recommend? James Joyce? Dostoyevsky?” She tells him, “I just think pictures should say a little something.” Gillis“Oh, you’re one of those message kids. Just a story won’t do. You’d have turned down Gone With the Wind.”

First Joe is typing at his apartment when two collectors show up looking to repossess his car. He manages to elude them once but they spot him on the street at a traffic light. Gillis spots the men who are going to repossess his 1946 Plymouth convertible while sitting at an intersection. They begin chasing him and he gets a blowout.

CapturFiles_9 the car hidden behind Rudy's Shoeshine he'd he'd just look at your heels and know the score
the car hidden behind Rudy’s Shoeshine Joe comments about Rudy-“he’d just look at your heels and know the score.”







Trying to hide out Joe turns onto a Sunset Boulevard driveway and stumbles onto an old garage crumbling by the side of a gloomy yet grandiose deteriorating, dying mansion with a little formal garden all gone to seed.

“If ever there was a place to stash away a limping car with a hot license plate.”

When Joe starts his monologue describing Norma’s house, it’s as if he is giving us a portent, describing Norma’s state of mind as the mansion is an extension of her projected identity.

Gillis’ voice-over “It was a great big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy twenties. A neglected house gets an unhappy look. This one had it in spades. It was like that old woman in Great Expectations –that Miss Haversham in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world because she’d been given the go by”


Suddenly he hears, “You there!… why are you so late!”





CapturFiles_41 the ever brooding max
The ever-brooding Max.

Living in this opulent ruin is the reclusive and long-forgotten silent film star, Norma Desmond. She alone inhabits this fading estate with her faithful butler Max (Erich Von Stroheim), who also happens to be her ex-husband, who was once a great director and plays a wheezing organ. Both lost relics of a bygone era. The interior shots of the grand hall, great staircase, Norma’s ‘waxworks’ parlor, her bedroom, and the Gothic baroque-style mansion, in general, evoke an atmosphere of bleak desolation and mystification.

The great hall is grandiose and grim, described in the script as exhibiting portieres that are drawn before all the windows, and “only thin slits or sunlight find their way in to fight the few electric bulbs which are always burning.”




As Norma Desmond first makes her entrance she stands like a ghostly figure down the corridor in front of a doorway that allows the intrusion of a flickering light. She is small in stature, yet she exudes an electrifying presence, wearing black house pajamas and high-heeled pumps. Like many femme fatales, she wears dark glasses, a scarf, and a turban patterned in leopard print.

The undercurrent is gloomy and dust-covered. The room is hung with white brocade which is tattered in places and has become mucky from years of neglect. Sam Comer and Ray Moyer’s set design fits the mood perfectly as the scene also showcases a great unmade gilded bed, the gold peeling off as to symbolize Norma’s decomposing love life. The curious set piece is in the shape of a swan.



The gondola bed in her boudoir is ornately carved with cherubs Norma sleeps in was actually owned by dancer Gaby Deslys who died in 1920. It had belonged to Universal’s prop department who bought it after Desly’s death. It appears in Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Joe in one of his voice-overs describes it as a gilded row boat. “The perfect setting for a silent movie queen. Poor devil still waving proudly to a parade which has long since passed her by.”

All these little details just add to the sense of realism built into the visual narrative with its accouterments of Hollywood’s “world of illusion.” Clothes and negligees are strewn about the room, which is graced with photographs of fading stars of yesterday. There’s a baroque-style fireplace bookended by two ornate candelabras. Set out like an Egyptian prince on her massage table is the shrouded monkey in repose under a shawl.

Norma begins to direct Gillis believing him to be the undertaker (Franklin Farnum) from the funeral home. Joe plays along with a morbid fascination. She tells him,  “I’ve made up my mind we’ll bury him in the garden. Any city laws against that?” Joe says, “I wouldn’t know” Norma continues, “I don’t care anyway. I want the coffin to be white. And I want it specially lined with satin. White, or deep pink.”







When she picks up the shawl, a small stiff arm falls out. Joe is a little stunned by the tiny hairy arm. “Maybe red. Bright flaming red. Gay. Let’s make it gay.”      

When Joe looks closer at the small body under the shawl he sees the very pitiful, bearded face of a dead chimpanzee. It’s a startling scene, odd and curious. Norma seems to have made her little friend almost a surrogate child.

Joe says to her, “I know your face. You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.” Norma replies with a stately languor, “I am big… it’s the pictures that got small…”

Gillis in his smug manner, “I knew there was something wrong with them.”

Norma begins her brusque tirade “They’re dead. They’re finished. There was a time when this business had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn’t good enough. Oh, no They wanted the ears of the world, too. So they opened their big mouths, and out came talk, talk, talk…”

Joe Gillis quips, “That’s where the popcorn business comes in. You buy yourself a bag and plug up your ears.”

Norma chastised- “Look at them in the front offices — the masterminds! They took the idols and smashed them. The Fairbanks and the Chaplins and the Gilberts and the Valentinos. And who have they got now? Some nobodies….”

Joe Gillis- “Don’t get sore at me. I’m not an executive. I’m just a writer.”


Norma- “You are! Writing words, words! You’ve made a rope of words and strangled this business! But there is a microphone right there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongue!”
Joe- “Ssh! You’ll wake up that monkey.”



Norma yells- “Get out!” as Gillis starts down the stairs, he answers her, “Next time I’ll bring my autograph album along or maybe a hunk of cement and ask for your footprints.” Halfway down the stairs, she stops him, “Just a minute you!”





Joe-“I didn’t know you were planning a comeback.”
“I hate that word!” (clenched teeth)
CapturFiles_12 a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen
“A return… to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen,”
“Salomé” (Norma whispers to herself)



She is drawn to Joe, and offers him a job helping her prepare the script for her ‘return’ (she hates the word ‘comeback’) in the film Salomé.

Norma tells Joe, “It’s the story of Salomé I think I’ll have DeMille direct it” Joe humors her. “We’ve made a lot of pictures together.” Joe asks, “And you’ll play Salomé?” “Who else?” “Only asking, I didn’t know you were planning a comeback” “I hate that word… It is a ‘return.’ A return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen!… Salomé, what a woman! What a part! The princess is in love with a Holy man. She dances the Dance of the Seven Veils. He rejects her, so she demands his head on a golden tray, kissing his cold dead lips.”

Max wheels in a tea wagon with Champagne and caviar. Norma sits in her chair smoking from her curious cigarette holder which is a gold ring with a clip. She dumps another batch of pages from the script on Joe.



CapturFiles_29 it was a cozy set up
Joe “It was a cozy set up.”
CapturFiles_29 that bundle of nerves Max that dead monkey upstairs and the wind wheezing through that organ once in a while
“That bundle of nerves Max… that dead monkey upstairs and the wind wheezing through that organ once in a while”

“Well- I had no pressing engagement and she’d mentioned something to drink… Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad, bad writing can be. This promised to go to the limit. I wondered what a handwriting expert would make of that childish scrawl of hers. Max wheeled in some champagne and some caviar. Later I found out that Max was the only other person in that Grim Sunset Castle, and I found out a few other things about him… As for her, she sat coiled up like a watch spring, her cigarette clamped in a curious holder… I could sense her eyes on me from behind those dark glasses, defying me not to like what I read, or maybe begging me in her own proud way to like it. It meant so much to her.”

Joe admits- “The place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion… I knew there was something wrong… it sure was a cozy set-up.”

He dismissively mocks her when she tells him that she’ll have DeMille direct and that she will play the part of Salomé.

“Salome… what a woman what a part. The princess is in love with a Holy man She dances the dance of the seven veils. He rejects her and she demands his head on a golden tray… Kissing his cold dead lips”

Okay perhaps there’s a hint of Norma having a little pent-up rage toward men… Still, she’s adorable!

Seeing that Joe is broke and a bit of a schemer, he accepts the job and moves into the guest room over the garage. Joe is weak-willed, gutless, and a cynic who wields mocking witticisms at every turn. And soon he becomes Norma’s lover, a kept man, a gigolo.

The undertaker arrives with the tiny coffin… Max greets him at the door and leads him up the long winding staircase.



CapturFiles_34 Silly hodge podge of melodramatic plotz however I started concocting a little plot of my own
Joe’s voice over-“Silly hodge podge of melodramatic plotz however I started concocting a little plot of my own”
Joe tells Norma-“Maybe what it needs is a little more dialogue.”
CapturFiles_37 Maybe what it needs is a little more dialogue what for I can say anything I want with my eyes
“What for I can say anything I want with my eyes!”
CapturFiles_45 you know I'm pretty expensive
“You know I’m pretty expensive.”

Wilder visually suggests how Joe is being drawn into Norma’s world at first when he goes to his room above the garage, the camera focuses on the gnarled dead branches that invade the space as he climbs the dark stairs to his room. Joe is too smug in his new cozy set-up, having no clue of the dangerous path he’s about to embark on.

“So I let him (Max) unpack my things. I wanted the dough, and I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. I thought if I really got going, I could toss it off in a couple of weeks. But it wasn’t so simple, getting some coherence into that wild, scrambled melodrama she’d concocted. What made it tougher was that she was around all the time–hovering over me, afraid I’d do injury to that precious brain child of hers.”
CapturFiles_3 in one week she received 17000 fan letters
Joe-“Say… She’s quite a character that Norma Desmond” Max– fixated on his mistress-“She was the greatest of them all. You wouldn’t know… you’re too young… In one week she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. ….there was a maharajas who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings… later he strangled himself with it”
CapturFiles_4 crumbling apart in slow motion -the whole place had a sort of creeping paralysis out of beat with the rest of the world
Joe’s voice over-“Crumbling apart in slow motion -the whole place had a sort of creeping paralysis out of beat with the rest of the world.”


“the last rights of that hairy chimp as if she were laying to rest an only child”
CapturFiles_8 it was all very queer
“it was all very queer…”
CapturFiles_8 was her life really as empty as that
“was her life really as empty as that?”




While daylight seeps through the blinds, he lies on top of the shabby quilt, the script strewn about him. As he awakens to these strange surroundings he narrates in voice-over for us once again-, “That night I had a mixed up dream. In it was an organ grinder. I couldn’t see his face, but the organ was all draped in black and a chimp was dancing for pennies. I opened my eyes the music was still there… Where was I?… Oh yes, that empty room over the garage. (the organ playing beneath his voice-over) Only it wasn’t empty anymore. Somebody had brought in all my belongings. My books, my typewriter, my clothes… What was going on?” He puts his jacket on and heads toward the pipe organ–Max (Von Stroheim, white-gloved close up is actually playing) Bach’s widely used baleful Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor.

Not too long after he finds that Norma has told Max to move his belongings into the house. Joe is weak and resents having to rely on Norma’s affection to support him. Norma argues with him about him needing her financial support, that he’s a proud boy who is in difficulties.







CapturFiles_35 joe dumps a scene 'cut away from me?'
Joe dumps a scene ‘Cut away from me?’


CapturFiles_40 you don't yell at a sleepwalker
Joe’s voice-over-“I didn’t argue with her. You didn’t yell at a sleepwalker–he may fall and break his neck. That’s it, she was sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career– plain crazy when it came to that one subject: her celluloid self, the great Norma Desmond. How could she breathe in that house, so crowded with Norma Desmonds? More Norma Desmond, and still more Norma Desmond!”



CapturFiles_42 how could she breathe in that house so crowded with Norma Desmonds
“How could she breathe in that house so crowded with Norma Desmonds.”
Max lifts the painting that reveals the large movie screen.


Norma is entertaining her cynical ‘lover’ who is coasting on ennui. Trusted Max is a constant enigma of stoic devotion, as he watches from the projection booth, the light from the bulb shimmers on his somber face.


Joe finally begins to accept his role as Norma’s found boyfriend. He spends time with her, working on the script while Norma dressed in one of her lounging pajamas autographs photos of herself. Joe begins to realize just how unaware she is about how much the world has passed her by. Norma isn’t gracious about any criticism, she forces him to watch her old movies. Joe’s smug voice-over.

“She’s sat very close to me, and she’d smell of tuberoses, which is not my favorite perfume, not by a long shot. Sometimes as we watched, she’d clutch my arm or my hand forgetting she was my employer becoming just a fan, excited about that actress up there on the screen… I guess I don’t have to tell you who that actress was. They were always her pictures, that’s all she ever wanted to see.”



Swanson delivers her dialogue with an intrepid vehemence that cuts at the heart of being a forgotten silent star gazing at the clip of an actual Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond film they made, “Still wonderful, isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces…! There just aren’t any faces like that anymore… Well, maybe one… Garbo.”


Standing in the ghostly beam of projector light Norma avows- “Those idiot producers! Those imbeciles! Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again, so help me!”

“Norma is caught between challenge and panic. Her neurotic solution is to buy a man, which establishes her power and control, and then make a pretense of a girlish vulnerability. Her suicide attempt is emblematic of her ambivalence since it is both an assertion of power and an act of self-diminution.” -Brandon French-On the Verge of Revolt-Women in Films of the 1950s

Norma invites a few old friends over to play cards… Joe refers to them as “The Waxworks”

Here the actors play themselves as a way to participate in the commentary of how the new Hollywood pushes out the old… Forcing them to appear as museum pieces.


Silent Screen actress Anna Q. Nilsson.
actor H.B. Warner.
Buster Keaton.


The repo men finally catch up with Joe and come to repossess his car.


Joe tries to get Norma to help him keep his car, but this is one way that she can control Joe’s movements… an attempt at keeping him close to home.


Joe also finds out from Max that the fan letters she’s receiving have all been manufactured by Max who explains that Norma is very fragile, he state of mind. That Norma has already tried to kill herself in the past.

Max tells Joe, “Madame’s doctor. She has moments of melancholy. There have been some suicide attempts We have to be very careful. No sleeping pills, no razor blades. We shut off the gas in her bedroom.”  Joe comments coldly- “Why her career? She’s got enough out of it. She’s not forgotten. She still gets those fan letters” Max answers,  “I wouldn’t look too closely at the postmarks.” Joe gets it now, “You send them, is that it Max?”

She buys Joe sharp clothes and flashy jewelry. But Joe must endure Norma’s suffocating hold on him, and her undying fixation on the impending stardom she is certain is drawing near. She even buys him a tuxedo to wear for a New Year’s Eve party that includes just the two of them.










CapturFiles_5 you think this is all a little funny... a little
“You think this is all a little funny?” Joe answers ... “a little…”
CapturFiles_25 what youre trying to say is that you don't want me to love you
“What you’re trying to say is that you don’t want me to love you!!”


One of the many visions of Norma caught in mirrors… she storms up the stairs after Joe rejects her.




The night Norma throws her New Year’s Eve party for Joe alone, she tells him about the polished tile floor and how Valentino recommended it for dancing the tango. Swanson was a long-time friend of Valentino and actually had danced an erotic tango with the male sex symbol in Beyond the Rocks 1922.

As the orchestra serenades Norma and Joe, she seems the happiest and most free. She takes her veil off and ruffles her gorgeous head of wavy hair. She tries to give Joe another present, but he recoils from Norma’s embraces.

Norma also confesses her love for Joe. He is horrified when he realizes that she has fallen in love with him. He admits while narrating that he was an idiot not to see it coming. When he tries to explain that he doesn’t feel the same way,

“What you’re trying to say is that you don’t want me to love you!” she slaps him and glides up the great staircase off to her satiny festooned bedroom to agonize in private.




Naturally, Joe can’t maintain this ‘agreement’ without needing to break free and so he sneaks off in the rain, hitches a ride that night, and joins his friend Artie who’s throwing a New Year’s Eve Party. Joe just wants to be with “girls so young they still believe the guys in the casting officea bunch of kids who don’t give a hoot.”

He meets Betty Schaefer again, the pretty studio reader (Nancy Olson) at a party thrown by his friend Artie Green (Jack Webb). The two begin a friendship/romance not realizing that the ever-watchful and protective Max is onto him. Betty is still engaged to Artie, but her feelings for Joe are growing.

Joe seeks out his friend assistant director Artie and asks if he can stay with him for a while. Artie throws a get-together and Joe runs into Betty again. Betty is actually Artie’s girl. She still doesn’t really like Joe’s writing but does see some potential in a part of one of his scripts.










When Joe telephones Max, asking him to pack up his things, he tells Joe that Norma has tried to kill herself again. She has slashed her wrists. Joe goes back to the mansion and gives in to Norma’s embraces. Though she is showing her helplessness-there is a conflicting struggle between Norma’s power and her impotence at manipulating Joe. Her awareness of the true situation simultaneously denying the reality, causes Norma’s descent into madness, where she eventually must destroy Joe.

Lying in her bed, wrists bandaged, her face soaked with tears, Joe looms heavy in the room, telling her it was a foolish thing to try and kill herself, the news would have a field day with a famous film star killing herself over an unknown writer. She tells him the only idiotic thing was falling in love with him.

Feeling a tinge of guilty Joe says “You’re the only person in this stinking town that has been good to me.”  

Norma finds the strength-“Why don’t you just say thank you and go… go… go!!!”

Joe-“Not til you start acting like a normal human being!”

This is the first time Joe defrosts and becomes a little tender with Norma. He’s never been nice to her, always being dismissively cocky but this time, he tells her happy new year in a soft voice, as the orchestra plays Olde lang syne downstairs. Norma stops crying and looks at him, then pulls him closer.

In this scene Norma’s spirit seems shattered, but as Joe submits to her, wrists bandaged, a clutching embrace, we begin to see how she truly has an undeniable will to prevail. She pulls Joe closer toward her, downward atop her on the bed. *I refuse to describe Norma’s hands as claws or talons, as I’ve read in various critiques.

Scene fades.



When Betty calls the mansion looking for Joe, Max answers but tells Norma that it was “someone looking for a stray dog.”

Out by the pool, Norma wearing leopard skin pool attire looks through the horoscopes for guidance. Joe taking a swim then toweling off, tells Norma that horoscopes don’t sell scripts. She tells him that she’s not selling a script… she’s selling ‘Me’ She made twelve pictures with DeMille, the best ones! and she’s waited twenty years for his call. Norma sends her dreadful script to Cecil B. DeMille.

Norma has Max drive her and Joe, while he stops to pick up a pack of cigarettes for Norma he runs into Arnie and Betty.



Max having come in to check up on Joe, forgets Norma’s cigarettes. He tells her that she smokes too much…

Joe is acting tortured by Norma’s reaching back into the past, as she does impersonations–putting on as a Mack Sennett bathing beauty, twirling a parasol. It was Sennett who gave Swanson her start when she first came to Hollywood. She also mimics Chaplin with a mustache drawn on with a burned-out match stick. Her impersonation is identical to the one she performed in Chaplin’s film Manhandled (1924).

Swanson again, auditioned for the lead in Chaplin’s His New Job directed by and starring Chaplin who didn’t cast her in the lead, but gave her a bit part as a stenographer. It was Cecil B. DeMille who helped make her a romantic leading lady in Don’t Change Your Husband 1919 and Male and Female that same year for Paramount. Within two years she had attained stardom!






Paramount executive Gordon Cole keeps calling but Norma refuses to speak to anyone other than DeMille himself. She is outraged that DeMille hasn’t called her personally after their history together.

While in the car Joe narrates in his mocking tone- “She put on a pound of makeup and fixed it up with a veil.”
Again… the use of the reflective shot of both Norma and Joe in the iconographic mirror is key. This is a particularly well-framed shot



Among the myriad of gripping dialogue in Sunset Boulevard, Norma is the voice indicting Hollywood, “Without me, there wouldn’t be any Paramount Studios.” Swanson had been at Paramount from 1919-1927. There are so many nods to Swanson’s former stardom that aligns her with the character of Norma in such a sympathetic way. Paramount was thrilled with the publicity the picture had garnered for them.


The old Guards recognize and welcome Norma onto the lot…

She has Max drive her and Joe to Paramount Studios in her massive 1929 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A luxury automobile. There’s a nod to the peripheral realism as Norma drives through the Bronson Gate and enters the studio in her massive car with Max behind the wheel headed toward Stage 18, one of the largest on Paramount’s lot, and known as ‘the DeMille stage.’

Here we see how Norma’s career has faded into the shadows while DeMille is still a working director who has transitioned out of the silent era.


After hearing that Norma Desmond has come to see DeMille, the first assistant director turns to him and says, “I can tell her you’re all tied up in the projection room. I can give her the brush.”

DeMille answers, “Thirty million fans have given her the brush. Isn’t that enough?”

He tells him that as a young actress, he’d never seen anyone with “more courage wit and heart that ever came together in one youngster.”

The assistant director –“I understand she was a terror to work with.”

DeMille says-“Only toward the end. You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.”

DeMille“Hello young fella.”

DeMille still treats her tenderly out of admiration for her past work. He greets her with warmth, “Norma” expressing an old affection that he once had for a young Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond“Hello, young fella.”DeMille uses this term of endearment which was his pet name for Swanson because he said she was braver than any man. Wilder and Brackett kept that term in the dialogue.

DeMille avoids talking about her script. Many of the people at the studio, the old guards at the Paramount gate, technical staff, and studio extras recognize Norma and welcome her back. DeMille, Joe, and Max find out that Cole merely wants to rent her car for a Bing Crosby film that is set back in the 20s.

DeMille tries to explain to Norma that things have changed in the motion picture business.
Cameraman ‘Hog-eye’ gets excited to see Norma and shines the spotlight on her
Norma basks in the wonderful glow of the limelight… something so familiar.
The actors and extras gather around Norma, it is a poignant moment… she has not been forgotten after all these years!
Norma is struck by the old feeling of being on the movie stage once again. She begins to weep. DeMille feels terribly torn.

In a telling moment about DeMille’s awesome power and the poignancy of Norma’s lost power occurs when an electrician named Hog-eye (John ‘Skins’ Miller) recognizes Norma and turns the spotlight on her. Suddenly the actors and old timers gather around, the people who worked with her in the past, she is –for a brief second the star once again. But DeMille quickly directs Hog-eye to “turn that light back where it belongs” A damning commentary that Norma doesn’t belong there anymore…

Norma is overwhelmed with emotions, so taken by all the attention when the studio extras flurry to see her as they gather around. When C.B. comes to
talk to her about Gordon only wanting her car for a Crosby picture, Norma starts crying because she is so moved by her reception and being back on the set after all these years. He doesn’t have the heart to tell her why the studio called.
DeMille tells her that her script would be too expensive.

(I laughed since his Cleopatra ’63 with Liz Taylor almost bankrupted the studio and bombed at the box office. And Ironically he’s in the middle of shooting Samson and Delilah another period epic about ancient times that cost a bundle.

Norma begins her strenuous and I might add torturous health and beauty regiment… I could have included an image with the fiberglass/asbestos mitts to soften the hands!





Joe sneaks out at night to meet Betty and work on their script together.
Betty notices the inscription in Joe’s cigarette case-“Mad about the boy”-Norma



Max doesn’t want Norma to find out. He later confesses to Joe that he was once a respected film director himself. It was he who discovered Norma as a teenage girl. He made her a star and became her first husband. When she quit, he also abandoned his career and became her servant because he could not bear to be away from her.

Norma starts a rigorous routine of beauty treatments to prepare for her comeback. Joe sneaks out at night to work on the screenplay with Betty who has fallen in love with Joe though she’s engaged to be married to Artie.

Joe also finds tries to get Max to give Norma a dose of reality. Telling him that she’s turned him into a ‘servant.’


“It was I who asked to come back humiliating as that may seem…. (he could have continued as a director) I found everything unendurable after she left me. You see…(dramatic strings and timpani) I was her first husband!”
Norma in a panic is at first relieved to find Joe at home in his bed.

Norma reads the script that Joe and Betty are collaborating on.

Norma finds the script with Betty’s name on it, she phones Betty and tells her that Joe is no more than a weak gigolo. “Do you know where he lives?” Joe comes in and sees Norma on the phone and invites Betty to come see it for herself.

When Joe tries to break things off with Norma and she tries to kill herself, Joe is drawn back into her obsessive and isolating grasp as he is truly too spineless to break free or stand on his own. Joe is the cynical weak-willed dreamer. He has no self-respect. That’s why he winds up floating face down in Norma’s swimming pool at the beginning of the picture.

Whenever he breaks free of Norma secretly, his cowardice makes him return to Norma. It’s only when he finally feels that he has demeaned himself enough, and tries to exit this suffocating world, that is when Norma must destroy him.

When Betty arrives at the house, Joe becomes vindictive and sarcastic having been revealed as Norma’s kept man.





“This is an enormous place… it’s lonely here, so she got herself a companion. A very simple set-up: An older woman who is well-to-do. A younger man who is not doing too well… Look sweetie, be practical. I’ve got a good thing here. A long-term contract with no options. I like it that way. Maybe it’s not very admirable.”

Maybe Betty should have figured it out from the gold cigarette case engraved “Mad about the boy-Norma.”

Joe gives a small tour, calling Norma’s things “so much junk”She was lonely “he tells Betty “so she got herself a set up.”

No, Joe–you got yourself a set-up… to be fair–that was your plan initially.

Betty sees Joe’s predicament and asks him to leave with her. When Betty can’t look at him anymore he coldly replies, “How about looking for an exit.” Betty falls apart, leaving the mansion in tears. Joe begins to pack his things. He’s going to go back to his old job as a copy editor at the Newspaper in Ohio.









Finding a sudden burst of courage he begins to enlighten Norma on a few of the truths surrounding her insulated world. And with his brutal cynicism, he let’s her know that she won’t be having any comeback. He tells her that all her fan mail has been manufactured by Max. That she has been forgotten by the world.

“All I ask is for you to be a little patient and a little kind,” she followed after Joe like a heart-sick child.

Norma gets desperate when she sees Joe packing. She shows him the gun. “I can’t face life without you.”

Joe tells Norma- “Oh, wake up, Norma, you’d be killing yourself in an empty house. The audience left twenty years ago.”

He ignores her threats that she is going to shoot herself. When Joe tries to leave Norma breathes, “No one ever leaves a star. That’s what makes one a star!” In that moment of riled passion, she shoots Joe instead, three times in the back, as he belly flops into her swimming pool. “Stars are ageless aren’t they,” she says to herself.


“Stars are ageless aren’t they.”
Joe always wanted a swimming pool!


Hedda Hopper- “As day breaks in the murder house… {…}… mental shock… a curtain of silence has seemed to have fallen around her. She sits in her silken boudoir of her Sunset Boulevard… passionate woman…”

The film comes full circle and the flashback ends. Joe is narrating from where he left off.

Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wearing a signature hat phones her copy editor, tying up the lines for the police then begins describing the action from Norma’s bedside phone. “As day breaks in the murder house… {…}... mental shock… a curtain of silence has seemed to have fallen around her. She sits in her silken boudoir of her Sunset Boulevard… passionate woman…”








The police are grilling Norma about her relationship with Joe. There’s so much simultaneous chatter and movement surrounding Norma creating a sense of chaos parallel to Norma’s confusion. The buzzing of people exaggerates the atmosphere of disorder. Seitz frames all the men as if they are looming over Norma, as they handle her.

Norma sits are her dressing table gazing at herself in a small hand mirror. She hears the word “camera” and becomes intrigued.

“Norma is lost, “sleepwalking” reliving a lost career, literally playing to an empty house the audience left years ago.”

She has now completely lost touch with reality. Max tells Norma that “the cameras have arrived.” Of course, they’re the newsreel cameras there to document the spectacle of sensationalism.






In her daze, she believes the reporters and photographers must be there for her film shoot. Max and the police play along with her delusion, Max coaxing her down the long staircase. where the mob of reporters and police are waiting.

Franz Waxman (who won an Oscar for his score) segues with an homage, a musical refrain from Richard Strauss’ “The Dance of the Seven Veils” from his opera Salomé. It’s a poignant use of the musical motif that symbolizes Norma’s murderous fugue as the final embodiment of the character she so desperately desired to play on screen.

This is one of cinema’s most iconic scenes as well as the centerpiece of the film. Max yells “action” as Norma dramatically descends the grand staircase saying how happy she is to be acting again. Max is playing as if he is directing her in a scene from Salomé, it’s an aberration from the usual film noir narrative and the beginning of grande dame cinema!


In front of the newsreel cameras, lost and self-absorbed she declares to her imaginary fans- And I promise you “I’ll never desert you again… because after ‘Salome’ we’ll make another picture and another picture. You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!… All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.

Norma is arrested after gunning down Joe, in the memorable moment she shows she is finally truly lost it. As the newsreel cameras roll, Joe’s disembodied voice narrates, “So they were turning, after all, those cameras. Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.” Wilder ends the film where it began with the sardonic narration by a dead man…

As Norma is deluged by cops and reporters, she begins her total submersion into madness. Descending the long staircase, as the cameras roll… she truly believes that she is finally making her comeback in Salomé!

Deluded by fame Norma/ Swanson delivers her mesmerizing performance. Seitz pulls Swanson’s face closer to us in the frame creating the iconic image of Norma staring past the fourth wall, she sees us until her image becomes a mere blur…







The End.

In the end, Norma has triumphed though… within the framework of her delusion. She has gotten the attention she so passionately desired, though dreadful as it is. As French notes, Norma like Miss Havisham in Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations whom she gets compared to, shoots her lover who has abandoned her, “not merely Joe, but what Joe symbolized for her: the audience has ceased to love her and thereby robbed her of her only creative outlet… The irony of Norma’s existence as a woman is that she is dependent on men, while at the same time, she is the powerhouse who supports them.”

Ultimately it is her revolt against a lifetime of male dependency and objectification, being ignored, dismissed, and exploited, and one climactic act of madness that sets her free from her entrapment, as she has now broken through the boundaries of her neurotic perdition.

Wilder had been going for intensity in his actor’s performances. He would give them fewer cues so they would have to tap into their own instinctual styles. Swanson was afraid to fall down the stairs in her high heels at the finale and Wilder wanted her to come down the narrow steps where they were the most narrow. She actually descended the staircase barefoot. It seemed as if Swanson had performed the climatic sequence as if she was in a trance. It would be the perfect instinctual expression that was needed for the final scene. Wilder shouted “Print it!” and Swanson burst into tears. How’s that for the intensity?

Early Gloria

From- Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Encyclopedia of Film Noir

“It is the rare film that declares itself as immediately as does Sunset Boulevard. Opening with sardonic narration of a dead man commenting mordantly on the circumstances of his own murder, this highly unusual work announces itself as a bleak but irresistibly sardonic motion picture., a trenchant observation of Hollywood’s most bizarre human artifacts.”

According to Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, the original opening which was discarded featured the dead Joe Gillis sitting up on a slab in the morgue, telling his story to an audience of other corpses.

Sunset Boulevard combines writer/director Billy Wilder’s dark satirical elements with the essence and mechanization of film noir. The film possesses all the transgressive themes innate in film noir, yet adds a few bizarre touches, like Norma’s holding a midnight funeral for her beloved chimp. And as Silver and Ward point out how there are ‘strangled giggles’ at “Joe’s discomforted acquiescence to the role of gigolo, at Norma’s Mack Sennett style entertainments for her uneasy lover and at the ritualized solemnity of Norma’s “waxworks’ card parties, which feature such former luminaries as Buster Keaton as Norma’s has-been cronies.”

Wilder truly captures a dying era of old Hollywood, his narrative providing a scathing critique of how it operates, backstage, behind the scenes. Giving us an insider’s glimpse, at the ugly machinations of the motion picture industry, Sunset Boulevard manages to evoke the uncanny essence of classic horror conventions. 

Wilder himself comments that ‘psychopathy sells’ in writing pictures as a self-reflexive commentary on film noir. Betty tells Joe,  “I Just think that pictures should say a little something… I think you should throw out all that psycho-pathological stuff exploring a killer’s sick mind,” That’s when Joe replies “Psychopaths sell like hotcakes.”

Like the Old Dark House, Norma’s forgotten mansion embodies the quality of a haunted house, that occupies the screen with the ambiance of dream-like disorder, and derangement. From the opening narrative to the wake of Norma’s dead monkey and the somnambulist way both Max and Norma move through space. From the moment Joe steps into the large parlor, where he cracks to himself, “Intimate isn’t it” Seitz’s camera spins around Joe as the organ wheezes like the sound of an old silent horror film score. He looks swallowed up in an ornately decorated fun house.

While they are watching one of Norma’s old movies in pitch black, backlit by the projector Norma lays her hand on Joe, a moment considered to show her as a spider a woman who sinks her claws into him.

As Queen Kelly (directed by Von Stroheim) is reflecting back Norma’s image, Joe becomes entombed within this gaudy shrine to the lost silent screen Goddess- and her dead career. Memorabilia of her days as a young ingenue clutter the house, the images of her like treasure in a tomb. Norma’s obsessive nature makes her orchestrate a controlling and manipulative environment where she begins managing the smallest detail of Joe’s movements with a suspicious and compulsive mania.

“The grandiose excess of Norma’s ostentatious empty mansion personifies her overwhelming silent-era presence deglamorized and dissected in Wilder’s noir as tragic, oppressive, a suffocating, bizarre relic of faded grotesque splendor.”- Silver and Ursini

Gloria Swanson portrait 2

In Sunset Boulevard Wilder pokes fun at the myths that Hollywood perpetuates, and exposes the socially constructed ideals like romance, glamour, stardom, and true love, ridiculing these myths that draw a sycophantic collection of illusion. Wilder reveals how the fervor to attain such ideals behind the camera, is often unglamorous, lonely, and far from reality.

Norma brags, “I’m richer than all this Hollywood trash!”  Joe tells her, “Keep it”  With all her money, she can’t buy Joe’s love, or public adoration and the fame she’s been living off the memories of. She’s still lonely, suicidal self-absorbed, and yearning desperately for her silent era accolades that will never come again.

Norma-“ I own three blocks downtown, I’ve got oil in Bakersfield, pumping, pumping pumping! What’s it for but to buy us anything we want!” Joe tells her “Cut out that ‘us’ business” Norma responds, “What’s the matter with you? Joe-“What right do you have to take me for granted” Norma –“What right? Do you want me to tell you?”Joe- “Has it ever occurred to you that I may have a life of my own? That there may be some girl I’m crazy about?”
Norma- “Who? Some car hop, or dress extra?” Joe-” What I’m trying to say is that I’m all wrong for you. You want a Valentino, somebody with polo ponies, a big shot!” Norma-“What you’re trying to say is that you don’t want me to love you. Say it. Say it!” She slaps him in the face.


Women in Film Noir-edited by E. Ann Kaplan-

“In film noir the relationships between male and female are often centered around a passion that is destructive – Often unfavorably contrasted with male/male relationships further emphasized by the childlessness of the couples. Sunset Blvd offers an interesting example of this emphasis.”

“The absence of the family and the failure of romantic love are central thematic elements, Joe Gillis by becoming involved in the unsanctified relationship of gigolo to Norma Desmond, loses whatever chances he might have had of finding a successful romantic relationship. His failure is matched by hers, and the presence of the butler, her ex-husband, now her servant, ministering to her relationships with men like Joe, is a permanent reminder of the failure of romance and marriage in her life”

The macabre scene where Norma and Max officiate at midnight, the candle-lit burial of Norma’s chimp, who was a substitute for a child. It represents the sterile and odd nature of their closed universe that exists outside the boundaries of normalcy and accepted institutions of family and the traditions of mainstream American society.
In this claustrophobic world, where the outside doesn’t reach in, thereby forms a strange ideology and non-conformity. The absence or disambiguation of the conventions of a family forces the players into a life of fixation, fetish, obsession, and delusion.

Max admits, “I could have continued my career, only I found everything unendurable after she left me.”

Everything is phony, it’s an illusion, a facade like Hollywood sound stages that create false illusions. Represented in the letters Max sends to Norma, Joe scolds Betty intimating that she’s a fool not to see his set-up for what it is. Norma asks Betty “Exactly how much do you know about him? Do you know where he lives?”

“Despite the ritual punishment of transgression, the vitality with which these acts are endowed produces an excess of meaning which cannot finally be contained. Narrative resolutions cannot recuperate their subversive significance.”From Women’s Place The Absent Family of Film Noir by Sylvia Harvey

And just as Norma dreams of returning, Swanson was looking for a comeback with Sunset Boulevard. By 1950 she’d been gone from films for fifteen years, except for an appearance in a 194I movie called Father Takes a Wife.

Swanson Gorgeous

She thought that Norma was the bigger-than-life role she needed. She receives an academy award nomination, her third. But Judy Holliday won for Born Yesterday even beating out Bette Davis for her performance as Margo Channing in All About Eve. Sunset Boulevard however did not revitalize her career as she had hoped.

Perhaps to 1950s audiences, she had done too good of a job bringing to life Norma Desmond, where no one could separate out Swanson, the great actress behind the painted eyebrows, turban, and languid yet cutting inflections.

Any scripts that Swanson received were merely replays of Norma Desmond. –“It was Hollywood’s old trick; repeat a successful formula until it dies,” Swanson said. “ … I could go on playing {the part} in its many variations for decades to come, until at last I became some sort of creepy parody of myself, or rather of Norma Desmond- a shadow of a shadow.”

Swanson maintained that she was truly not disappointed in not winning the Oscar for her performance as Norma Desmond.

Gloria Swanson 1950

‘People wanted me to care,’ she said later. ‘In fact, they seemed to want more than that. They expected scenes from me, wild sarcastic tantrums. They wanted Norma Desmond.’ from an article in 2003 in The Observer Andrew Wilson interviews Swanson’s daughter. 

Paramount arranged a private screening for the various studio heads and specially invited guests. After seeing the film Barbara Stanwyck was so moved by Swanson’s performance she kissed the hem of Swanson’s gown!

While Swanson insisted she was still a versatile actress the media was obsessed with her age. I read this in the article in The Observer that  an ad for Jergen’s face cream asked “Will you be as fascinating as Gloria Swanson at 52?” A Saturday Evening Post article right after the release of Sunset Boulevard referred to the comeback of “Grandma Gloria Swanson.” An August 1950 article in Cue Magazine said-, “the most glamorous grandmother in America.”

Gloria 1965 Allan Warren
Gloria 1965 by Allan Warren

Is it any wonder that Swanson might begin to internalize the coverage? She told Cue Magazine that the teenagers who came out to see her on the Sunset Boulevard publicity tour “Must have been told about me by their mothers or grandmothers. I must seem like Charlie Chaplin or Bon Ami or a tin Lizzie or something.”

She told the Los Angeles Mirror News in October 1958 that she would love to act again in movies “But what can I do- hit the producers over the head and tell them they should hire me?”

Swanson saw hypocrisy in how it was hard for older women to find good roles in Hollywood- “It’s all wrong, sixty-year-old actors in love scenes with twenty-year-old girls.”

There never seemed to be the critical backlash of older actors pursuing young actresses in films that if the roles were reversed we’d have commentary on how grotesque and spider-womanesque she is.

Swanson reflected on this as the producers wanted to create films like this because they were old men themselves. She chastised the movie-makes blaming them for ignoring a large part of the audience who were women in America who helped make the movie industry successful.

The hypocrisy is rampant in the movie industry that prevailed in producing motion pictures where the lead male could have been the young Ingénue’s grandfather, the age difference somehow being acceptable. It’s only when the woman is older than the man that it becomes scandalous and transgressive.

Swanson loved comedian Carol Burnett’s spoof on Sunset so much that she went on the show in ’73 singing and doing her Charlie Chaplin imitation.

From her film  Sadie Thompson or playing DeMille’s biblical heroine -to her rare but dynamic television performances–one such great role as Mrs. Charlotte Heaton in Who is Jennifer? Kraft Suspense Theatre. She could still tug at those sympathetic heartstrings.

She will always be remembered as Norma Desmond. Swanson lamented in her autobiography “I may not have got an Academy Award for it but I had somehow convinced the world once again of that corniest of all theatrical cliches -that on very rare artistic occasions the actor actually becomes the part.”

Even though Swanson will never escape the legacy of her electrifying, immortal performance as the larger-than-life Norma Desmond, she dropped out of film not wanting to constantly play what would become a ‘parody within a parody.”  She still gave us a tremendous gift that never gets old.

Norm'as Pride

Gloria Magnificent




“And her eye has become accustomed to obvious ‘truths’ that actually hide what she is seeking. It is the very shadow of her gaze that must be explored.” -Luce Irigaray

Gloria Holden in Dracula's Daughter

Now for my other Gloria–Gloria Holden, yet another classic villainess who also draws deeply upon my sympathy as she is also in a world of entrapment- a clandestine legacy of blood lust and desire she must follow that leads her to the darkest parts of the self and makes her a very enigmatic force of female power. Dracula’s Daughter is perhaps one of the best Universal horrors of the 30s.

Guided by Dr. Garth she is enthralled with the concept of sheer willpower… “Life Against Death” as well as “Repulsion against Desire” which is what the narrative suggests. In this way, Garth is more of a father figure, another male authority archetype that analyzes and criticizes her female primacy. She is wide-eyed, wildly looking to Garth for comfort, release, redemption, and acceptance.


Gloria Holden is Contessa Marya Zaleska who embodies a darkly mysterious sensual primacy, yet in conflict with this over-powering will that engulfs her, she seeks relief from the anguish and torment, the enslavement to a thirst for blood that has been the legacy of her family for centuries. She resists the ‘unnatural’, abhorrent, deviant desires that fuel her compulsion,–to parasitically hunt down young men and particularly provocative –women and feed off them. The unmasked lesbianism in the narrative was a bold proposal for 1936, which owes more of its influence from Le Fanu than to Stoker. Holden’s use of her hands and eyes is expressive of the inner turmoil both Gloria share.

James Twitchell in Dreadful Pleasures says, “unsophisticated as the lesbianism in Dracula’s Daughter. There is nothing contrived about it, no attempt to explain it, let alone explore it.”

After the success Universal had with Tod Browning’s Dracula 1931 starring Bela Lugosi, they saw a market for a follow-up feature, and so in September 1933 they bought a motion picture option from Bram Stoker’s wife Florance, for the excised chapter from his novel, which turned into a short story called “Dracula’s Guest.”

The story was a glimpse from Bram Stoker’s novel showing Jonathon Harker’s brief encounter with a female vampire on the way to Castle Dracula.

David O’ Selznick was going to produce the film, thinking that the use of a female vampire would sell.

Selznick had picked John L. Balderstone  (Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein)  to do a treatment of the script. Since Lugosi’s Dracula had been destroyed with a wooden stake through his heart at the end of the original, Balderstone framed his script around the female vampires that lingered wraith-like around Dracula’s Transylvanian lair.

In this sequel, Dracula’s Daughter would control her victims in a much harsher way, with visual cues that suggest violence and torture.

Instead of the quiet hand gestures and subtle emphasis on Lugosi’s hypnotic eyes that directed his concubine of undead mistresses. this screenplay had Dracula’s Daughter wielding a whip, snapping it violently against the cold concrete floor. Subduing the bloodthirsty ghostly female remnants of her father’s bloody carnage as if she were an animal trainer.

1936_Draculas Daughter
Even a vampire can be chic in a Vera West creation

This is where Balderstone borrows a scene from Stoker’s novel, in a gruesome piece of Gothic wretchedness, cruelty, and explicit transgressive deviance Dracula’s Daughter offers the hungry women a squealing infant in a sack to feed upon. (I shudder at this hideous notion), they tell her that the baby is not enough nourishment “We want love as well as drink… you keep that for yourself, men, young men”

Of course, this would never fly passed the censors…

Dracula’s Daughter tells them that she is their mistress while their master is away in England. And that they’ll take what she brings them and be grateful for it.

The material proved too racy for 1933. Balderstone had a specific vision for his treatment. He wanted to illustrate in his sensationalist plot that Dracula’s Daughter would have reveled in torturing her victims and that the men while under her spell rather enjoyed their torment.

He envisioned scenes where Dracula’s Daughter’s boudoir was filled with whips, straps, and chains, only eluding to what she would do with them off camera.

“The use of a female Vampire instead of male gives us the chance to play up the sex and cruelty legitimately,” Balderstone wrote, “In Dracula these had to be almost eliminated… We profit by making Dracula’s Daughter amorous of her victims…. the seduction of young men will be tolerated whereas we had to eliminate seduction of girls from the original as obviously censorable.”

The censors asked that the scene be made merely suggestive of any violence. Dracula’s Daughter would have to find other ways of nourishing herself with blood.

Balderstone tried to argue that the neck bite was only representational of violence. He wanted to restore Stoker’s story back to the way it was written.


The proposed sequel never made it passed the Breen Office saying that it contained dangerous material.

Representatives from the Breen office met with Carl Laemmle Jr they filed a memo. “This story contains countless offensive stuff which makes the picture utterly impossible for approval under the Production Code.

Not only was the material too inflammatory for the censors but Selznick and Balderstone violated the terms of the agreement with Florence Stoker, when they promised that Dracula’s Daughter could not have any characters from any other works of her husbands besides “Dracula’s Guest”

“there still remains in the script a flavor suggestive of a combination of sex and horror.

Universal informed the Breen office that the script had been discarded and they were starting from scratch.

Dracula’s Daughter was originally to be directed by James Whale. There were so many delays and changes and it was rushed into production with an unfinished script to submit it within the time frame of the limitation clause in David O’Selznick’s option. They found James Whales’ work too outrageous for the film and he was taken off the project where it was then given to Lambert Hilyard who had been working on westerns.

Garret Fort who had worked on the original script for Dracula (uncredited) provided the final screenplay which was quite different from the original provocative musings by Sheriff and Balderstone.

Dracula’s character was dropped completely. The film instead, focused on Dracula’s Daughter herself. Countess Marya Zaleska has followed her father to London.

Interesting note that for the first time, vampirism was being represented on screen as a possible psychological disorder of compulsion and neurosis as much as it was suggested as an affliction by supernatural forces. –Source-The Monster Show by David J. Skal

The script originally called for Nan Gray to pose nude with Zaleska’s attack suggestive of a lesbian assault.
The Breen Office said no way, and the actress kept her clothes on, but still, the scene is cited as a classic lesbian sequence.


Originally both Bela Lugosi and Jane Wyatt were cast in the film. Universal also announced that Boris Karloff and Colin Clive who made both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein together for James Whale would appear in the film. Playing the part of Dr. Garth was supposed to be Cesar Romero. Along with the script/director changes, I suppose the cast changes were involved as well.

Gloria Holden is the only one who could have brought to life so mesmerizingly well the dark and sensual Countess Marya Zaleska.

Gloria Holden as Dracula's Daughter
Mr, Hilyer, I’m ready for my close-up!


Directed by Lambert Hilyer  (The Invisible Ray 1936) Dracula’s Daughter and The Invisible Ray would prove to be the only two horror films Hilyer would do in the genre. But both are powerful exercises in artistically layered mood pieces with authentically eerie atmospheres that were elegant and intelligent.

Dracula’s Daughter is not only compelling but it has that cheeky flair inherent in many of the Universal horrors of the 40s. Much of the comedic relief stems from the precious vaudeville-type camp from Billy Bevin as the expressive Albert, E.E. Clive as Sgt. Wilkes, and Halliwell Hobbs as Hawkins

With a screenplay by Garrett Fort, (The Letter 1929, Frankenstein 1931, The Devil-Doll 1936, Ladies in Retirement 1941, Among the Living 1941, The Man in Half Moon Street 1945, Blood on the Sun (story)1945, The Mad Room (earlier script) 1969 the story had to be a thoughtfully written narrative.

For many years Dracula’s Daughter has been pushed aside, perhaps because of its lack of key known personalities. And by 1936 the horror cycle seemed to be fading a bit. Dracula’s Daughter doesn’t possess a lot of action. like Bride of Frankenstein or The Raven.

It is a more deliberate and thoughtfully framed Gothic elegance with excellent camera work, acting, and set design. and fascinating dialogue. As a classical nod to its forbearer, there’s the typical whimsy of having the doctors wonder about the two little puncture marks over the jugular vein. And It’s nice to hear Gloria Holden repeat her father’s line “I never drink wine.”

Dracula’s Daughter is supposed to take up where Dracula with Bela Lugosi leaves off. Taking certain elements from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest– which was a chapter in his 1897 novel, that he had taken out due to the lengthiness of his story. Other aspects of the narrative are obviously loosely based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story of 1872 “Carmilla”

Dracula’s Daughter wound up as part of the original SHOCK THEATER package of 52 Universal titles released to television in 1957. I remember seeing it on Creature Features and Fright Night in the 60s & 70s.

With music by Hans Roemheld. The last horror film was produced under the supervision of Carl Laemmle.

Cinematography by George Robinson, (Son of Frankenstein 1939, Tarantula 1955, Walk a Crooked Mile 1948, Slightly Scandalous 1946, The Cat Creeps 1946) Robinson uses effectively very low-key lighting, moody shadows hung at odd angles, and an expressionist style of framing the narrative making Dracula’s Daughter a hauntingly poetic classic in the lady vampire films. This one is quite elegant and restrained as compared to the Gothic Costume pieces that followed from Hammer Studio, with a much more literal sub-text of lesbian desire as vampiric. I absolutely loved his work on Jack Arnold’s Tarantula.

art direction by Albert S. D’Agostino ( Out of the Past 1947, Cat People 1942, Notorious 1946, The Thing 1951) The laboratory is the cleverly disguised Ming from the Flash Gordon series.

Makeup artist Jack Pierce and hairstylist Grace Boyd are on board, and the costumes are supplied by designer Brymer and stunning gowns by Vera West.

Dracula's Daughter_Zaleska and Sandor


Picking up where Dracula leaves off, the police arrive at Carfax Abbey to find Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloane) looming over the bodies of Dracula and Renfield. They arrest him for murder. Then a mysterious woman in black appears, and after hypnotizing the guard who’s watching over the bodies, she takes her father Dracula’s remains with her.

In the desolation of the fog-enshrouded woods, cinematographer George Robinson lenses a most atmospheric ceremony as the mysterious woman holds a crucifix and intones a strange kind of religious expulsion, holding a large cross that she must avert her eyes from. Then she delivers her father’s body to the flames. Hoping to be free of her father’s legacy as Dracula’s Daughter, her father now dead and convened over, she will no longer be condemned to an eternity of nocturnal desires, that disquiet her world. Always shadowed by her faithful manservant Sandor, Countess Zaleska yearns to be free.

She confides her predicament to Dr. Garth, a practical and sympathetic psychiatrist who tries to guide her to confront her compulsions head-on. This is the only way to truly set herself free.

Ironically just as Zaleska entrances her victims while holding their gaze on her father’s impressive jeweled ring, Garth uses a form of hypnosis to captivate his patients. It’s an unmistakable parallel in the film, as Garth uses his machine to induce a hypnotic trance and Marya Zaleska uses her ring to do the same. It’s a matter of science vs the mystical forces & folklore.

The atmosphere is beautifully eerie and compelling as Robinson creates a dark and moody landscape of transgression and hunger from the shadows.

Zaleska is so determined to break free of her father’s legacy, transcending will that forces her into these nightly agitations. She has Sandor bring her a model to her studio to test her willpower.

When she asks Lili to lower her straps to expose her bare shoulders -Zaleska nearly loses control when her obvious desire consumes her-The camera cuts to a shot of a grinning tribal mask on the wall- a very symbolic expression of her deep primal ache, her lesbianism- The mask also linking sexuality with fetishism.

The impossibility of a ‘cure’ and a revelation that she has fallen in love with Dr Garth, hoping that their relationship could lead to a normal life haunts Zaleska who asks Garth to flee to Transylvania with her. She kidnaps his fiancée Janet (Churchill) in hopelessness she attempts to trap him. The mood is bleak and sad, as Zaleska ultimately sacrifices her own life to save Garth from the jealous brooding, and murderous Sandor.


The body of Renfield-his broken neck is discovered by the two bumbling bobbies at Carfax Abbey.


Billy Bevins as Albert and Halliwell Hobbs as Constable Hawkins.
Professor Van Helsing stares into the open coffin that holds Dracula. He has just driven a stake through his heart.



The music with its playful clarinets is lyrical as it accentuates the more comical moments while underscoring the mystery with deep & dark strings that rise up like a creeping menace.

Constable Hawkins-“What’s been going on here?” Van Helsing-“Murder my friend” Albert-“Scary!” Constable Hawkins-“Murder?!… did you do this?” Van Helsing-“No, the body of the man who killed him lies in there.” Van Helsing points… Constable-“Body?” Albert-“You mean to say there’s two of them… ooh?” Constable Hawkins-“Albert, keep an eye on this old cove. I place him in your custody for the time being” Albert-“I’d rather go with you” Constable Hawkins-“Chicken hearted… how do you expect to win your stripes” Van Helsing-“I shant run away” Albert grunts.
This is not Bela Lugosi.
Albert asks, “What was in there?” “A gentleman with a stake driven right through his heart” Albert shivers and grumbles. Constable Hawkins asks- “Do you know anything about this?” Van Helsing tells him-“Yes, I did it” Constable Hawkins“Who is he in there?” Van Helsing-” His name was Count Dracula”How long’s he been dead?” Van Helsing-“About 500 years” “500 years!!!” Constable Hawkins asks Albert for the handcuffs, but Van Helsing tells the constable that they won’t be necessary. Constable Hawkins argues-“So you say, one bloke well drained of his blood, with a stake driven through his heart. A gentleman lying here with his neck broken. By the way, who is he?” Van Helsing-“A poor harmless imbecile who ate spiders and flies” Constable Hawkins-“Harmless!” Albert winces once again… “This is a case for Scotland Yard!” 
Head of Scotland Yard–Commissioner Sir Basil Humphrey questions Van Helsing. Van Helsing-“I had no choice naturally I destroyed him.” Sir Basil- “I heard many great fantastic stories in my time, Professor Van Helsing but if you forgive my saying so this one…” Sir Basil tells him that his defense will be weak against an English jury. Van Helsing tells him that his friend Dr. Garth is the only one who would understand. “You have admitted to killing a man in a very horrible manner!… by driving a stake through his heart” Van Helsing-“That is the only way a vampire can be destroyed” He warns him that there are only two courses to follow, formally charge him with murder and send him to the gallows or send him to an institution for the criminally insane.
Billy Bevan’s facial expressions are priceless.
Albert is under orders from Scotland Yard to watch over the two corpses. “You don’t mean to tell me you’re going to leave me alone here with them!” The constable and Albert argue over rats. Albert hears a scratching noise and sees the earth move, insisting they have rats. Constable Wilkes tells him “Wickby Jail has never had ratsNot a rat in sight… you’re worse than an old woman you are.” He hears scratching and sees the earth start to turn over, but tells Albert not a single rat and rushes off to the train station, leaving him along with the two corpses.





Halliwell Hobbes as Constable Hawkins is equally hilarious–with his facial expressions betraying he’s a scaredy-cat.




Suddenly Zaleska appears in the jailhouse. Her face was cloaked allowing her two powerfully dark jeweled eyes to penetrate the shadows. She asks Albert to see the bodies to make sure they are dead. When Albert refuses to let her see the corpses, she must resort to hypnosis, (after he almost considers taking a bribe) She shows him her ring.“Look you’ve never seen a jewel as beautiful as this… nor as compelling.”
Zaleska’s ring is almost the size of a doorknob!
Albert gazes at the ring.


Dracula’s Daughter also stars Otto Kruger as Dr. Jeffrey Garth, Marguerite Churchill as Janet, Edward Van Sloane as Prof. Von Helsing, Gilbert Emery as Sir Basil Humphrey, Billy Bevin as Albert, E.E. Clive as Sgt. Wilkes, Halliwell Hobbs as Hawkins, Nan Grey as Lili, actor/director Irving Pichel as the countess’ manservant Sandor, Hedda Hopper as Lady Esme Hammond

Two interesting co-incidences that link Dracula’s Daughter and Sunset Boulevard films together for a double feature- Hedda Hopper has a small but key role in this film as Lady Esme Hammond and the presence of a male manservant who worships, protects, and sacrifices his entire life in the service of his mistress much like Max idolizes Norma Desmond. In quite the same way Sandor enables Marya Zaleska’s circumstances and addictions to desire in a way that keeps them within their gaze and strangely–under their control and not the other way around.




the clock shows that an hour has passed. When the constable brings back a Sargent of Scotland Yard, he finds Albert has been put in a trance, and that the body of Count Dracula is missing. The two find the coffin empty and hear a wolf howling. It gives them both a look of dread.

In Dracula’s Daughter, Gloria Holden plays a Hungarian Countess who struggles with her nature as a vampiress. As Screenwriter/Producer/Film Critic-David Pirie Observes- “This notion of the schizoid female vampire was later utilized to exemplify and caricature the male polarisation of a woman into goddess and animal.

In desperation, Countess Zaleska turns to medical science in the form of an English psychiatrist Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger) to help cure her of her blood-lust. His conventional attempt fails and she is forced back into the shadow world to prey on young girls in Chelsea to feed her cravings. Zaleska, much like Norma, has stoic support from her manservant, the menacing Sandor.

The scene fades to Sandor standing in the foggy mist. His collar turned upward, his face etched in stone. The sad ethereal flutes, become solemn as Zaleska performs the rites to exorcize the dark forces from her father’s body.



“And into keeping unto the lords of the flame and lower pits, I consign this body to be ever more consumed in this purging fire. Let all baleful spirits that threaten the souls of men be banished by the sprinkling of this salt. Be now exorcized oh Dracula and thy body long undead find destruction throughout eternity in the name of thy dark unholy master.”



Zaleska picks up a homemade cross of two sticks bound together. She must look away. Sandor instantly looks away at the sight of the cross. “In the name of the all holiest and through this cross be the evil spirit cast out until the end of time”





This shot by cinematographer George Robinson is an incredible Gothic piece of dreamwork.




As Sandor comes closer to his mistress, “Free, free forever. Do you understand what that means Sandor?… free to live as a woman. Free to take my place in the bright world of the living… instead of among the shadows of the dead.” Sandor challenges her-“Perhaps” “What do you mean?” Sandor-“This night is almost gone. Who knows what another will bring.” Zaleska “I can live a normal life now. Think normal things. Even play normal music again.” She begins to play a beautiful melody on the piano. Sandor sits down in his throne chair. “The cradle song. The song my mother once sang to me long long ago. Rocking me to sleep as she sang in the twilight.” Sandor looks skeptical. Almost a jealous lover, he does not want to lose his mistress to the light. Sandor whispers the word which holds a different meaning –“Twilight”
Sandor coaxes every bit of anxiety out of his mistress Marya Zaleska. Playing a beautiful and serene melody, a lullaby from her childhood, he taunts her until in the end, her playing becomes a crazed tribute to darkness. Zaleska continues to play gently, “Quiet, quiet you disturb me.” She heaves her chest. “Twilight, long shadows on the hillsides…” Sandor interrupts, “Evil shadows.” “No!… no peaceful shadows. A flutter of wings in the tree tops” “The wings of bats” “No, no the wings of birds. From far off the barking of a dog” “Barking because there are wolves about.” “Silence! I forbid you” “Forbid… why are you afraid?” “I’m not, I’m not! (the piano flourishes, she looks outward toward an unseen road to her destiny. Sandor hovers over her) “I found release” “That music doesn’t speak of release” “No… No!!!! You’re right” The piano becomes turbulent- strings now accompany Sandors dark diatribe “That music tells of the dark… evil things… shadow places” Zaleska can’t bear it any longer she rises up from the piano yelling stop!!! “Stop, Stop” The music comes to a halt. She leans back on the piano. Her gorgeous black dress exposes her back. Sandor seems pleased with himself.


Sandor looks at Zaleska, “The night is here” Zaleska-“Why are you looking at me that way?” He tells her “I’m remembering last night… and waiting” “You think that this night will be like all the others don’t you? Well, you’re wrong, Dracula’s destroyed, his body’s in ashes. The spell is broken” Zaleska’s eyes convey such meaning. So impassioned, she wants desperately to be normal. She is stunningly beautiful with an air of hope and a measure of sadness. Her eyes are wide and dreamy. Her eyes set on longing… Her lips perfectly formed flower petals surrounded by milk-white skin and hair like a raven’s wing.
She asks him to look at her “What do you see in my eyes” In a quietly deep whisper her answers, “Death…”


Sandor grabs her cloak and jeweled ring and sends his mistress out into the foggy night to claim a victim.











She comes home hands Sandor her blood-soaked cloak and hurries to get into her coffin before daylight.





The body of the young male is examined by the medical school. He’s had an unnatural loss of blood that they are unable to determine. or what caused the two sharp punctures.



Van Helsing and Jeffery Garth begin to argue about religion, superstition, philosophy, and myth. Garth agrees to try and clear him of the murder charges though it seems impossible. “You can’t defend yourself by quoting folklore.”




At Lady Esme’s (Hedda Hopper) party Garth admires a painting and asks who did it. “A Hungarian she just arrived in London a few weeks ago. She’s charming” The butler announces, “Countess Marya Zaleska” Immediately Garth is drawn to her.



Janet Blake-“Don’t you know it’s very rude to stare at strangers.” “I thought I’d gotten rid of you for a while” Janet-“Not while there’s a dangerous-looking brunette like that around.”
Lady Esme greets Countess Zaleska- “You know my guests are dying to meet you” A playful double entendre. Lady Esme “Sherry Marya?” Zaleska-“Oh no thank you I never drink… wine.” a nod to her father’s line in Dracula.






The guests begin to talk about Van Helsing and Dracula. Garth tells them that he studied under him. He tells them that he’s going to help his mentor fight the charge of murder. That he’s sure they won’t press the charges, for one thing, they haven’t been able to find Dracula’s body. Zaleska begins to look intense. When one of the guests jokes around. Garth says “Strangely enough Van Helsing takes his vampires quite seriously.”
Lady Esme- “I’m sure we’d all be interested to know what modern science has to say about Vampires.. go on Jeffrey” “Surely you don’t believe that preposterous rot old fellow” “No, but I believe in Van Helsing. He’s gone much deeper into these things than most of us. Perhaps he’s taken them too literally. Such research can easily lead to obsession” Lady Esme –“You mean like people imagining they’re Napolean?”
“Why not. Possibly there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your psychiatry Mr. Garth” “More or less. Like any disease of the mind, it can be cured. All we have to discover is what brought about the obsession in order to effect mental release.” Zaleska intrigued-“Release?” “Yes, release… Sympathetic treatment will release the human mind from any obsession” “I’m interested in what you’ve been saying, Mr. Garth. I’m wondering if we might talk about it one evening soon. Just you and I”I’d like to… very much.”





Garth meets with Zaleska. He tells her that it’s the first woman’s flat that didn’t have at least twenty mirrors in it. She jokes and says that she’s glad he’s not his friend Van Helsing. He’d probably attach some occult significance to her lack of mirrors. She remembers an old Hungarian legend that a vampire casts no reflection in a mirror. Garth laughs.



[on the phone] Dr. Garth: Yes?… Well, who is this? What do you want? [in a false German accent] Janet Blake: “Please come right away. This is the zoo speaking”. Dr. Garth: “The what? The zoo?” Janet Blake: “Ya! One of our elephants is seeing pink men!” Dr. Garth: “All right. Now listen to me, Janet, this has gone far enough! Well, there’s nothing funny about it! I’m in the midst of a very serious… ” [Janet hangs up and laughs] Dr. Garth: HELLO? [hangs up]

“Dr Garth I asked you here because I need your help” “As a psychiatrist?” “As a man of strength and courage” “Well I’m afraid that that places me at a disadvantage” “Do you believe that the dead can influence the living?” “Well, in what way?” “Could you conceive of a superhuman mentality influencing someone from the other side of death?” “no…” “There is such a one.” “Uh hum, go on” “Someone, something that reaches out from beyond the grave and fills me with horrible impulses” “Well how can I help you?” “Use my brain, my will– for an instrument as he has used them… but for release!”



“Your mind has the power to do it” She shakes her head in futility… no “Your strength lies within yourself. Put it to a test” “A test?” “Now, for example. You know what we do with alcoholics? We give them liquor, make them sit for hours alone without touching it. Make them meet their craving. Beat it back. That is if they have the will to be free” “I have” “Then do this. The next time you feel this influence. Don’t avoid it. Meet it. Fight it. Score the first victory. That’s the secret.”
“Life against death… the strength of a human mind against the powers of darkness” “I’ll help you” “You must, you must! Your strength against his.”



Garth believing the next phone call to be Janet playing a joke again, yells at the director of the hospital.



Garth asks her to meet him at the hospital at 4 pm. She cannot go during daylight but agrees to meet him there at night.


Once Garth leaves, Sandor asks her, “Are we going out?”


“We’re going to the studio. Tonight I paint. We’ll need a model” A sardonic smile washes over his face.
He waits in the shadows. Dressed in all black the smokey fog swirls around him.


There he finds Lily who might be contemplating jumping. “Wait, the river is cold and dark, I know where there is warmth and food and money.” “I don’t want your kind of money” “My mistress is an artist. She will pay you if you will pose for her tonight… There’s nothing to fear… come.”
“Don’t be afraid my dear.” “It’s him I wasn’t so sure about Ma’am.” “make yourself comfortable over here” “What’s your name?” “Lily” “That’s very pretty.”





Lily begins to warm her hands by the fire “You have beautiful hands, but they’re so white and bloodless” “They’re cold ma’am” “You came here willingly?” “No, not at first” “Do you know where you are?” “Yes, in Chelsea” “Have you ever seen me before?” “No, no I haven’t.”




“Have you ever modeled before?” Lily tells her no “I’m doing a study of a young girl’s head and shoulders. You won’t object to removing your blouse will you?” Zaleska eyes Lily tentatively, reserved and yet there’s a strange nervous excitement to her stare. “No, I guess not” “You can get ready behind that screen” Lily begins to take her hat and coat off. Unbuttoning her white blouse, she looks around the studio. Zaleska watches her. It’s an erotic moment, of unspoken lesbian desire.



“I’m ready now… I suppose you’ll want these pulled down won’t you?” regarding the straps to her slip “Yes… (as she approaches Lili) finish your wine it will warm you. Stand by the fire for a moment. You mustn’t catch cold” Lili’s slip falls down around her arms, showing the smooth contour of her back as Zaleska studies her.









Suddenly Lili realizes that Zaleska’s chest is heaving and her stare is intensely focused on her bare shoulders “Why are you looking at me that way? Won’t I do?” “Yes, you’ll do very well indeed… Do you like jewels, Lili? This is very old and very beautiful. I’ll show it to you.”



The reflection of light from the ring cast a circle of luminosity around her cheeks and eyes. “I don’t think I’ll pose tonight I think I’ll go if you don’t mind.”


When a starving, suicidal blonde model, who is in need of money and nourishment takes the bait to come and pose for the Countess, in her Curzon Street Studio, she is offered wine to help her become less inhibited and then told to take off her blouse. A very provocative scene, in which the underlying tones of lesbian desire are not hidden yet made as a double-entendre. As the pretty, and naive girl Lili gazes into Zaleska’s deeply sweltering stare, her eyes like dark onyx gems, she panics-” Why are you looking at me like that?” Of course, the look is quite sexual, and Lili falls into a hypnotic trance, ravished and discarded, left to waste away.

The Sexuality of Countess Zaleska is one of the earliest female vampire films, Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr 1932 was a very faint adaptation of Le Fanu’s Carmilla with all the lesbian sexuality purged from the film.

What makes Dracula’s Daughter such an interesting study using psycho-sexual undercurrents is the way that Zaleska tries to fight her compulsion. This makes her less of a rampaging monster and more of a sympathetic character who is seeking redemption. I’d like to think of it as her reservations about drinking blood and not her latent sexual urges. For that, she shouldn’t have to redeem herself.

One thing that the film does suggest early on as noted by Bonnie Zimmerman in Daughters of Darkness: The Lesbian Vampire on Film in Planks of Reason-Essays on the Horror Film revised and edited by Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharrett- speaks of a diverging class dynamic within the lesbian vampire myth. “When the seducer is another woman, she must derive her power from her class position rather than her sex.”

But Zaleska comes closer to her. As the camera closes in, we feel her otherworldly presence begin to take siege over Lili…” Please don’t come any closer” She says coming as the frame goes out of focus –we hear her scream. The death’s head devil mask is the last thing we see before the screen turns black. I guess Zaleska failed Garth’s resistance test. If Lili were a bottle of alcohol Zaleska would now be intoxicated from her ‘craving…’


Lili winds up at the hospital where Garth tries to bring her out of her coma. The doctor asks him what he thinks the marks on her neck might be. He tells him that there’s only one man in London who might be able to explain them.
At the commissioner’s office, Van Helsing tallies all the clues. The loss of blood, the marks on the neck. Van Helsing is puzzled. He can’t see how it could be having killed Dracula. But he confirms that they are the marks of a vampire. “No vampire can survive the stake.” He tells Sir Basil, Dracula had many victims… in their veins, he infused his own tainted blood making them creatures like himself. Sir Basil says maybe Van Helsing is trying to build up his own defense. But Garth reminds Sir Basil about the man they found the same way by the embankment two small punctures near the jugular vein. Van Helsing tells Sir Basil that he must do something about these attacks. That there will be others but Sir Basil says-‘People are always being attacked in the fog, it doesn’t prove that London is haggard with vampires, it’s preposterous. I think you two are trying to pull my leg.”
Janet shows up at the hospital right before Garth tests Lili She had said she was going to cut all ties with the hospital. “I detest vacillating women” is Part of the ongoing joke about Garth having trouble with his tie- He refuses to get Janet’s help and asks Ms. Peabody, who the film makes obvious the point that she has never had a man in her life. She’s uncomfortable. The humor is supposed to lie in how she is an old maid. Ultimately Janet has to help with his tie once again. Janet is a capable attractive female, while Ms Peabody must wipe her forehead from perspiration.


From Mary Ann Doane- The Desire to Desire“Sexuality or the erotic relation is thus given scientific legitimation in the figure of the doctor who acts simultaneously as a moral and social guardian. A woman’s illness may be defined in many ways by the classical text. but it never implies illness. More often than not it is a magnification of an undesirable aspect of femininity or a repudiation of femininity altogether. If the disease is excessive, it invariably necessitates punishment in the interest of a legible sexual differentiation. But there is also a sense in which the filmic delineation of a women’s illness is always punitive. For, as Sontag points out, “Nothing is more punitive than to give disease a meaning-that meaning being invariably a moralistic one.”

Lacan-Desire is always in excess-even if it is simply the desire to desire. the striving for access to a desiring subjectivity The Desiring woman and her excessive sexuality may be theoretically unrepresentable (according to the logic of a masculine theory, in any event; she may be doomed to die in order to ensure closure for the narrative, but for a moment of cinematic time, she is at least present, flaunting her excess.



Zaleska shows up-“Doctor Garth I can’t go on. That is without you. You’re the one person who stands between me and utter destruction” He walks away from her. She continues, “I’m leaving London tonight forever” He is taken by surprise “I know the truth now. There’s nothing ahead for me but horror” “You must control yourself if you expect me to understand what you’re talking about.” Even vampire women can be ‘hysterical’ god Men!!! “When you left me last night, I determined to put myself to a test as you suggested. I failed. It came over me again that overpowering command. Wordless… insistent… And I had to obey” “What was it?” “I, I can’t tell you it’s too, too ghastly” She shudders then tears come. “I have something here that might help to steady your nerves.”



He goes to his machine with the mechanical means that induce hypnosis. Similar to how Zaleska uses her ring to do quite the same He tells her about the machine and calls her to come close. She begins to look worried. “This little light shines against the disc reflected by the mirrors.”


When she hears the word mirrors her eyes widen, and she declares “No!!” He asks why not. “It’s too late for experiments” Garth-“I’m afraid you’re right” Zaleska– “I came to ask you to go with me” “Go with you?” “Yes tonight, to the continent. Oh, I know it all sounds mad but it is. But you must do this for me. I’ll make any concession but you must come with me.” Garth-“You know that’s impossible” Zaleska– “No, no don’t say that. You’re a great doctor. A doctor of minds… of souls… I need you, Dr Garth. I need you to save my soul” Garth tells her-“How can you expect me to even listen to you when you’re concealing the truth about yourself.” “But I’ve told you all I can now” “You mean you’ve told me all you dare!”
“I’ll leave and you’ll go with me!”
Garth puts Lili under a post-hypnotic examination.
Modern science vs folklore and supernatural power-the use of a mechanical instrument to induce hypnosis-similar to Zaleska’s jeweled ring which does virtually the same thing.





Van Helsing tells him to find out where the attack took place. There’ll be a box of earth somewhere at hand. A box of its own native soil. To which the vampire must return at the end of each night. And there will be no mirrors anywhere about. Garth puffs on his cigarette and thinks to himself.





CapturFiles_325 CapturFiles_326





















Countess Marya Zaleska: “Safe – so far.” Dr. Garth: “If you’ve harmed her.” Countess Marya Zaleska: “You’re not in London now Doctor Garth with your police. You’re in Transylvania in my castle.”






Countess Marya Zaleska: “Her pulse is weak Dr. Garth… Growing weaker. All your skill can’t help her now. She’s under a spell that can be broken only by me… or death. Is this interesting?…”

















13 thoughts on “When the Spider Woman Looks: Two Glorias- “Wicked Love, Close ups & Old Jewels”- The sympathetically tragic villainesses of Sunset Blvd (1950) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

    1. Thanks so much! It was a particularly heart felt post for me. I know how much Aurora is protective of Norma Desmond. And I too, have always seen her as sympathetic. But as I delved into the film’s layers in order to embrace her character as well as finding out more about Gloria Swanson the actress and person… I just fell deeply in love with both of them. Sunset Blvd is so quirky– and set off a sub genre that I wonder if people realize was the water shed moment. That is why I also have tremendous regard and a defensive protectiveness over Bette Davis’ Baby Jane Hudson. I feel that older actresses became unintentional caricatures of themselves… and yet their performances are riveting. I’m so happy that you loved the post for your amazing blogathon. You all did such a wonderful job. And the villains were sensational. Thanks for letting me fall back in love with two extremely layered characters who both happened to be named Gloria! Cheers

      1. Good point re: older actresses and their riveting performances. They were unintentional caricatures in a way, but they also brought depth and experience a younger actress could not emulate, no matter how talented they were.

      2. Absolutely true about the depth of their experience AND they were entirely still incredibly sexy, sensual beings and desirable. Older women have been demonized for their sexual primacy, as if it’s a sin or a crime to have desire. They become either framed or perceived as monstrous on film-I love a seasoned woman

  1. Loved your epic post, Jo! What a great deal of time, thought, effort, and creativity went into it! I love, first off, the two similarities you found that bound these two films together — and I especially appreciated the background information about Dracula’s daughter. I’ve never seen this film — only clips in a documentary — and your info was very interesting. Sunset Boulevard is one of my favorites, though, as is Norma Desmond, so you know I loved your treatment of that film. Really good stuff!

    1. Hey! Thanks so much for your wonderful comment. I really do spend a lot of time on the more ‘epic’ posts lol… I usually just call myself long winded, but epic works. It’s so strange the co incidences in both films–that’s the stuff that makes delving into the films and shows I love so much fun. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. Sunset Boulevard just never gets old. It’s sublime. And I adore Norma…as well as Swanson. Thanks again!!! It’s great to have you stop by– see ya round the snack bar!

  2. Thank you for this stunning and interesting post. Gloria Swanson is my all time favorite actress and your images of her are incredible! I’m a long time reader of The Last Drive In but not a big commented. I had to thank you for giving such rich, detailed, and thoughtful coverage to one of the all time great treasures of cinema!

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