Sic transit Gloria Swanson*

*catchphrase borrowed by Terry Wogan. Sic transit gloria mundi (sometimes shortened to STGM) is a Latin phrase that means “Thus passes worldly glory”.

Pictured: Mary Pickford (1892-1979).

Charles Higham wrote in the Winter 1967 issue of the BFI’s Sight and Sound magazine:

“Almost alone among American directors, Billy Wilder (1906-2002) has succeeded in hanging on, through Hollywood’s long years of compromise, of an increasingly desperate wooing of the audience, to a corrosive misanthropy, a disenchanted view of the public. If his most recent comedies have occasionally sugared the pill, they have still come out with a philosophy not calculated to please the nursing mothers of Podunk.

Relaxed in Californian T-shirt and casual slacks, his neatly impersonal beige-and-brown office at Mirisch/UA a far cry from the clutter of Walter Matthau’s in Meet Whiplash Willie (aka The Fortune Cookie), Wilder doesn’t immediately convey the harsh directness of his pictures. And indeed, despite nervous warnings from the publicity men (“He can’t sit still,” one told me, “for long enough to get five minutes on to tape”), he proved surprisingly genial and relaxed during the two-hour interview.

Wilder on his best behaviour, then: but every now and again the impatient, brilliant mind, coldly disillusioned and tough, showed in its clearest colours. Wilder began by talking about his impatience with arty effects: “I don’t like the audience to be aware of camera tricks. Suddenly you’re shooting a man crossing a street and you take him from the ninth storey of a building, and you begin to think in the stalls: ‘There must be an FBI man looking down from up there,’ and instead it’s just an arty cameraman.

Why shoot a scene from a bird’s eye view, or a bug’s? I guess they call that kind of thing ‘stylish’ or ‘beautifully conceived’. “What an eye,” they say, “shooting stuff through parking meters!” It’s all done to astonish the bourgeois, to amaze the middle-class critic. Actually it’s nothing but the work of the kind of people who are impressed by the fancy set-ups you get in TV commercials: you know, a man with his feet on a desk and you see the soles of his feet covering nine-tenths of the screen and in between the two shoes you see a little bit of his face. What’s the point?”…

Did Sunset Boulevard cause a stir on its first showings in Hollywood?

I remember there was a big preview in the projection room at Paramount. I’ve never seen so many prominent people at once – the word was out that this was a stunner, you see. After the picture ended there were violent reactions, from excitement to pure horror.

I remember Barbara Stanwyck kneeling down in front of Miss Swanson (1899-1983) and kissing the hem of her garment in one of those ridiculous adulation things, and Louis B. Mayer shaking his fist saying, “We should horsewhip this Wilder, we should throw him out of this town, he has brought disgrace on the town that is feeding him!” I don’t know what he was talking about, I don’t know what the hell was so anti-Hollywood in that picture. He lived in a kind of dream world, unfortunately.

Why did you decide to have the whole picture narrated by, as it were, the gigolo writer Joe Gillis’s ghost?

We originally had a weird kind of framing sequence containing some of the best material I’ve ever shot, but when we previewed the picture in Chicago and in the suburbs of New York people just screamed with laughter, so we cut it. We showed the corpse of a man being brought to the morgue in downtown Los Angeles, where we actually did much of the shooting. And in that section of the morgue when he arrives there are eight bodies – a woman, an elderly man, a young boy and so on. And the corpses tell each other events leading up to their deaths. The boy drowned, the old man had retired and had a little avocado grove in Tarzana here, and had a heart attack. And so on.

And now [William] Holden tells the story, but by the time the corpse has been labelled and the tag tied to the big toe the audience is helpless in the aisles. A pity. The opening as we finally shot it wasn’t logical but it was riveting, and as long as something is riveting, they will swallow it…”

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