“I am NOT going to write my memoirs!”: Gloria Swanson talks pictures

In this classic interview with Rui Nogueira from our Spring 1969 issue, the great Gloria Swanson is on majestic form as she reflects on a storied life spent as one of the greatest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era – a time before the pictures got small.

19 February 2021

By Rui Nogueira

Sadie Thompson (1928)
Sight and Sound

Acting is a very strange word. I guess everyone is acting all of their lives – lawyers, doctors, people who don’t even realise that they’re acting. ‘All the world’s a stage’ and everybody is acting in it.

So, what is acting? I’ve thought about it a great deal. Some people go through a career just playing themselves. Like Tallulah Bankhead was always Tallulah Bankhead, no matter what she played, with the exception of one performance: in The Little Foxes. There she wasn’t Tallulah, she was the character. I would say that Cary Grant is always Cary Grant. He’s very charming, but whether he’s playing a cowboy or playing a diplomat, he’s always Cary Grant. That’s one type of acting, where the personality overpowers the character you’re playing.

And then there’s the other kind, my kind, where apparently I have no personality of my own. The proof of which is that you cannot impersonate me. You can impersonate Norma Desmond – the character that I play in a picture – or maybe my idea of Sadie Thompson, but you cannot impersonate Gloria Swanson. None of the impersonators ever even tried to.

This feature was originally published in our Spring 1969 issue

I was once told by my French husband, de Ia Falaise, that I was a comedienne, and that if I went to Mexico and was told I was an earthen floor, I’d be the earthen floor. I took on the personality of my surroundings and the people I was with. I doubt if this is a compliment: it could be an awful insult. But nevertheless, there it is.

When I think about doing a character, I find that I see in my mind’s eye a person I’m reading about in a script. I give that person like a painter… or like a sculptor, who before even making one cut with his knife can see what he wants in a piece of stone. So I’m a canvas: it’s in the mind’s eye, and then you transfer it to the canvas with certain tools.

When I’m creating a character, it’s quite possible that I will steal from life. In one particular instance [The Coast of Folly, 1925] I was playing two parts – a mother and her daughter. The daughter was a very athletic type, and the mother was a foolish woman who didn’t want her own husband to know that she had a grown child. She was trying to be young. So I copied her clothes from Fannie Ward, a famous woman in those days who’d had plastic surgery, had jewellery and chiffon to cover her neck, and things like this. Then I took the walk of Elinor Glyn, who was quite blind but too vain to wear glasses, so she was a little uneasy on her feet. I took some mannerisms from an actress who played in Shanghai Gesture, Florence Reed, plus a few other things I gathered to give me an idea of how this woman would be. Because she was mentally foolish.

And out of that came a character so strange to me that when the picture was played it didn’t make very much money, because nobody knew I was that woman. In those days they used to go to see the people they loved; so they’d go in to see me, and they’d see me briefly as the young girl, but who the other woman was they didn’t know, because if they didn’t come in at the beginning and didn’t see the titles, they wouldn’t realise that she carried most of the picture. So although I felt that was a good performance and an interesting picture, it wasn’t what you would call a howling financial success.

Manhandled (1925)

I was once playing the spy in Shaw’s Man of Destiny, and on the same evening did J.M. Barrie’s The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, which made a complete contrast. I made myself very tall with headdresses and things, and then in the next play I was very small … I was like Lon Chaney, I guess.

My daughter, who was sitting in the first row, became hysterical having just seen me in the Shaw play, and then seeing five women in the Barrie and being unable to figure out which one was me. She thought I wasn’t there. So she came backstage weeping and crying “Where’s my mother, where’s my mother?” They pointed out to her which one I was, and that was all right.

But all through the performance you could hear the audience rustling their programmes – Where was I? Which one was I? To me this is another form of acting: my own personality, if I have one, is submerged, and the character is the important thing.

DeMille rides out

As for directors, there are different kinds too. There’s the director who allows the actor to give his own interpretation of a part, and becomes a conductor of an orchestra, moving it down or bringing it up. Then there’s the other kind where the director is a thwarted actor, a ham as we call him, who wants to show the actor how to do it. So what you often get is a bad performance, with an actor trying to imitate someone who may not be giving a very good performance either.

Swanson in 1969, photographed for this interview by Nicoletta Zalaffi

I had the experience of being on Charlie Chaplin’s set for The Countess from Hong Kong [1967]. I consider Chaplin a great genius: that is permanent. And he has contributed techniques without which I don’t know what would have happened to comedy. But I was on the Countess from Hong Kong set for maybe 40 minutes or an hour, and I was shocked, because had I been one of the actors I would have been absolutely out of my mind.

Here were Brando and Sophia Loren looking like children watching the choreographer. Because he would take two or three steps to the right and then turn… he would show them. All a director has to do is say to the actor, “I think if you move to the right a few steps, and are sure you don’t get out of the light or that the door doesn’t cover you, then turn and say your lines….” That’s one thing, to relate it to dialogue. But to relate it to pantomime yourself makes the actor nothing more than a puppet – and not even a good one either.

Both their faces looked unhappy, and I don’t know how they stood it. Because how can they contribute their own interpretation to a character if they are constantly being told to make a gesture that may not be natural to their idea of the character? If they’re not good enough, then get someone else, someone who might come closer to the director’s idea.

Personally, I was lucky. I worked with Cecil De Mille, and De Mille was quite unlike a man called D. W. Griffith who had his career more or less at the same time. You could always tell when an actor had been working with Griffith because they all had the same gestures. All of them. They’d cower like mice when they were frightened, they’d shut not their fingers but their fists, they’d turn down their mouths… Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, all of them. Even the men had a stamp on them. If you didn’t know who the director was and just saw the actors, you’d know it was a Griffith picture, or at least that they were Griffith players.

Now with De Mille… I remember once an actor said to him, “Mr. De Mille, would you tell me how you would like me to play this scene?” De Mille said, “No, I won’t tell you how to play the scene. You’ve read the script. I hired you as an actor. Play it. If it’s no good, I’ll tell you.” This actor thought he was flattering Mr. De Mille, instead of which he was going to be spanked. He would never allow anybody to tell me what to do. Once a scriptwriter was about to come on the set to tell me what she thought I ought to do. Mr. De Mille shoved her off the set and said, “Don’t talk to my fellow. Leave her alone, she’s all right.”

And I would familiarise myself with the set, because if it was my home I wanted to feel at home in it. So I would do certain things, and then he would say, “I think we’ll use that piece of business.” Sometimes I couldn’t remember what I’d done, and then he would remind me. I made six or seven consecutive pictures with him.

I was the only player who worked with him that long – most others only did one or two pictures. This gave me confidence because he was a great man. He was a very strong man. I had had experience of giving my own interpretation prior to this when I was with Jack Conway, who did a couple of pictures of mine at Triangle. Still, at the same time I learned a great deal from Mr. De Mille in many ways. 

I had an insatiable curiosity about the whole business of making pictures, not just acting… he enjoyed this too, he liked me wanting to know why we did this and why we did that. I liked to go into the cutting room to find out how they did it, and so on. Most actors don’t have that curiosity. They do their job, they’re on the set, and they can’t wait to get home. I wasn’t that way. I worked in a different era, when there were no unions. If you wanted to stay on working you could. You had the privilege of going on working to finish a scene.

Then I made about ten films with Sam Wood during the first years of my Paramount contract. The first one came after The Affairs of Anatol [1921], when I had just had my baby. I didn’t want to be a star, I wanted to stay with Mr. De Mille. Everybody thought I was out of my mind. But De Mille told me I had to leave him, I had to go and be a star on my own because he said, “You’re a star and I’m a star, and we can’t put all our eggs in one basket.” I said, “But Mr. De Mille, if I leave you won’t have good sets, and I won’t have good stories and I won’t have this and I won’t have that and I know what’s going to happen, they’ll pay me so much money and they’ll economise on something else….” He said, “No, young fellow, it will be all right. You go ahead.” So my first picture with Sam Wood was an Elinor Glyn story called The Great Moment [1921].

Golden years

At the beginning I was never with Essanay, only Keystone. When I was with Sennett, I only did light comedies: I did not do slapstick comedies with the bathing girls and the Keystone cops. But essentially I’ve worked with only a few directors. I’ve done one picture with Billy Wilder, I did one third of a picture with von Stroheim. Outside of them the directors I’ve worked with were not very well known.

I always wanted to work with Lubitsch – well, who didn’t? Everybody wanted to work with Lubitsch. That was an unfortunate thing, because I did not…. Naturally there have been other directors since then I would have liked to work with.

Indiscreet (1931)

Society for Sale? [1918] Yes, we made that for Triangle before Frank Borzage was well known and before I was well known. I didn’t realise I’d done a picture with him… he made some wonderful pictures, a very sensitive director. With McCarey I made a film called Indiscreet [1931]. Leo McCarey was a little more of the actor-director kind. He would laugh at his own jokes. I don’t think the picture was particularly good. It was written by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson and had a lot of music in it and a lot of songs, and that’s probably why I was in it.

Raoul Walsh was a great director, full of vitality. He and I wrote the screen version of Sadie Thompson [1928]. We now can’t find the last reel of the film. Isn’t that a crime? This was when I was producing, and I made him play the lead in it. He didn’t want to, he was very shy. But the character, O’Hara, should be shy, kind of bashful, and he was absolutely perfect for it. After that they remade it twice… oh! The Crawford version was by Milestone, who was very arty and decided he was going to do tricks with the camera… and it was Crawford’s ‘Lady’ period or something. And Huston, who’s not a bad actor, was awful in it too. But ours had Lionel Barrymore. You can imagine him with that kind of fanatic look… he was perfect as Mr. Davidson.

Allan Dwan and I made many pictures together. He was wonderful. We wrote the stories together on the set. Those were the days when you didn’t take a scene completely literally; if you wanted to change something you just changed it. When you saw Manhandled [1924], was the impersonation of Chaplin in it? I did it again in Sunset Boulevard but it was better when I first did it in Manhandled because my face was rounder.

I was too thin to look like him when I was in Sunset Boulevard [1950]. I have a photograph of myself that looks exactly like Chaplin. I looked so… little hands, round face, everything exactly like him. I showed it to Chaplin, and he said “I wonder who that is I’m with?” And it was Allan Dwan: It was he who made the picture where I played two parts – the mother and daughter.

Oh! Madame Sans-Gene [1925]. We CANNOT find it! That was directed by Leonce Perret, and it was a gem. But it was not appreciated by the Paramount people in America at all. Do you know that if Paris had been bombed during the last war, this film would have been an invaluable record? We shot in Fontainebleau, Malmaison, Compiegne, not just the gardens. It was an absolute record of those rooms and it’s a crime that it is lost. I can’t believe that the French don’t have a copy of it, because in those days we used to make 340-350 prints of each negative and a certain number were sent abroad.

Now you know that when a picture finished its run, the prints were supposed to be returned to the exchange or destroyed. But nobody destroyed them. They hadn’t the heart. Projectionists and people like that took them and put them in their garages. I can’t believe, and I never will believe that there isn’t somewhere in the world a copy of Madame Sans-Gene. Forget I’m in it, that has nothing to do with it. I’m talking about the fact that it was a documentation. The Cinematheque Francaise claim they don’t have a print, but I don’t BELIEVE them! Is Henri Langlois an old man? Is he older than I am? Because if he is, I’ll outlive him and I’ll see it yet. I would go down on my KNEES to this man…. Just let me look at it, I’d say, I’ll keep your secret…. Because of all the pictures that I have made, Madame Sans-Gene … I was the first American producer-actress to make a picture abroad, and I was all of 24 years old. It was so exciting. And it was a good picture.

Before sunset

Today you always hear so much about stars walking off the set, fights, directors leaving, new directors. I never heard of this. I never walked off a set in my life. Queen Kelly? [Erich von Stroheim, 1932] Well, that was my own production. I was boss, it was my money; besides, we had censorship then and the picture was going to be in the wastepaper basket. No, that’s something else.

Once, too, with Zukor… Paramount had promised me a letter which they hadn’t given me, and when Zukor came on the set I said to him, “Mr. Zukor, for four days each day I have been promised a letter. Now must I threaten you and tell you I won’t be here tomorrow morning unless I get it?”

Queen Kelly (1932)

So I got the letter and that was that. I didn’t walk off the set. I just wasn’t going to come in unless they gave me what they had promised. It was a matter of keeping their word. But today you find that their hairdressers are flown in from I don’t know where… as if it made any difference – they all look like they’re ragamuffins in the head anyway. Someone else is flown in from somewhere else, and thousands of dollars are lost with extras standing by all over the place. I never did this, even when I was producing. Many times I went on the set without breakfast to be on time.

What happened on Queen Kelly was that the first third of the picture was to be in the little kingdom, and then we go to Africa. There was a little bit shot of the African scenes, and then I stopped the picture. So two years later, after making The Trespasser [1929] and Indiscreet and a few other pictures, I had this film which had cost me $800,000… we had 20,000 feet just of the business in the kingdom. So what am I going to do? Just let it sit there on the shelf? It was a story in itself; you didn’t have to go to Africa.

To get some revenue back, I put some music on it and I cut it. Well, I couldn’t very well have it finish with her just jumping into the river. I had to wind it up in some way, so I had the shot of me lying dead on the bier and the young man coming to see me, thinking he was coming to take me away. I had to shoot that scene, which I did at my house. Because this was a couple of years afterwards and I didn’t even know where von Stroheim was. I didn’t see him again from the moment I said “Excuse me, I’m going to my bungalow.” That’s when I called New York and was told it was going to be censored.

[Von Stroheim’s] problem was that he shot so much footage of everything. Sometimes you had not only thousands and thousands of feet, but five hours of a working day, so that it could cost $2,000 just to get a close-up of an ashtray. I mean, come on!

Everything with Stroheim was detail. While we were making Sunset Boulevard, he went to Billy Wilder and said, “Look, you bring me all the way from Europe to say ‘Yes, madam’ and ‘No, madam’. Why don’t you have me fixing her shoes and washing out her little bras?” Every morning he would come with sheets and sheets of paper, and Billy Wilder would say, “We haven’t time. We’re telling a story. And we’ve got to get on with the story, not detail.”

But that was not von Stroheim’s greatness. His pictures got inside people so much that you could almost smell them. That’s fine if you can sit in a theatre for five hours and look at it; but when you have to cut it down, and the money has gone… This was always his problem. I was told he wouldn’t do it on Queen Kelly, that two men would watch him and see he didn’t. Well, we had 20,000 feet of film for one third of the picture. So we would have had 60,000 feet to cut down to 10,000. Now, how do you do this? And it would have ended up as a $2 million picture when we had $700,000 or $800,000 in the budget.

I didn’t see Stroheim until years later when he was in Arsenic and Old Lace [1944]. Years had passed… I don’t know how many years… and I went backstage and said hello to him. The next time I saw him was on the set of Sunset Boulevard. And he was still von Stroheim. Still.

Cecil B. Demille, Billy Wilder and Gloria Swanson on the set of Sunset Blvd. (1950)

When we started Sunset Boulevard we had only 26 pages of script. [Screenwriter Charles] Brackett and Wilder were determined I should do it. I didn’t want to. Because in the original script they showed me there were things they wanted me to say about people who were still living – true things – and I said, no, I would generalise but I would not be so cruel, that it was unnecessary.

Billy Wilder said, “Just do it for the test,” so I did. They had me talking about people who were still around, and there didn’t seem any point. I could generalise, say things like “Look at them in the front office, the master minds. They took the idols and smashed them.” But to talk specifically about this person and that… it didn’t seem right. They pointed out that I would be Norma Desmond, not myself. But I said, look, even if I put a sign on me this big, a lot of people are going to say – a lot of people have said – that this was my biography. Which is silly.

First of all, I did make some talking pictures, and if people don’t remember them that’s unfortunate because I thought they were good pictures. And secondly I do not live in the past, I have no longing to recapture any of it, I am much more a woman of the present and the future and of dreams of tomorrow.

I am not a recluse, I certainly haven’t shot anybody, and they’re not floating face down in my bathtub. When you remind people of this, then they realise how silly it is of them to say this…. It was true that I hadn’t made a picture in a long time. And the only other thing in the film that had any reality to my career was that Mr. De Mille used to call me ‘Young fellow’ and I always called him ‘Mr. De Mille’.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

I must tell you that Sunset Boulevard was a very easy picture to do, because it had a something about it from the moment it started. It had a spark, and that spark never went out. We were 12 weeks on that picture, and each day was a day of joy for me. Each day that I came to work I was singing all the way to the studio, singing like the birds. On the last scene of the picture, when I come down the stairs, I cried…. I wished I could start it all over again, because these had been 12 of the happiest weeks I’d known.

Something very curious: my mother, who was never very close to my career, was living with me at the time, and three or four days after it was over, she said to me, “You know, Gloria, I feel as if somebody had left this apartment.” And that person was Desmond. I am not an actor who carries the personality I’m doing with me. Usually when I take the clothes and the make-up off, it stays in the clothes. Just as if a murder happened in this room, it would be in the walls. However, at home, at night, since Norma had another voice, my mother would sometimes cue me, and that probably brought her into focus, this other character.

I don’t know enough about the medical term schizophrenia, but I do know that you can have two characters and go from one to the other. And it would seem to me that you consciously create an illusion which becomes almost… not a solid thing, but it is certainly there.

I don’t know how other actors feel about this, but once I was asked to play myself on a television show. It was The Beverly Hillbillies, and I was to play Gloria Swanson. I said sure, all right. But when I got on the set I thought… how do I walk?… how do I talk? I don’t know. I hadn’t the slightest conception of what Gloria Swanson was like! It was the hardest thing I ever did because I found myself being very self-conscious. “Is that the way I would do it? How silly!” It’s very strange.

Gloria Swanson in 1969

Why don’t you tell a gal when you’re going to take pictures? I’ll tell you what: if you just put a soft lens on it and don’t come up here and photograph my nostrils, it’s all right. Go ahead and take a few little pictures. You’ll be happy about it even if I won’t. Because if you don’t take some, God knows what pictures they’ll use from the morgue.

No, no, no. I am not going to write my memoirs. Because I want to become famous as the one and only who hasn’t. Everyone writes their memoirs. I don’t want an epitaph on my grave.

Despite her protestations, Swanson did in fact publish her memoir, Swanson on Swanson, in 1980, to great acclaim.

Other things to explore