Wait For The Moment When: Gloria Swanson

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…Goes To Bed With William Holden.

No director was as layered, coded and mordantly witty as Billy Wilder at his best. His contemporaries were shattered by SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) – Louis B Mayer, Mary Pickford, Pola Negri, Norma Shearer, Garbo, Mae West and Montgomery Clift all had their own reasons to be disturbed by it. The American public was baffled. Surely no movie is more complex. I have seen it at least 100 times yet every viewing reveals another detail, another clue or flash of gallows humour. Wilder is a generous director: he gives you a mass of stimuli and then allows you to take these hints, symbols and allusions as far as you like.

SUNSET BOULEVARD is a satire, a black comedy, a psychological thriller and occasionally a horror movie. The first half of the movie ends with the scene of Norma Desmond’s first coupling with Joe Gillis : a union of two vampires come together at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

The fatal party that ends the evening in Norma’s suicide attempt in “that grim Sunset castle” is seen in retrospect to have been a macabre wedding feast complete with a great cake and a tango band playing the erotic rhythm that originated in the porteno brothels of Buenos Aires. As Norma and Joe dance – “there are no other guests” – Swanson tears off her hair jewel and veil, a bridal disrobing, self-defloration for her putative fourth husband. Is there also a reference to an abdication as she removes this winged diamond falcon¤, just as Garbo removes her diadem in QUEEN CHRISTINA? Will Norma give up the career – the lost career that only she still believes in – for marriage? Is the whilom Queen of Hollywood renouncing her crown for paid love? What an irony of absolutely sterile futility: Billy Wilder is not always a comfortable companion.

Later, lying on her “bed like a gilded rowboat” – dreamboat? – Norma is visually the more evident succubus, what with her brilliant white teeth, her snaky black curls and her slit wrists bandaged to look like evening gloves, arching varnished nails as though painted with her own blood. But look at the predatory incubus Joe, still wearing the luxurious evening clothes, vicuna coat and jewellery paid for by the doting employer so soon to be his mistress. Tenderly as an expert torturer, he unties and removes her shoes, well-worn conjugal symbols of fertility and sex, before Norma draws him down into a literally fatal embrace like a mantis. And in taking off her shoes Joe is about to hobble Norma with sex, just as she has captured him with money. The pair of them are now fatally enmeshed, inextricably entangled .

“Happy New Year, Norma”

In the springtime one of them will be shot dead; and his murderer taken off raving to the asylum.

“Happy New Year, darling”.

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And then immediately follows a sinisterly skittish scene in the (ruined) garden to which Norma, usually a creature of the shadows, has briefly returned like a middle aged Persephone. By the poolside• and for the only time in the movie Swanson and Holden seem briefly almost at ease with one another. For a mad moment you think that they might even have the possibility of a future together: Joe Gillis capers in his swimming trunks and Miss Desmond, revived by salaried sex and astrology, is positively girlish¤¤, but then comes that unsettling moment when Joe emerges from the water (the last living creatures seen in that pool were rats: he himself is “a stray dog”). Norma swathes him in a towel that is horribly like a winding sheet – or a straitjacket. The phone rings, Paramount is on the line and Norma’s only true love – herself & her own fame – once again takes over.

What a reel! And I have omitted so much: the ominous figure of Max, the keychains & gaping keyholes, the recurring telephone motif, the mirrors…but run the picture and as Lilian Gish would say, “Judge for yourselves”. One last thing: by this point in the movie we have been told very explicitly how Norma smells – “…of tuberoses, which are not my favourite perfume, not by a long shot” says Joe. (There’s a whiff of marijuana, Egyptian cigarettes and “half a pound of make up”, too). Tuberoses in excess can be airless, invasive, claustrophobic, eating up oxygen: they are narcotic, obsessive, aphrodisiac and stupefying. The ancient Mexicans, struck by their skeletal white purity, called them “flowers of the bone” and wreathed their dying gods with them. In Latin countries they are often associated with death, piled up in funeral parlours and in cemeteries like lilies and chrysanthemums here. In short, lovely as they are – and I have a spray blooming by me as I write – the tuberose is the perfect olfactory metaphor for Norma Desmond: a perfection of sinister predatory glamour.”

¤ for so it looks to me, lying on the tiled floor and picked up like a holy relic by Max, now the butler and once Norma’s first husband. Norma talks of Valentino’s penchant for the tango – does this bird reference his film “THE EAGLE” with its theme of a young Cossack pursued by a much older amorous Empress?

• at least one commentator has equated the swimming pool to the waters of Norma’s womb; but as Julie Andrews once said, “I think that’s going a little too far, don’t you?”

¤¤ though her leopard outfit reminds us of her predatory exoticism – and her claws.

William Holden 1918- 1981
Gloria Swanson 1899 – 1983

Black Narcissus

Narcisse Noir

The lure of Caron‘s Narcisse Noir is all about obvious though artful artifice, appreciated by those who enjoy suspending disbelief and immersing themselves in the flamboyance and exuberance of a unique perfumer’s imagination. Narcisse Noir is not for those looking for an organically well-bred, neat and tidy scent: it is farouche, mysterious, disturbing and ever so slightly off its head, like some of its past admirers. My old Harrods chum David (mildy crazy himself) who claimed to know the back-story of every perfume in the repertoire, used to say it was a perfume for broken down ballerinas – his inimitable gloss on Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

From the beginning, its conception was bizarre: Caron’s founder, owner and nose Ernest Daltroff claimed to be the first to base a perfume on a myth, a lie; rather than translate the scent of living material (flowers, leather, woods) he would first characterise an imaginary flower and then spin a web from its supposed scent. With his other half, Felicie Vanpouille – and I think she was truly his other half in every way – mistress, publicist, artist, maybe nose – they came up with the perversely brilliant idea of taking the narcissus, so purely virginally spotlessly white and, as it were, dyeing it black. Why the narcissus and not, say, the lily? I think they had the old classic myth in mind – the beautiful, heartless Narcissus, madly in love with his own reflection; dying of desire for himself. And the name ultimately derives from the Greek “narce”: to benumb or the state of being numb, referring to the flower’s narcotic properties. So, “nicht genugens pervers?” as 20’s nude dancer and coke-fiend Anita Berger used to shout at her audiences.

All this, mind you, in 1911, before L’Heure Bleue, Quelques Fleurs, Tabac Blond, Habanita, Shalimar and Knize Ten had shocked and rocked the perfume world. Narcisse Noir became a cult scent, a password to a world of black, gold,orange and crimson Bakst decadence. Noel Coward references it repeatedly in his druggie play The Vortex which outraged the nation and packed the theatres in 1924  – his ambisexual characters wear it, smell it and before lighting up, dip their cigarettes in it. Gloria Swanson (“Arriving with the Marquis, Friday. Please arrange ovation!”) introduced it to Hollywood. And then, first with Rumer Godden’s novel in the 30’s, then with the Powell-Pressburger film version (1947), the perfume took on a whole new dimension as the star of “Black Narcissus”.

As Deborah Kerr takes her tiny community of nuns up onto the Roof of the World they find the rarified air of the high Himalayas  distracting, ennervating and psychotropic; then comes the beautiful Young General (Sabu) wearing a satin coat the colour of ripe corn, and dripping with amethysts and Black Narcissus – “don’t you think it rather common, Sister, to smell of ourselves?” The scent of sex dormant in the painted walls of the convent (once a palace for seraglio women) is animated once more by the drifts of perfume from Sabu’s silk handkerchief; he elopes with the disreputable Kanshi, whom we have seen inhaling his body with sensual bliss. Much worse, both Sisters Clodagh and Ruth fall under the spell of the saturnine British agent down in the lushly jungly valley. Sister Ruth, at first so neurotically mistrustful of the fumes of Black Narcissus (a close-up shows her nose twitching like that of a wary fox), is ultimately tipped over into into paranoid nymphomaniacal murderous mania.
Not bad for post-war Austerity.

And like Narcisse Noir, the film is an exotic illusion – shot in the most beautiful colour you will ever see on screen, it is entirely studio-bound; the Himalayas and sunrises and verdant valleys all painted on glass and card.There is also a wonderful perfume metaphor in the misfortunes of poor Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), the gardening Sister; told off to plant onions, potatoes and beans on terraces stretching out to the sky, she sets instead sweet peas, hollyhocks, lupins and delphiniums. The needs of the senses, unleashed by the esoteric air and an atmosphere where practicalities have no relevance, have once again prevailed. You will find your own needs amply and admirably catered for by Narcisse Noir which takes a modest white flower as its germination and mutates madly and wilfully into a mysterious, hypnotic even carnivorous bloom.

The Scent of Silence

Jean Dujardin & Berenice Bejo in The Artist

I wonder how many of you currently enjoying the Oscar-winning movie The Artist recall that historic episode of Parkinson during which Barry Humphries remorselessly baited poor old Gloria Swanson, stamping on her every line and never allowing her a word in edgeways. Later publicly rebuked he remarked unabashed, “but I was told she was a silent star”. It was probably the first time in her life that Swanson had been upstaged. Perhaps more than any other of her contemporaries she came to personify what the silent screen was all about: but hers was a survivor’s perspective: she had a good voice, made the cross-over to talkies and retrospectively defined old-time stardom in Sunset Boulevard; this kind of became her act for the next 30-odd years – being a (ostensibly sane) survivor from Jurassic Hollywood.

A factoid cliche claims that sound killed the careers of all the great silent stars just as the meteor finished the dinosaurs: their voices were all wrong, it is said. Not so: Valentino was already prematurely dead; Chaplin continued to work without sound; Joan Crawford, Dietrich,Mary Astor, Ronald Colman, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Myrna Loy and especially Garbo thrived in the silents and became even bigger stars in the talkies. Others like Clara Bow and John Gilbert staggered on for years in the new medium. After all, there was such a profession as voice coach even then. No, it was the changing times, the Zeitgeist, that put paid to the careers of the more outre and extravagant personalites.

The breadlines,soup kitchens and dance marathons of America in the Depression had no interest in the eccentricities and extravagances of Mae Murray (twice married to European aristocracy but who fell into such poverty that she ended sleeping on a park bench); Barbara LaMarr “The Girl who is too Beautiful” who like Mabel Normand drugged herself to death; Corinne Griffith,who forgot who she was; the ethereal intellectualism of Lilian Gish or the play-pretend infantilism of Mary Pickford. The USA grew up as fast as Wall St collapsed and was looking for a new grittiness in its entertainments: and the world took its lead (as ever) from America.

And perfumes changed too. They sobered up, cleaned up, freshened up for the 1930’s. Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden put up floral bouquets in lieu of such baroque splendours as Caron‘s Narcisse Noir, Pois de Senteur de Chez Moi, Nuit de Noel and the late lamented Patou extravaganza, Chaldee. (Long before Marilyn’s experiments with Chanel, Josephine Baker danced nude except for clouds of Chaldee). Scents of the silents were intricate, perverse, bizarre: they expressed and emoted like the divas who wore them and whose acting manner, far more than their voices, dated them once the studios were miked.

Twenties perfumes needed huge colourful eccentric personalities to carry them off: they pioneered the use of leather and tobacco; they revelled in overdoses of gardenia (try the Isabey version) jasmine, tuberose and all the brilliantly scented synthetics and chemicals then inspiring the leading perfumers of the day. Their perfumes complemented the wearing of fur, feathers, metallic beaded dresses of sequins and golden mesh, thickily brilliantined cropped hair and garish makeup. Scents unfolded slowly, like the stately pace of silent movies; you can’t rush a silent, nor a silent star’s scent. It will last while you see the programme round again.

A final note on Gloria …remember those obituary headlines? “Sic transit Gloria mundi”. Narcisse Noir was always said to be her signature, and it was already a best-seller when she was still a girl in Chicago. But the immortal Narcisse Noir deserves a Wedge all to itself at a future date.