The following is an excerpt from the recently published Recycled Stars: Female Film Stardom in the Age of Television and Video, by Mary R. Desjardins. The popularity of television in postwar suburban America had a devastating effect on the traditional Hollywood studio system. Yet many aging Hollywood stars used television to revive their fading careers. In this book, Desjardins examines the recirculation, ownership, and control of female film stars and their images in television, print, and new media.
“Probably more than any other female star persona of the silent era, Gloria Swanson’s represented the range of identities possible for the “New Woman,” who symbolized the transformative promises of early twentieth-century modernity. While Swanson did not wield as much power in the film industry as did the actress, producer, and studio owner Mary Pickford, nor were her characters usually as sexually free as those played by Clara Bow or Louise Brooks, her persona was a blend of textual and extratextual identities that suggested female self-fulfillment was about taking advantage of the moment and projecting oneself into the future. After a series of very successful films produced by Paramount Studios, Swanson became an independent producer and businesswoman in the 1920s to sustain her labor power and image value. The actress and the characters she played also made the most of the prosthetic potentials of the commodity (e.g., fashion) to control or sustain their place and duration in the marriage economy and to be recognized by their mates and other women for this achievement. Publicity about Swanson during her acting career up to the early 1930s made maintenance of a place in various economies, both traditional and new, an explicit goal….
One episode starring Swanson survives in video circulation, “My Last Duchess,” adapted from a short story by Harriett Pratt that appeared in Good Housekeeping. Its parallels with Sunset Boulevard no doubt have kept it in circulation. Like that film, it concerns a fading female star who longs to make a comeback. But the story’s contrasts with Sunset Boulevard are telling, and it is not difficult to see why Swanson would be eager to play the part of Eleanor Hallam. Hallam is an aging actress, once a star of stage and screen, now coaching acting students in her modest Beverly Hills apartment to make ends meet and to pay the tuition of her orphaned nephew, studying for his PhD in physics at Stanford. The story tells of her attempts to land a part in a film that she had once triumphed in on stage for 1,664 performances, the role of the duchess of My Last Duchess. The film rights to the play have been bought by the “genius” film director Frank Lord (played by Denver Pyle in the teleplay). The problem for Eleanor is that she had Lord fired many years before for badly playing a small part in the Broadway version of My Last Duchess. He has shown his vindictiveness over the years, providing entertainment gossip columnists with his hateful opinions of the star, telling one, “The ten most uncooperative actresses I have worked with are Eleanor Hallam.”
While the story makes it clear that Lord’s remarks have hurt her reputation, and thus her ability to get parts, it is also suggested that her age has made it more difficult for her to get leading roles. Eleanor’s responses to age discrimination are honesty and sarcasm. When her young acting student Judy arrives one day for a lesson, excited at her recent discovery that Hallam was once a big star who had acted on stage with John Barrymore and on-screen with Rudolph Valentino, Eleanor does not deny her age. Instead she mugs that she is elderly with no teeth, croaking, “Yes, and I was born in 1899, too.” (Swanson had acted opposite Valentino, and she was born in 1899.) Puzzled that Eleanor is now only an acting coach, Judy remarks, “Daddy says you were so wonderful as the Duchess that Hollywood made you come out here and become a big star. Daddy says he just doesn’t understand why you haven’t made any pictures lately.” Eleanor, this time with teeth gritted, answers sarcastically, “Your daddy seems to have an infallible memory.”
Both magazine source material and teleplay feature scenes in which her agent reminds her of the vicious Hollywood cycle she is caught in: she could get small roles that would pay less than starring roles, but once producers knew she was willing to accept less money and lesser parts, she would never again be able to command a high salary or get a lead role even if there was one for a woman her age. In addition to fighting age bias, female Hollywood stars have to play an image game, pretending they’re not desperate for the small parts the system is willing to offer them. This theme is relatively typical of the “star down on her luck” narrative, but it might have resonated beyond the show business context. As becomes clear in many of the dramatic episodes under discussion here, what was deemed successful femininity for most women in the 1950s might just be an act that hides the humiliation and desperation felt by the woman who knows she is judged by how well she can keep up appearances. In other words, women have to hide not only their age and ambition but also their humiliation and desperation.
“My Last Duchess” sympathetically renders Eleanor’s plight, but it doesn’t dwell on the pathos of the aging actress. It does focus on her pride in her craft; she explains to Judy that doing 1,664 performances of one role was not boring because for a “real” actress, each performance “is just a little bit different, challenging and exciting.” Then she tells Judy that she can no longer teach her because Judy is not serious about acting. What supposedly stands in Eleanor’s way of being cast in the film role of the Duchess is her honesty about acting: she told Frank Lord the truth about his acting and fired him for it because the greater tragedy would be to let a bad actor think that he is good. Now, when she desperately needs money to live and to sup-port her nephew, she is able to put aside pride and go to Lord to ask for the part. He has turned her agent down and has been hoping that she will come to him, groveling. When she does come to him, he tells her that he will give her the part if she will admit that she fired him all those years ago on a whim because she was a big star. She refuses to do so, responding, “I’m too old to start lying now. You were a rotten actor and I was right to boot you out.”
Lord suddenly has a change of heart and tells her in words that suggest, if nothing else, he is still a hammy actor, “I was an awful actor, wasn’t I? I’ve never admitted it even to myself, but I realize it now. I think if you had lied to me, I’d [have] gone into a monastery.” She wins back the part, her pride, and her ability to be the maternal figure she wants to be for her nephew. The role of Eleanor Hallam gave Swanson the opportunity to revisit the themes of her life and, more significantly, of Sunset Boulevard and to counter any public associations those might have with destructive self-grandeur, obsolescence, and madness. Eleanor, unlike Norma Desmond, is not narcissistically fixated on her past image; she cares little for the adulation of others. She too may be an aging star, but she is willing to accept the discrimination that goes with that if she can make a living as an actress and be honest about the importance of craft. However much Swanson must have felt empowered by playing this role, by constructing Eleanor’s problem and eventual success around her refusal to be dishonest, the story downplays the social and commercial implications of Hollywood’s refusal to employ more middle-aged and older actresses, especially in parts comparable to those that older male stars were typically getting. (The latter fact seemed to bother Swanson very much in her 1959 appearance in Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood.) Like so much popular culture of the period, including the many television series addressed to women viewers, “My Last Duchess” on Crown Theater is able to raise unsettling truths about gender inequity but personalize and ultimately depoliticize them.”
Mary R. Desjardins is Associate Professor of Film and Television Studies at Dartmouth College. She is the coeditor of Dietrich Icon, also published by Duke University Press. Order Recycled Stars at a 30% discount by calling 888-651-0122 and mentioning coupon code E15DESJA.