Sunset Boulevard

It’s the Pictures That Got Small

I love Twitter. In 140 characters or less, you can connect with people you might never meet otherwise. While fishing in the Twitter stream this past week, searching for any tweets with the phrase “film score,” I came across this golden nugget: “Pop’s first gig in LA was with the Paramount Orch. playing on the film score for “Sunset Blvd.” It was his first day on job!”

That was one tweet I had to respond to. Imagine, it’s your first professional gig with a major film studio–your first day on the job–and you’re playing for Franz Waxman! When I turned into a not-so-subtle fanboy, my over-enthusiasm was rightly put in its place: “Remember though all those scores & records at the time they didn’t know were making history – just another day. Can U imagine?”

She was right. It wasn’t history. It was just another day on the job—but a special day, nonetheless.

In 1950, Billy Wilder’s brilliant film caused waves with its portrait of Hollywood’s underbelly, much as ALL ABOUT EVE skewered the world of theater that same year. Gloria Swanson gives the performance of her career as reclusive, faded silent film star Norma Desmond, who hires out-of-work screenwriter and gigolo Joe Gillis (William Holden) to edit her comeback script.  Joe is a kept man until he falls in love with fellow writer Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), setting off Norma’s jealousy and furthering her madness.

Sunset Boulevard soundtrack
“Chase And Mansion / An Aging Actress”
“The Comeback”

Wilder’s film has it all—murder, madness, a monkey funeral, and Waxman’s remarkable score. Pulsating chase music.  Bebop piano. A slow, sinuous tango for Swanson’s faded movie queen and even a hint of Richard Strauss’ Salome for her unstable state of mind. In a year of strong scores, Waxman’s music perched at the top, winning the composer the first of two, history-making, back-to-back Oscars. (He won again the following year for A PLACE IN THE SUN.)

Nearly 60 years later, Hollywood’s original problems with the film have faded and SUNSET BOULEVARD is now rightfully recognized as a true cinema classic. Swanson tried to get a musical version made, but it wasn’t until 1993 that Andrew Lloyd Webber was able to purchase the rights from Paramount and turn the property into one of the more controversial musicals of the decade. The firing of original London leading lady Patti LuPone, the hiring of Glenn Close, and the parade of divas who took on the role (including Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige), kept the theater buzzards hovering for months.

Then as now, it is rare to find a film in which all the elements work as well as they do in SUNSET BOULEVARD. As my friend on Twitter reminded me, “they didn’t know they were making history – just another day. Can U imagine?”

No. No, I can’t.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More Stories
North by Northwest
Herrmann On the Mount