The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

Sunset Blvd. (1950) Classic Movie Review 81

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.

Welcome to today’s show, my name is John. As always you can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the links to social media in the podcast show notes. You can also go to to read notes, bios, and other random movie thoughts. Remember this show is completely free and independent. All I ask is that you jump over to iTunes and give me a review.

Today’s movie is Sunset Blvd. (1950). Sunset Blvd. (1950) is certainly one of the greatest movies in American film history. It is also one of the greatest film noirs of all time. At release, the film was nominated for 11 Oscars and received three. Time magazine stated, “Hollywood at its worst told by Hollywood at its best.” [1] This movie not only had faces, it had dialogue, storytelling, passion, and suspense. Told in noir fashion this film begins at the death of one of the two main characters. As the story is revealed the watcher is able to see the intricate dance that brought on the death.


We have covered a few of the actors previously so I will jump right in with them. The first is the great William Holden who played the role of, down on his luck, writer Joe Gillis. Holden was first covered during Episode 79 – Stalag 17 (1953), a role for which he received the Oscar, he should have gotten for Sunset Blvd.

The stone-faced Buster Keaton played himself as an actor that time had passed and one of the few remaining friends of Norma Desmond. Buster Keaton was covered in Episode 58 – The General (1926).

Another member of Norma Desmond’s “wax works” was H.B. Warner. H. B. Warner was covered in Episode 53 – It’s A Wonderful Life (1946).

The wonderfully talented star Gloria Swanson played the role of Norma Desmond. Norma had everything but youth. Swanson was born in Chicago in 1899. After Gloria finished school she became a sales clerk in a department store. On a visit to a movie production studio in 1915, because she was so beautiful, Gloria was picked from the crowd to be a bit player in The Fable of Elvira and Farina (1915) and The Meal Ticket (1915). Gloria has another small role in At the End of a Perfect Day (1915) and finally got a bigger role in Sweedie Goes to College (1915).

By the mid-1920s Gloria was the highest paid actress in Hollywood reportedly having spent over $8 million in that decade alone. The fact that she had seven husbands and her general escapades made her a fan favorite.

Gloria was 30 when films started being made with sound. Those that bet she wouldn’t make the transition were dead wrong. In 1928, she was nominated for best actress for Sadie Thompson (1928). She was nominated again the next year for The Trespasser (1929). Gloria only made 4 films during the 1930s with the last being Music in the Air (1934). She returned for Father Takes a Wife (1941). Amazingly she did not take another role until Sunset Blvd (1950). For this film, she was nominated again for best actress but lost for the third time.

From this point forward Gloria more or less retired. She would occasionally show up on television for shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies” She did play herself in the disaster film Airport 1975 (1974). Ms. Swanson died in 1983 at the age of 86.

Erich von Stroheim played the role of Max Von Mayerling, Norma Desmond’s butler. However, he also had a big secret. Stroheim was born in Austria in 1885. He immigrated to America around 1909 and worked around Hollywood until he began working for Director D.W. Griffiths. Stroheim is known as a director but he had a decent acting career with 74 credits. Many of these were playing the enemy of America. One of his better-known films was La Grande Illusion (1937). As a director, he was obsessed with details that caused massive cost overruns. He was fired many times and Gloria Swanson fired him from Queen Kelly, he was done as a director.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Nancy Olson played Betty Schaefer, the bright-eyed script reader. Olson was born in Wisconsin in 1924. Olson transferred from UW to UCLA. It was not long before she was discovered and signed by Paramount Studios in 1948. As a lovely blonde, with peaches and cream style she began getting co-starring roles after a single uncredited bit part in Portrait of Jennie (1948).

She had a bigger role in Canadian Pacific (1949) before she was offered a very important role in Sunset Blvd (1950). She was paid $5000 for this role and received a best-supporting actress nomination. She worked well with William Holden and the pair went on to make Union Station (1950), Force of Arms (1951), and Submarine Command (1951). Olson worked with John Wayne in the pro-HUAC, anti-communist John Wayne film Big Jim McLain (1952) and with Steve Forrest in So Big (1953).

In the mid-1950s Olson left acting to raise her children. When she divorced in 1957 she tried to return to acting but they no longer wanted to cast her as a fresh young face. Disney Studios cast Olson as Fred MacMurray’s love interest in The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963). She fit well with Disney’s image and made other films with them such as Pollyanna (1960) and Snowball Express (1972). She made a cameo appearance in Flubber (1997). Olson did some television work in the 1970s and 80s. In the 1980s she retired from film work.

Fred Clark played studio manager Sheldrake. Clark was born in California in 1914. While attending Stanford University a chance acting role landed Clark a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He began working in community theater and summer stock. In 1938, he got his first role on Broadway.

Clark’s career was placed on hold when the US entered World War II. He served as a Navy pilot in 1942 but later joined the Army and spent almost two years with the Third Army in Europe.

When he returned, he was given a role by director Michael Curtiz in the noir classic The Unsuspected (1947). Since he was able to play a villain so well he continued to receive work in films such as Ride the Pink Horse (1947), Cry of the City (1948), Flamingo Road (1949), White Heat (1949), Alias Nick Beal (1949), Sunset Blvd. (1950), The Jackpot (1950), The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) and Meet Me After the Show (1951). All of these films took advantage of Clark’s sour demeanor and the guy you love to hate appeal.

Clark spent much of the 1950s playing the same types of roles on television. Other movies where he played his trademark role were The Caddy (1953) with Martin and Lewis, Marilyn Monroe’s How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), Don’t Go Near the Water (1957), The Mating Game (1959), Auntie Mame (1958) where he played a skinflint banker, Bells Are Ringing (1960), Visit to a Small Planet (1960), Boys’ Night Out (1962) and Move Over, Darling (1963). He was also in some real dogs like Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), I Sailed to Tahiti with an All Girl Crew (1968) and the terrible Skidoo (1968), directed by Otto Preminger and starred Jackie Gleason and Carol Channing. Clark died in 1968 at the age of 54.

Jack Webb played the role of Artie Green, up and coming director that was everybody’s friend. Webb was born in California in 1920. After his father abandoned the family he was raised in poverty by his mother and grandmother. As an adult, he began working as a disc jockey and later as a radio show host.

One of Webb’s early acting roles was in the A small role in the film noir classic He Walked by Night (1948). During production, he became friends was an LAPD consultant. He pitched the idea for “Dragnet” to NBC and it became a radio show in 1949 and a television show in late 1951. The show lasted until 1959.

Webb directed and starred in five films: Dragnet (1954), Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), The D.I. (1957), -30- (1959), and The Last Time I Saw Archie (1961). After the last two films bombed he became head of production for Warner Bros. Television. He was fired the same year after making disastrous changes to “77 Sunset Strip” 1958. He was unemployed for two years. Then Universal hired Webb to make a Dragnet TV movie. After this movie did well he was tasked with creating “Dragnet 1967” 1967. This new Dragnet paired the stiff Officer Friday with the humorous Officer Gannon played by Harry Morgan.

Following Dragnet 1967 Webb went on to create “Adam-12” 1968, and “Emergency!” 1972. He protected the image he had created from Dragnet and when asked to play Dean Wormer in director John Landis’ Animal House (1978) he flatly refused. Webb died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 62.

Cecil B. DeMille played himself as a director that was still working and had worked with Norma Desmond in the old days. DeMille was born in Massachusetts in 1881. Both his parents were playwrights and when his father died his mother opened a girl’s school and a theater company. DeMille followed his brother to the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts and made his stage debut in 1900. He acted and managed his mother’s company for a dozen years.

In 1913, DeMille, Jesse L. Lasky, and Samuel Goldwyn formed the Lasky Film Company which later became Paramount Pictures. The next year DeMille produced The Squaw Man (1914) which was the first feature-length film produced in Hollywood. He tended to develop his own talent and one of his most important was Gloria Swanson. He produced and directed 80 films and was involved in many more. DeMille supposedly believed Americans were curious only about money and sex and many of his films featured these themes. He also made many biblical epics such as The King of Kings (1927), The Ten Commandments (1923), and The Crusades (1935).

Other important films include Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), Triumph (1924), The Sign of the Cross (1932), The Plainsman (1936) with Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, The Buccaneer (1938), Union Pacific (1939), North West Mounted Police (1940) again with Gary Cooper, Reap the Wild Wind (1942) with John Wayne and Paulette Goddard, Samson and Delilah (1949) with Hedy Lamar and Victor Mature (It’s Headly), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) with Jimmy Stewart, Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, and Gloria Grahame, and The Ten Commandments (1956) featuring too many to mention.

DeMille died in 1959 at the age of 77.

Hedda Hopper played herself in this movie. Early in her career she made dozens of films and was known as the “Queen of the Quickies.” In 1936 she started a gossip radio show and two years later started a 28-year career as a newspaper gossip columnist. In Sunset Blvd.  (1950) she showed her power in Hollywood. Her son, William Hooper, became famous as investigator Paul Drake in the “Perry Mason” 1957 television series.


As the credits role, the camera tracks along Sunset Boulevard. As sirens begin to wail the narrator begins to tell his tale. Sunset Boulevard is important because some of the first filmings in Hollywood took place there. The narrator tells that there has been a murder at one of those opulent mansions in the 10,000 block.

The narrator tells that it’s a big story because an old-time star was involved. When the police get to the house there is a young man, Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating dead in the swimming pool. The view is from the bottom looking up past the body to the dry police.

This shot was made by placing a mirror on the bottom of the pool and shooting into the mirror. Joe takes the narrator back six months before his murder.

Joe is in a small apartment trying to write a story that could be sold. The repo men are trying to take his car back for late payments but he has hidden the car. Joe decides to hit up his buddies for some money. First, he goes to Paramount Pictures producer Sheldrake (Fred Clark) to see about a script he has at the studio. Sheldrake calls the readers department to get their report. The report is brought in by Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). Before she realizes that Joe is in the room she classifies the script as junk. Joe begs for a job and then begs for money.

He drives to Schwab’s Drug Store where many of the out of work writers and actors hang out. He then visits his agent who is out playing golf. The agent dismisses him saying poverty is good for writers. Joe heads back towards town and he reconciles himself to returning to newspaper work in Dayton. He then sees the repo men and speeds away. With them not far behind Joe’s car blows a tire and he pulls into a deserted mansion. Joe drives the car into the garage. Inside of the garage is a car that hadn’t been driven since 1932.

However, the mansion is not deserted and a woman calls out from the second floor demanding to know why Joe has kept her waiting so long. A dour butler in tails and white gloves opens the door and instructs Joe to come in. The woman calls from upstairs for Joe to come up. The butler, Max Von Mayerling (Von Stroheim) tells Joe that if he needs help with the coffin to call.

In the room upstairs the woman, who is wearing a leopard printed turban and round sunglasses, starts talking about burying her pet chimpanzee, which is lying dead on the table. Joe explains that he is not the undertaker and then he recognizes the woman as silent-screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). They trade some pretty intense dialogue about the movies getting small. Norma finds out that he is a writer and throws him out but then she has other thoughts. She asks him to read a rather large script that she has written. The picture is about Salome and she plans to use it as a return, not a comeback. Norma demands he sit and Joe does, yielding control at this early stage of the relationship. Joe reads as Norma watches.

The real chimp mortician shows up and buries the ape. Of course, this foreshadows Joe as the new Ape and shows his fate. Joe narrates that he has a plan and strokes Norma’s ego about the play. Norma offers Joe the editing job. Norma insists that Joe stay and Max puts him in the room over the garage.

Max and Joe have an interesting conversation in the bedroom. As Joe looks out the window there is an abandoned tennis court and a dry pool with rats. He watches the funeral of the chimp from above. When Joe wakes in the morning, someone is playing the pipe organ and all his belongings have been brought from his apartment to the room above the garage. Norma has even paid the back rent on his apartment.

Joe goes to work on the script but the work is slow because Norma second guesses everything he does. The house is covered with pictures of Norma from earlier times. Two to three times a week they would watch movies in Norma’s living room. One of the films they watch is Queen Kelly (1929). This film starred Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim. Stroheim was the director and Swanson produced the film. She later fired Stroheim for going over budget.

Gloria talks about having faces and not needing dialogue. Sometimes Gloria’s friends would come over to play bridge. Joe called them the waxworks and they were silent actors whose time had passed. All of the actors played themselves and included Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner. While Joe is emptying the ashtray for Norma, Joe sees that the repo men come to the door. Max tells him they are towing the car. He asks Norma for the money but she is too busy playing cards. Norma tells him it doesn’t matter because “they” have a car. She begins taking him for car rides and later she decks him out in new clothes. The tailor makes him feel bad when he recommends a purchase saying as long as the lady’s paying why not take the more expensive option.

In December, rain water started leaking through the roof of the garage apartment and Joe was moved to the “husband’s” room in the big house. Joe notes that there are no locks and Max tells him that Norma is sometimes suicidal. It slips out that Max is writing the fan mail that Norma has been getting.

Norma has bought Joe a tuxedo for the New Year’s Eve party. When he gets there the band is playing but no guests are invited except for Joe and Norma. You can literally feel the crushing fall that Norma is about to take as Joe squirms like a trapped rat. When she says she loves him, Joe screams at her to grow up and storms out of the mansion. Norma exits to her room and they show a close-up of the door with no locks.

Poor Joe walks in the rain to the party at the house of his only friend assistant director Artie Green (Jack Webb). Now this part freaked me out a little. I am used to seeing Webb play Sergeant Joe Friday. His arms never moved when he walked he was so stiff. Artie is smiling and the life of the party. It’s really unsettling. Of course, Artie’s girlfriend Betty Schaefer is there. Betty tracks Joe down and says she has gone through his old scripts and there are some good ideas in some of them. Joe agrees to work with her, sorta. They begin reciting movie lines to each other and it seems for a moment that they may kiss.

Joe calls Norma’s house and Max tells him that Norma took the razor from his room and cut her wrists. He runs out of the party and goes back to Norma. Joe says Norma is the only person in this town that has been good to him. She also says she will continue to try and kill herself. As the New Year is played in Joe goes to Norma and presumably they make love.

Time passes and it is spring or summer as the pool is open. Betty calls the house looking for Joe. When Norma asks who it was Mas says it was someone looking for a stray dog. Norma tells Max to take the script to Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount.

The pair heads out a few night later to play bridge with the wax works. Norma is out of cigarettes so they stop at Schwab’s Pharmacy. Joe goes in and Artie and Betty are there. Betty is super excited to see Joe and she has generated interest in one of his scripts from Sheldrake. When Max comes in to get him, he forgets to buy the cigarettes.

Norma puts on shows for Joe and does a pretty good impression of Chaplin as the tramp. Joe is thinking only about Betty and the script. Paramount Studios calls but it is only an assistant so she refuses to talk. Three days later, Joe, Norma, and Max head to the studio in her 1929 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A. Many of the people on the lot and crews recognize Norma from the old days. They head to Stage 18 where DeMille is actually filming Samson and Delilah (1949). When DeMille is told she is coming, he comments on how bad the script she sent is.

DeMille greets Norma warmly until he finds out that she has been getting calls from one of his assistants. He calls the assistant and finds out he is just trying rent the car for another movie. DeMille tells him to find another car. DeMille breaks up the throng of fans around Norma and he kindly sends her away with a vague promise because even he can’t crush her dreams once she starts crying.

Outside max tells Joe that he and Norma used to have larger offices. Joe sees Betty and at first hides and then goes to talk to her. She pitches working together again. She also mentions that Artie is out of town and they are engaged. Max finds out that all the studio wanted was the car. Norma comes out glowing thinking the deal is done.

Norma starts going through crazy treatments getting ready for the role she thinks is coming. I feel sorry for her during this time knowing the fall she is going to take. Norma tells Joe that she knows he is has been going out at night. He has been going out to meet with Betty and work on the script.  Betty slowly falls in love with Joe. Joe tries to keep it on the up and up.

Joe pulls the car in late one night and Max is waiting in the shadows. Max says that Norma will never find out that the film is not being made. He also says he discovered her at 16, directed her first pictures, and was her first husband. He works as a servant because he can’t bear to be away from her.

Norma finds the script with Joe and Betty’s name on it. One night Betty is upset because Artie proposed to her. She confesses that she is in love with Joe and they get all kissy face. Joe really doesn’t want to hurt Artie or Betty. When he gets home he hears Norma call Betty and implying that Joe is a man of low morals. Joe takes the phone from Norma and invites Betty out to find out the truth. Norma breaks down and just happens to mention that she has purchased a handgun.

Betty comes to the house and Joe gives her the rap that he is a gigolo. Betty still wants him to come with her, but Joe drives her away. After Joe chases Betty away Norma is waiting at the top of the stairs like a deranged vulture.

Joe begins packing and returns the expensive gifts she has given him. She threatens to kill herself again and goes to get the gun. During the argument, he tells her about the car and that the fan mail is sent by Max. Max says madam is the greatest star of all. Norma starts losing touch with reality and making crazy faces.

Joe continues to walk out and Norma follows him down and shoots him in the back. He continues walking away and she shoots him again spinning him around. She shoots him in the stomach and he falls into the pool. Dead Joe talks about how gentle people are with you when you are dead.

Dead Joe thinks the headlines would kill Norma. All the news crews and gossip people are there. Hedda Hopper is in Norma’s room broadcasting with no regard for Norma. Norma is in her own world until she hears that the cameras have arrived.

Max becomes the director again as Norma arrives at the top of the stairs. Max calls lights and asks if she is ready. She asks what the scene is and Max calls action. As she slowly descends the staircase all the people watch. Norma stops at the bottom of the stairs and makes a speech about being happy to return to pictures. She then utters the famous line “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”


They shot an ending where bodies in a morgue are telling how they died and Joe is just one of the bodies. Test audiences hated it and it sounds pretty bad.

As you watch this movie, study Gloria Swanson’s hands and face. She uses silent film methods that really bring out the expression and the awkwardness of the scene.


World-Famous Short Summary – May/December couple has some bumps

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Beware the moors

[1]Dirks, Tim. “Sunset Boulevard (1950)”. AMC Filmsite.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

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