The Penultimate Mile: Gloria Swanson in The Trespasser

(one installment in a quick series counting down from 50 to 26!)


The Trespasser (1929)

The competition (Cliff: 6 for 7):

Norma Shearer in The Divorcee

Nancy Carroll in The Devil’s Holiday

Ruth Chatterton in Sarah and Son

Greta Garbo in Anna Christie

Greta Garbo in Romance

Norma Shearer in Their Own Desire

Of the two hundred women nominated for Best Actress, none is more associated with a single role than Gloria Swanson.  While we can still i Bette Davis and Diane Keaton as characters other than Margo Channing and Annie Hall (and as real people separate from all of them), Billy Wilder’s diabolical meta-casting in Sunset Blvd. fused Gloria with Norma Desmond for all time.  To picture one is to picture the other, and it strains our imagination to conceive of the actress inhabiting other personalities; how many people even know that she had two nominations twenty years prior, one for a silent film (in the first year of the awards) and one for an early talkie?

When I first saw Gloria in Sadie Thompson, her first nomination, I was astonished and spooked to see the luminous silent goddess recalled so dimly in Sunset Blvd. summoned in full form, and despite the total difference in the two characters, it took time to banish the ghost of the future role from the woman I saw on the screen.  I’ve now seen Swanson in enough silent films (and even spoofed by Marion Davies in the fantastic Show People) that I’ve managed to build an idea of Gloria Swanson, the star of the silent era, that is separate from the undead goddess in the crumbling mansion.  However, watching her in a talkie is almost like watching Sadie Thompson all over again.  At first, hearing her metallic whisper in The Trespasser summons echoes of Norma in scenes that don’t suggest it at all, and it took a while before I could come to behold the brief persona of the early talkie Gloria in her own right.

Gloria plays a secretary who begins the film about to elope with her boss, the son of a wealthy industrialist, an almost identical setup to The Devil’s Holiday with fellow nominee Nancy Carroll (more to come on that).  In contrast to Carroll, Swanson suffers immaculately for the remainder of the film, taking the high road after being shunned by her evil father-in-law, raising a child by herself and ultimately surrendering him to the father under the most tear-jerking of circumstances.  The plot becomes exponentially more absurd in the last half of the film; I won’t even try to detail how a wheelchair-bound second wife, who cheerily encourages her husband’s infidelity, plays into it.  But Gloria holds steady throughout the film; she seems quite a natural at dialogue already in 1930, with her unorthodox voice (it almost anticipates Katharine Hepburn), even though of course she doesn’t need words—she has a face (forgive me).  Most importantly, if her character is a bit too noble, she still plays sympathetic convincingly, perhaps her greatest feat in the face of Norma Desmond’s specter.  I’m still inclined to give the award this year to Greta Garbo for Anna Christie, but this is a performance that will stick with me.


3 thoughts on “The Penultimate Mile: Gloria Swanson in The Trespasser

  1. Mr Jerome says:

    Gloria Swanson made a musical for Fox in 1934 with a script by Bllly Wilder, music by Jerome Kern and Oscar HammersteinIi who brought us Showboat, Produced by erich Pommer who brought us most of the famous Weimar era German films, and directed by Joe May who directed some verygood sound films in Weimar Germany. To put it simply, NO ONE MENTIONS THIS FILM in their autobiogrpahies. Even bios of Wilder usually skip the film. It also stars Douglass Montgomery wom you’ll see in Holiday (1931).
    This film is a train wreck of massive proportions. Wikipedia doesn’t have a page for it. Marjorie Main has a bit part in this Alpine musical (yes, bavarian – marjorie main) as does Al Sheehan, the Marx Bros uncle of Gallagher and Sheehan (awful). Even the imdb stills are just publicity stills, noting from teh film itself.
    I sincerely believe that this film killed Ms Swanson’s career. the plot has similarities to later Maureen Sullivan films where actress comes to village and meets local hunk, etc. But this film is just a nightmare. Not incompetent. Just so flat as to be horrible. An argumentof meanness can be made that it killed Fox Films -(false logic simply because the company was bougth up by 20th century fims soon afer release I think). Even imdb trivia is more about the play than the film. The best kown song from teh play was cut out of the film. Genius.
    Movie released US – 13 Dec, 1934
    Fox dies and is eaten by
    20th Century films – 31 May, 1935.
    Draw your own conclusions.
    (Gloria also doesn’t mention her work in the 1940 RKO silliness, Father Takes a Bride in her autobio-Swanson on Swanson, or so I remember. Memory can be misleading…).

  2. Mr Jerome says:

    and Franz Waxman, uncredited Music Adaptor acdg to IMDB.

  3. […] goddess–nominated for the first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1929–who almost (but not quite) vanished from the screen in the sound era, a pact that magnifies both while forever fusing them […]

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