Sunset Boulevard: Special Collector's Edition
Paramount Home Video
Starring Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Eric von Stroheim,
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Review by D.K. Holm
They are the Holy Grails of cinema history: the scenes you know were shot but for some reason were dropped from the finished film. They may last only a few seconds or they may be whole sequences. They may constitute different beginnings or wholly re-imagined endings. A list of them is like a litany of studio interference, of hubris, or just plain vulgarity. Yet we would give anything to see them. The original Welles ending of Magnificent Ambersons. The sections cut from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The execution scene in Double Indemnity. The restored version of almost everything by Erich von Stroheim. The original climax to Snake Eyes. The Harvey Keitel scenes in Apocalypse Now. The Harvey Keitel scenes in Eyes Wide Shut. The whole of The Day the Clown Cried.
But the king of them all, or perhaps rather, the queen, is the original opening to Billy Wilder's 1950 black comedy about the movie industry, Sunset Boulevard. Among film buffs, this sequence is almost as famous as the film itself, yet few if any have seen it. Almost every Billy Wilder biography mentions the scene, but not even the published screenplay, issued by the University of California Press in 1998, reprints it. (By the way, following Maltin principles, the movie's official title is Sunset Blvd., but I'll just use the same title everyone else does.)
The case of the missing scene is well-known thanks to Ed Sikov and a host of other biographers. Paramount tested the film in Evanston, Illinois, using the original sequence. In this scene, the film's main character and narrator is shown being zipped through the streets to the L.A. County Morgue. Wheeled into a cold room with other corpses, he lies there for a few seconds, and then begins to look around. Like figures out of a Thomas Hardy poem such as "Channel Firing," the dead begin to talk to each other. The boy next to the hero drowned in the ocean. Our hero drowned, too, but in a swimming pool. He then goes on to recount the rest of his story, which makes of the remainder of the film.
Not long into this sequence the audience, perhaps prepped to think that they were watching a comedy, started laughing, utterly ruining the mood of the bulk of the film to come. Both the studio and filmmakers seemed to think that this was a disaster, and cut the sequence. They may have been right. Simpler is almost always better, and the film as it stands now begins cleanly and elegantly. The elaborate set up of the original sounds cumbersome for too little a payoff. Nevertheless, one would like to know for oneself just how "bad" it is.
Thus, when Paramount Home Video announced that it was releasing Sunset Boulevard on DVD, excitement filled the breast of the buff (there seems to have been no Laserdisc, according to IMDBPro), for he or she hoped that Paramount would reach deep within its storage space in Pennsylvania or wherever it is located and pluck out the sequence.
Well, the disc is finally here, and in a list of supplements on the back of the box there is the discrete announcement, "Morgue Prologue." Is there any doubt that this is the element of the disc that everyone is going to select first?
Unfortunately, what viewers are going to find may be a bit disappointing. Rather than the full sequence, this particular supplement consists of the text of two drafts of the sequence, with the surviving unedited footage accessible by clicking icons on the screen next to the relevant passages. There are six of these snippets. None of the shots contain star William Holden or any other named cast member. Nor is there any explanation anywhere as to why this is all that remains. It's a grave disappointment.
But don't let the lack of the still-missing scene distract you from the disc's achievement. This is a beautiful transfer. It offers a version of the film cleaner than anything you've seen in the past, with supplements that enhance the viewing experience rather than distract from it.
* * *
Sunset Boulevard, as is well known, concerns six months in the life of struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis. The last six months. Famously, the movie starts out with him dead, and from some ethereal movie heaven he tells us his story. Gillis (Holden), late of the Dayton, Ohio Evening Post copy desk, has come to Hollywood to make it big in the movies. Fleeing from some processors looking to repossess his car, Gillis ends up on the estate of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), former silent star, going quietly wacky in isolation. Gillis comes up with the scheme to milk Desmond for some ready cash by contriving to edit and whip into shape her "comeback" vehicle, a screenplay about Salomé, which she wants De Mille to direct. But soon Gillis goes gigolo on her and becomes Desmond's paid consort, both of them attended by the officious butler Max (Eric von Stroheim).
Suffocating under her attention and loathing himself for his weakness, Gillis starts sneaking out at night to write a script on the Paramount lot with up-and-comer Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). Slowly they start to fall in love. Not only does Gillis steal her away from his best friend Artie Green (Jack Webb), an assistant director, but he causes Norma to take drastic steps that, today, would fetch her a starring role on Court TV.
Sunset Boulevard is classic Hollywood filmmaking at its height, yet poised at the cusp between the old style and the new. On the one hand director Wilder uses his camera in the classical manner, so as not to interfere or detract from the proceedings of pure plot. Yet at the same time he uses an ultra-stylish zoom lens three times (the same kind of lens that Wilder and his partner I.A.L. Diamond would be decrying many years later to the AFI). He has a superb score by the classically trained Franz Waxman, who also uses a Theremin for a subtle audio effects.
Aside from the dropped opening, Sunset Boulevard has a fascinating history all on its own, fully recounted in Sam Staggs's book Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard, where one learns that originally Wilder and his writing partner Charles Brackett thought to cast Mae West and Montgomery Clift in the two main parts. They were dropped, in the first case because West also viewed herself as a writer and would have wanted to make changes to Wilder and Brackett's sacrosanct text, and in the second case because the role of gigolo came too close to events in Clift's off-screen life. More important, though, is that Clift would have been too vulnerable. Holden has a toughness that makes his character's failure as a writer even harder on him.
One of the aspects of the movie that few if any writers explore is the role of minor writer D. M. Marshman, who contributed to the screenplay when, according to Sikov and Staggs, Wilder and Brackett were distracted by other problems. Marshman was a former Time-Life writer whom the pair knew as a poker buddy. He'd done some minor movie work, but after this film not much. Obviously, Wilder and Brackett are the artists here, but there is a thread throughout the history of American movies that offers up certain great writers without much proof that they have actually written anything. Wilder was more a talker than a writer, with Brackett, Chandler, and Diamond as his talented, equally-contributing amanuensi. The case of Philip Yordan is well known, thanks to Bertrand Tavernier. Yordan used to hire other writers to pen his scripts for him (sort of the reverse of The Front). Yet Ben Hecht did it too, and one wonders, as much as one admires them, just how much time people like Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino actually spend in front of a word processor. But this is a mystery that the new disc, admirable as it is, fails to pursue.
* * *
Paramount's DVD release of Sunset Boulevard offers a full-frame, black-and-white image (1.33:1, with opening and closing credits windowboxed) that is superb. As Jeffrey Wells recounts in a recent column, Sunset Boulevard benefits from the labors of Lowry Digital Images, which used specially designed software to eliminate almost all of the grain and dirt from the image. It's a single-sided, single-layered disc with Dolby Digital mono in both English and French, as well as English subtitles and closed-captioning.
The main supplement is an audio commentary by Wilder biographer Ed Sikov. He is informed and informative, and only occasionally sounds like he is reading something. He is thoroughly engaged in the film, foreshadowing its best lines with enthusiasm. He also is very good on noting how a theme running through Wilder's work is the figure of the sell-out, and that Gillis is yet another variation on that figure. Sikov knows the history of the film and some of its tangents, such as the use of footage from an unfinished collaboration between von Stroheim and Swanson from the silent era. The only other person who could have done this commentary track is Staggs.
Also informative is "Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back," 25-minute documentary that goes into material familiar to readers of Sikov and Staggs, but well-presented here. On hand is an equally knowledgeable Hollywood location feature, which offers five featurettes accessible via links from a map of sites used in the film. "Edith Head: The Paramount Years," at 13 minutes, is something of a boilerplate featurette that appears on any number of Paramount discs. Less well known is the composer of the film's music, who receives his due in "Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard," a 15-minute featurette that includes statements from Waxman's son and from peers such as Elmer Bernstein.
Supplements are rounded out with the theatrical trailer (in which the movie is subtitled "A Hollywood Story"), plus photo galleries that offer 46 production stills, 24 scenes from the movie, and 16 publicity portraits.
Then there is that blasted morgue prologue. It consists of two sets of script pages with footage. There's the original sequence, dated 21 December 1948. It takes up 38 screens, and comes with six snippets of unedited footage. Then there is the morgue prologue script pages without footage, noted as revised on 19 March 1949. It takes 22 screens to get through.
There are two one-sheet inserts, the first with chapter titles, but the second an ad for a new biography of Billy Wilder by Charlotte Chandler, which, since it is the first thing you see when you open the box for the first time, comes across as something of a knock to Sikov. After all, he provides the audio track here and wrote a superior bio. And along with fellow Wilder scribe Cameron Crowe he isn't even mentioned in Chandler's book.
- Black and white
- Single-sided, single-layered disc
- Full frame (1.33:1)
- Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (English and French)
- English subtitles and closed-captioning
- Audio commentary by Wilder biographer Ed Sikov
- Documentary: "Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back" (25 min.)
- Hollywood location map with five featurettes on sites used in the film
- Morgue prologue script pages with footage: 21 December 1948, 38 screens, six snippets of unedited footage.
- Morgue prologue script pages without footage: revised, 19 March 1949, 22 screens of text.
- Featurette: "Edith Head: The Paramount Years" (13 min.)
- Featurette: "Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard" (15 min.)
- Theatrical trailer
- Photo galleries: production stills (46), the movie (24), and publicity (16)
- Two one-sheet inserts
- Musical animated menu with 19-chapter scene-selection
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