Stage Struck: Gloria Swanson before the pictures got small | Stage

Gloria Swanson’s most enduring function is the imperious, bitterly eclipsed display screen queen Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. However to totally admire Desmond’s light glory in Billy Wilder’s 1950 noir traditional, you must see Swanson’s silent movies. Stage Struck – directed 25 years earlier by Allan Dwan – each revels in and pastiches the visible opulence of the silent period, with a plot that displays on the adulation of glamorous actresses. It additionally includes a transient probability to see Swanson as a glittering Salome, the function coveted by Desmond for her misbegotten comeback.

The Salome sequence is available in Stage Struck’s tongue-in-cheek prologue, filmed in an entrancing early model of Technicolor, providing assorted scenes from the lifetime of “the biggest actress of all time”. On stage, we see Swanson bombarded with bouquets by ecstatic audiences; on the avenue she is mobbed by an adoring public determined for a brush with stardom. At a lavish banquet, she instantly steps into the function of Salome and ascends the stairs of a temple, returning with a platter bearing the head of John the Baptist.

Or is she serving somebody’s lunch? With a match lower, Dwan switches from this extravagant fantasy to a no-frills West Virginia restaurant, the place waitress Jenny (additionally performed by Swanson) poses as Salome along with her tray and finally ends up spilling a buyer’s order. Jenny goals of turning into an actor however is surrounded by crowds of hungry diners relatively than starry-eyed followers. Stage Struck asks why it’s that folks need to carry out. Regardless of the extravagant riches of the prologue, it settles on the type of humble reply actors typically give when reminiscing about their childhoods: the easy compulsion to entertain.

Dreamer … Swanson with Lawrence Gray in Stage Struck.
Dreamer … Swanson with Lawrence Grey in Stage Struck. {Photograph}: TCD/Prod DB/Alamy

The diner the place Jenny works is understood for its wheatcakes, ready by a show window. The griddle is often manned by Orme (Lawrence Grey), to whom Jenny is devoted, and he savours the alternative to entertain onlookers by flipping the desserts like a showman. Jenny takes over the griddle at some point and finds she likes to make prospects giggle. However her dream to review performing can also be all the way down to Orme’s obsession with stage and display screen pin-ups; alone in his room, she mimics the goddess poses of the girls on his partitions. Performing is discovered, the movie suggests, by commentary: Jenny research these stars intently, all the way down to the best particulars of their apparel.

Archetypes abound in Stage Struck: Jenny is the devoted feminine good friend, dubbed “Mouse” by the man she loves who’s simply not value it. Orme is goggle-eyed for a glamorous stage star, Lillian Lyons (performed by Gertrude Astor), who brings pleasure to the small city in the similar manner Deadwood goes doolally for Miss Adelaid Adams in Calamity Jane (1953). When Jenny practises the function of “contented spouse” for her closing performing examination you’re unsure if the joke is only in how she goes about enjoying it (utilizing a cuddly toy canine as a husband) or in the proven fact that these are the elements her coaching will reward her with. Whereas Stage Struck often satirises gender roles with self-awareness, it nonetheless serves up a queasily disregarded plot wherein Orme belittles and coerces Jenny (who in a single scene self-harms to maintain his consideration).

Jenny is equally exploited when she lands the probability to carry out on a showboat, the Water Queen. She earnestly prepares to recite Longfellow’s The Day Is Performed solely to be thrown into the ring with a boxing champ as a part of the leisure. The Water Queen was an actual theatre boat working on the Ohio River and the movie provides a quick comedian style of life for these waterbound vaudeville troupes as immortalised in Jerome Kern’s Present Boat (filmed in 1951).

Gertrude Astor as Lillian Lyons.
Glamorous … Gertrude Astor as Lillian Lyons. {Photograph}: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Local newspaper reports documented the filming of Stage Struck in New Martinsville, West Virginia, the place Swanson was obtained with as a lot hysteria as Lillian Lyons. One reported that “10,000 out-of-town people” got here to get a glimpse of her whereas “all the ladies are wanting their hair lower identical to Gloria’s”.

Nearly 100 years after Stage Struck was made, an countless selection of disposable leisure is at our fingertips (and, because of social media, so too are the personal lives of megastars). Top quality digital theatre, although comparatively sparse at the begin of the pandemic, is now broadly out there and, after all, we’re accustomed to watching movies every time we would like. The extraordinary attract that unreachable display screen and stage stars are proven to own in Dwan’s movie is an indication of vanished occasions when, after audiences left the auditorium, shiny snapshots and publications like Theatre Magazine and Photoplay had been pored over till the subsequent time they returned.

“I’m huge – it’s the pictures that got small,” Norma Desmond famously asserted, lamenting the lack of the silent period. Stage Struck, in reality, is a relatively small image itself nevertheless it goes some method to capturing the huge impression that actors go away on our on a regular basis lives.

Stage Struck is on Blu-ray and DVD.

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