An Analysis of the Reception of Sunset Boulevard in Postwar America

by Derek P. Rucas

 

Sunset Boulevard is a film that received mixed reviews among American societies.  The general population of postwar America liked the film while executives in Hollywood despised it.  The film noir genre was emerging from the woodwork following the end of World War II.  This new genre was different from the gangster film genre that preceded it.  Gangster films of the late 1930s and early 1940s were overtly violent.  Misogynistic male roles were prevalent in this genre, while the female role was portrayed as socially and sexually repressed. (Hardy 305)  Considering these films were made leading up to and during World War II, American ideologies preserved violent sentiments against foreign countries overseas while inadvertently providing the American movie going public with entertainment that presented an accurate depiction of their culture.  Furthermore, the theme of alienation presented in Sunset Boulevard parallels what Americans were feeling during the postwar era.

 

Eventually the war ended and the role of the female in film would reinvent itself.  Since women had proven themselves during the war effort by undertaking male positions in the working world, it was evident that the female role in North America was being recognized as something more than merely a homemaker.  Women were now viewed as multi-dynamic people with the potentiality to change Western civilization.  According to the U.S. government, this new “woman” harmed job opportunities for the men returning from war.

 

The modern woman was now seen in a new light.  Although postwar North American ideologies put women in the kitchen and out of the public sphere of business, it was evident that a woman could do whatever a man could do (and maybe even better).  With this realization, came a new genre of film.

 

The film noir genre of postwar America was now born.  Characteristically, the film noir genre contained certain features that differentiated it from other genres at this time.  The distinguished role of the femme fatale is a staple of the film noir genre. 

 

The femme fatale is portrayed as the polar opposite of what the female role in gangster films had once been.  Instead of females being repressed and distant from their sexuality, the femme fatale’s purpose was to allure and manipulate the unsuspecting male character (usually the protagonist) to adhere to her demands.  The role of the femme fatale is in direct correlation with North American ideologies at this time.  In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond plays the role of the alluring femme fatale.  She preys on the vulnerability of Joe Gillis, the struggling screenwriter.  Throughout the film, we see a constant tension between these two characters.  This tension continues until Gillis’ death in the last sequence.

 

Postwar America proved to be a time when the potentialities of workingwomen were exposed to the public.  However, North American governments did not approve of the idea of the “working woman”.  Why should women be taking the jobs of men who have returned from the war?  Governments set a mandate to broadcast radio advertisements to encourage women to leave the public sphere of business and return to the safe domesticated private sphere they had once occupied.  (Renov 229)

 

This governmental strategy left North Americans feeling alienated.  Even the men who had returned from fighting overseas felt alienated due to this re-domesticating concept.  Both the female and male characters in Sunset Boulevard express the overt alienation felt by many North Americans during the 1950s.

 

Norma Desmond’s character is a wash-up has-been Hollywood actress from the silent era.  Her career was finished since the coming of sound was introduced into Hollywood.  In order to revive her career, Desmond preys on the vulnerability of Joe Gillis, a poor, struggling screenwriter on the brink of losing his car, (and a metaphor for his manhood).  Norma Desmond is depicted as the femme fatale.  She uses her financial power to allure Joe Gillis into her underworld of repression.  Considering Gillis’ economically vulnerable position, he takes the offer and decides to live with Desmond.  Notably at the end of the film, Gillis wants to exit Desmond’s underworld of repression and be a free man again.  Desmond overpowers his decision by shooting him, leaving him lying face down in her pool.  This is the first scene we see in Sunset Boulevard.

 

This is one possible reason why Sunset Boulevard and the film noir genre were received so well in postwar America.  Women could relate to the role of the femme fatale portrayed by Norma Desmond’s character.  Not only did women have to take care of the household and look after their families, they had also been used to being the primary breadwinners for their families during the war years.  When males came back from the war, women were encouraged to leave these positions to re-domesticate and to give birth, thus opening business positions for the men that had recently returned.

 

In the same sense, men could relate to the repressed male role portrayed by Joe Gillis’ character.  Since men were coming back from the war effort, they needed to become re-domesticated in order to amalgamate within a modernized society.  It was alienating for some soldiers to re-align themselves with typical family values and norms considering they had been removed from these kinds of social communities for several years.  Reentering the realm of the nuclear family was difficult for some returning soldiers due to the homosocial atmospheres that they were used to.  One can arguably assimilate Gillis’ alienation from modern society with that of the young American men who fought during the Second World War.

 

When Gillis enters Desmond’s home, his intensions are positive.  He does not think that she will hold him against his will, segregating him from the rest of civilization.  Congruently, the soldiers who fought during World War II were not expecting the war to continue for as long as it did.  When Joe attends Betty’s fiancé’s New Year’s Eve party, he seems overwhelmed with the amount of people who are around.  He also attends the party incognito, wearing a rain hat and overcoat.  Gillis needs the reassurance that no one will suspect that he left Norma Desmond’s mansion to attend this event.  Similarly, the alienation felt by soldiers coming back from the war effort is paralleled in this scene.  Notably, many were very thankful and happy to be able to see their families again.  However some soldiers did not know how to react to the tremendous changes brought upon by a developed, technological America.  Since war life was different than typical family life, it was hard for American soldiers to get reacquainted to their modernized homeland.

 

Since Sunset Boulevard was released in 1950, two years prior to the widespread infiltration of the television set into the Western world, it is apparent that many Americans frequently spent their free time going to the movies.  Leo A. Handel’s book Hollywood looks at its audience: A report of film audience research, demonstrates reasons for particular audience reactions to films released during the war and postwar era.  In one table, Handel explains what lures audiences to motion pictures.  He states, “The drawing power of the title is correlated with the stars and story of the picture.  Its importance increases as the appeal of the story and the cast decreases, and vice versa.” (Handel 36)

 

Question: When You Learned About The Picture What One

Thing About It Made You Want To See It?

 

 

Men

Women

Total

Cast, stars

36%

48%

42%

Story, plot

36%

23%

30%

Title

3%

2%

3%

Other answers

24%

13%

24%

Nothing in particular

5%

9%

7%

           

This chart not only depicts why audiences went to see films at the time of their release, it explains something else.  While tallying results from both men and women, the reactions were respectively identical.  Thirty-six percent of men and forty-eight percent of women decided to see a particular film because of the cast and/or stars, followed by thirty-six percent of men and twenty-three percent of women who decided that they attend films because of the story or plot.

 

These results are clearly indicative as to why Sunset Boulevard was a hit in the United States.  The cast of Sunset Boulevard was comprised of a mixture of old Hollywood film stars and modern stars.  Stars such as Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim were considered wash-ups from the silent era of film.  Since their characters are representative of their actual state in the Hollywood industry, it would be only natural for the American public to be interested in their resurfacing and reintroduction into mainstream Hollywood.  As for the careers of modern stars, William Holden and Nancy Olson (who plays the role of Betty Schaeffer), this film was a prime opportunity to expose them to both older and younger generations of moviegoers.

 

The only problem with the concept of Sunset Boulevard was within the Hollywood industry.  Moreover, it is not true that Sunset Boulevard only received negative reviews.  Axel Madsen wrote, “…full of exactness, cleverness, mastery and pleasure, a gnawing, haunting and ruthless film with a dank smell of corrosive delusion hanging over it.” (Madsen 921)  Madsen takes a bias standpoint on the film, while Louis B. Mayer’s review states, “This Wilder should be horsewhipped!” (Mayer 920-921)

 

So it is evident that tension was building within Hollywood upon the release of Sunset Boulevard.  This would most likely be because of the film’s overt explicitness in portraying issues about Hollywood’s past and present.  Tim Dirks’ review of Sunset Boulevard gives examples of how this film depicts Hollywood’s past and present.  He does this by discussing the character of Norma Desmond.  It is evident that Desmond parallels Gloria Swanson, a silent actress whose demise was a product of the coming of sound in Hollywood.  “You’re Norma Desmond.  You used to be in silent pictures.  You used to be big.” says Joe.  “I am big.  It’s the pictures that got small.”

 

Dirks explains Joe’s observation about talkies as opposed to silent films.  “That’s where the popcorn business comes in.  Buy yourself a bag and plug up your ears.”  However, it is apparent that Norma does not believe that the actors of modern day films could compete with silent actors.  And with that, blames Joe for this result.  “You are.  Writing words, words, more words!  Well, you’ve made a rope of words and strangled this business.  Ha, ha.  But there’s a microphone right there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongue.”  One could understand why Hollywood would be up in arms over Sunset Boulevard’s release.  Its clear depiction of the tension within the industry presents enough reason for Hollywood executives to despise its existence.

 

“Notable Hollywood figures also appear in bit parts as themselves…” (Dirks I, iv)  This includes columnist Hedda Hopper and silent era stars Buster Keaton, Swedish-born Ann Q. Nilsson and H. B. Warner.  By giving them these “bit parts” suggests something about the Hollywood industry that Wilder is projecting to moviegoers of the 1950s.  Wilder parallels the current state the American film industry with the state of American society.  The underlying idea is that times have changed, thus making it apparent that the American people need to adjust with the times.

 

1950s America can relate to the concepts depicted in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard for several reasons.  It is apparent that many of the underlying themes in Sunset Boulevard parallel those of a modernized America.  Both men and women can relate to these changes, thus giving reason for the reception of the film in 1950.  While women’s roles had changed, so had the roles of males, making America alienating for both sexes.  And the reception of this film was no coincidence in Hollywood either.  Because of the differences among new and old Hollywood methods of film production and the resulting status of silent actors and directors, Sunset Boulevard caused friction and controversy in Hollywood.  This film was putting the industry to blame for the current state of the silent film stars due to the coming of sound.  Nevertheless, Sunset Boulevard was influential.  It allowed for many modern directors to take the film noir genre to new heights.

 

Bibliographical Information

 

Rucas, Derek P. "An Analysis of the Reception of Sunset Boulevard in Postwar America." Film Articles and Critiques. 10 Feb. 2003 <http://www.angelfire.com/film/articles/sunset.htm>.

transcribed by Derek P. Rucas