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The Ghosts of Silent Cinema

Amid another major shakeup, will Hollywood’s casualties come back to haunt the screen?
Elizabeth Horkley
Lucy Jones
Illustration by Lucy Jones.
One of Sunset Boulevard’s most iconic lines is also one of its most prophetic. Consciously or not, Norma Desmond (played self-referentially by silent film star Gloria Swanson) says a mouthful when she utters, “I am big—it’s the pictures that got small!” In 1950 when the film was released, TV sets were just beginning to creep into American homes. Desmond couldn’t have imagined that screens would shrink to a size much smaller than a piece of furniture, or that audiences would one day be able to hold a famous face like hers on a device nestled in the palm of their hand.
Desmond’s every line and movement drips with grandiosity. Swanson plays the character—one of the biggest and brightest stars of the silent cinema  era in her youth—as a woman entombed by her onscreen past. Performing with the exaggerated gestures and facial expressions of a silent film actor, she gives off the impression of being stuck in perpetual replay. Writer and director Billy Wilder reframes the tragedy of aging in Hollywood as a horrorshow.
Sunset Boulevard famously begins with a shot of its protagonist, dead and floating facedown in a swimming pool. Joe Gillis (William Holden), a (formerly) down-on-his-luck screenwriter, narrates from beyond the grave. Via flashback, he recalls how he became lunch for Desmond’s attention-starved ego, starting with a pact: in exchange for helping her with a dreadful script, he’ll receive a hefty sum of cash and, ominously, room and board. The extent of Desmond’s mad delusions dawn on Gillis as he becomes a prisoner in her Hollywood gothic mansion, where an organ wheezes at night and a ghoulish butler watches his every move.
Film writer Richard Corliss has called Sunset Boulevard “the definitive Hollywood horror movie,” noting that most of the film’s action takes place "in an old, dark house that only opens its doors to the living dead." In a book on the films of Wilder, author Gerd Gemünden makes a similar comparison: “When we follow Joe Gillis on the screen, we are aware that we are in fact witnessing a walking corpse, making his encounter with the undead figure of a film star, a person believed to have passed away a long time ago, doubly ironic.”
The complicating factor for these supernatural readings is that, of course, Desmond isn’t dead. In equating extinguished star power with death, Wilder was among the first to draw attention to the peculiarity of stardom as a career. Many icons of the silent era died young under lamentable circumstances, but plenty others (Swanson among them) simply retreated from the limelight. “I thought she was dead!” a stagehand shouts upon seeing Desmond outside of her home, no doubt voicing the audience’s own bemused response at seeing a middle-aged Swanson onscreen. Then and now, a Hollywood actor’s profession and persona are enmeshed. In the eyes of the public, absence from the screen is akin to death.
A year before Sunset Boulevard’s premiere, experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger made a parallel observation in Puce Moment (1949): a dazzling six-minute short depicting the elaborate morning routine of a past-her-prime film star (poet Yvonne Marquis) getting dressed in a sequined gown and heels for no one, and for no reason other than to walk her dogs through the grounds of her Hollywood Hills estate. Anger has described the project as “a love affair with mythological Hollywood…” He recalls of the production (which was originally intended to feature four women): “They were to be filmed in their actual houses; I was, in effect, filming ghosts.”
Like Desmond, the nameless heroine of Puce Moment appears trapped onscreen in a bygone era. Her movements are kinetic, intentionally sped up to resemble the jerky motions of actors in silent films. But whereas Desmond is portrayed as a malevolent spirit, Anger’s muse is a melancholic entity.
Born in 1927—the same year that The Jazz Singer sounded a death knell for silent cinema—Anger grew up close to his grandmother: a costume designer during the 1920s (the gowns that feature heavily in Puce Moment belonged to her). In his best-selling Hollywood Babylon books, first published in 1959, he chronicled the salacious showbiz rumors he heard as an adolescent. Among the many forgotten silent stars he exhumed were Mabel Normand and William Desmond Taylor. Actress Normand was a suspect in the murder of director Taylor in 1922. Though she was acquitted, her career never recovered, and many have speculated that Wilder named Norma Desmond as an homage to the two.
Wilder also held a fascination with the era. As a young man in Berlin in the 1920s, he lapped up American fare. And in the 1950s, he wasn’t alone in his desire to revisit that epoch of Hollywood history. The Silent Movie theater in Los Angeles was said to play to full houses on Friday and Saturday nights. In a 1943 interview with the Los Angeles Times, owner John Hampton speculated on the theater’s improbable appeal: “To most folks over 30, silent pictures recall the happiest memories of their younger days,” he said. “To the young folks under 20, silent pictures are a source of never-ending novelty. They are both amazed and amused at the acting of the stars of yesteryear and the ways people behaved and dressed.”
The cyclical nature of pop culture easily explains the revival of interest in silent cinema, twenty-something years after it had become passe. But the reasons for characterizing its stars as ghostly are more obscure. One reason could be the untimely deaths of figures like Normand and Taylor, as well as Rudolf Valentino, Fatty Arbuckle, Olive Thomas… Their tragic deaths left more of an impression on the public than the slow fade-out of stars who didn’t “survive” the transition to sound. In one of Sunset Boulevard’s most memorable scenes, Desmond plays cards with Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson, who appear as wrinkled versions of their former-selves. Gillis refers to the milieu as “waxworks.”
Another factor could be the otherworldly aura of silent screen actors, with their uncanny gestures and cadaverous makeup. This look was used to great effect in Weimar-era horror films like Nosferatu (1922), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and Faust (1926) in Wilder’s home country of Germany. As Gilberto Perez writes in The Material Ghost, even sans an expressionist mise en scène, the film image as projected by a “magic lantern” (cinema’s earliest projector) carries supernatural connotations. Explicating the title of his book, he writes that cinematic images “carry in them something of the world itself, something material, and yet something transposed, transformed into another world.” He describes the effect as occurring in a limbo-like realm at “the juncture of the world and otherworldliness.”
Jacques Derrida posited yet another novel theory of the “spectrality of cinema” in a 1998 interview with Cahiers du cinéma, noting the concurrence of its genesis with psychoanalytic theory. “Every viewer, while watching a film, is in communication with some work of the unconscious that, by definition, can be compared with the work of haunting,” he said, citing Freud. He goes on to compare movie screenings to a séances or psychoanalytic sessions—both common practices in the early 20th century: “You go to the movies to be analyzed, by letting all the ghosts appear and speak. You can, in an economical way… let the specters haunt you on the screen.” Derrida implies that we demand far more from our stars than entertainment: we look to them for self-realization.
One of the central themes of Sunset Boulevard is the way in which Desmond is exploited both by the studio system and her admirers. Before remarking that “30 million fans have given her the brush,” director Cecil B. Demille (playing himself) sighs and adds: “A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.”
Following the lead of her fans and her publicists, Desmond is unable to distinguish between her life onscreen and off. Unfortunately, her silent film-inflected affectation didn’t age well as the pictures “got small.” When she cries to Gillis: “I'm not just selling the script. I'm selling me!” she presages the idea of a “personal brand,” but doesn’t realize that she’s not sweetening the deal.
When we think of stars currently, our minds drift to an old guard: Oscar winners like Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep. Their formative years in the business—post-television and the dissolution of the studio system, but pre-internet—were comparatively kind to Hollywood actors. Newcomers today face a situation curiously comparable to that of ingénues like Desmond in the late 1920s.
The immense pressure put on celebrities to maintain a persona on-screen-and-off hasn’t disappeared—it’s only changed forms. With the halting of all production and the slowdown of distribution in 2020, adroitness in social media is a survival skill. We’ve already witnessed missteps. What will become of entertainers who can’t channel charm via their iPhones, any more than countless foreign-born or thick-accented silent film actors could project sophisticated speech into microphones?
An April article from The Guardian dismisses concerns about the decline of the film industry, noting numerous times where the same scenario was falsely predicted, and comparing moviemaking to a phoenix rising from the ashes. Taking a can-do attitude, the author writes: “Now is the time to embrace the change the pandemic has brought us.” The piece primarily concerns production and makes little mention of actors, save for an homage at its close: “No, the film biz is not dead. Not by a long shot. It is merely getting ready for its closeup.”
In brightly comparing the future of moviemaking to a film that concerns the metaphorical death of an entire generation of stars, the author betrays a lack of faith in the current crop of talent. Since March, these celebrities have been confined to their mansions, not unlike Norma Desmond. Whether they’ll survive the impact of COVID will largely depend on how they adapt to the smallest screens yet.

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