A murdered screenwriter who narrates from the grave. An idealistic script reader who thinks she can work her way up in a studio on smarts alone. A producer who would push a baseball project if he could turn it into a musical for a female star.
Those are just the "normal" characters in "Sunset Boulevard," the anchor of the opening-day bill for "You Be Cinema," the University of Baltimore's new film series at UB's Student Center Performing Arts Theater, 21 W. Mount Royal Ave.
Billy Wilder's coruscating pop tragedy, streaked with horror and black comedy, is still the ultimate Hollywood movie, 60 years after its premiere. The way Baltimore film historian and revival impresario George Figgs has programmed it — for 8 p.m. Friday night, following a 5 p.m. show of Eric von Stroheim's 1929 "Queen Kelly" — you can see that it also exposes the fall of a cultural empire and the cushy corruption of any closed society, whether the movie colony or Wall Street.
"These films encapsulate the beginning and the end of the era of Hollywood moguls," Figgs said this week. "They're like two halves of an egg that fit together like a Chinese puzzle."
The antihero of Wilder's film, Joe Gillis, who tells the story in amusing tough-guy lingo, is a debt-ridden scribe who becomes the kept man of silent-era movie legend Norma Desmond ( Gloria Swanson). Gillis represents the modern Hollywood norm. He's made a habit of compromise, and Holden expresses the ravaging self-loathing that goes with it. No one has better conveyed the Hollywood experience of feeling lousy when dressed to the nines.
Desmond, though — and von Stroheim as her butler — represent Old Hollywood in all its crazy grandeur. Even her pet chimp receives a royal funeral. When Gillis first recognizes Desmond, he says, "You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big." Desmond famously replies, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." Later, while watching a snippet of — what else? — "Queen Kelly," she says, "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces."
That declaration expands in your mind if you first go see "Queen Kelly," which Swanson starred in and von Stroheim directed. For both, it was a mad, disreputable folly; no American distributor would release it. Swanson thought that she could play a ravishing, innocent convent girl at age 32. The exacting and individualistic von Stroheim thought he could hold his own politically with Swanson and her lover, Joseph P. Kennedy, who ran the production company. In "Sunset Boulevard," when Desmond shows "Queen Kelly" to Gillis, she says, "Still wonderful, isn't it?" But in 1929, Swanson ordered Kennedy to "get out here fast. Our director is a madman."
"Queen Kelly" is a twisted fairy tale. It kicks into gear when Swanson's drawers drop during a healthy hike outside convent walls — just when a handsome prince (Walter Byron) passes with his entourage of horse soldiers. He's instantly smitten. But an insanely jealous queen (Seena Owen) has decided she must have the prince herself. The queen's mad love and the prince's romantic conquest crash head-on with the heroine's true love. The extravagant wreckage fills the screen with nightmare melodrama.
Figgs will show the reconstructed von Stroheim version that includes the heroine taking over her aunt's brothel in Africa. (During a post-"Sunset Boulevard" discussion, Figgs will also screen the ridiculous "Hollywood ending" Swanson later slapped onto "Queen Kelly.") Another great director, Alan Dwan, once quipped, "It's either the story of a nun who turns whore or a whore who turns nun, and I can't figure out which it is."
Yes, but what's amazing about "Queen Kelly" isn't the plot — it's the scale and vitality of von Stroheim's erotic moviemaking. Even watching it (as I did) on the Kino DVD is like seeing a deluxe demented pop-up book brought to spectacular life; seeing it in a theater should be oddball heaven. Thanks to von Stroheim's loony originality, the already feline queen bathes with her white cat, then perches it on her fur collar so that it looks like a second head. The prince fondles and sniffs the convent girl's drawers. And the queen literally whips the girl out of her palace as her guardsmen snicker at the depravity of it all. "Queen Kelly" is a mind-boggling artifact because it powers an imaginative recreation of a depraved aristocratic milieu with confounding, raw emotion.
"Sunset Boulevard" is a haunting cautionary tale about getting lost in tinseled dreams. But Wilder and his collaborators couldn't hide their awe of the imaginative opulence of films like "Queen Kelly" — and neither, apparently, could von Stroheim's former antagonist, Swanson. Even a successful studio player like Wilder, then at the height of his powers, knew that the real enemies of movie art were not visionaries like von Stroheim but power-brokers like Kennedy — and the low-comic characters in "Sunset Boulevard" like that poor-fool producer who wants to make a musical version of "A League of their Own."
If you go
"You Be Cinema" and George Figgs present "Queen Kelly" at 5 p.m. and "Sunset Boulevard" at 8 p.m. Friday at UB's Student Center Performing Arts Theater, 21 W. Mt. Royal Avenue. Tickets to the double feature are $4, and are available one hour before the show or at etix.com.