Gloria Swan Song

MUSIC IN THE AIR (1934) is the last film of the first phase of Gloria Swanson’s career — she would return to the screen for one movie in the early 40s, then make a more decisive, immortalizing comeback in SUNSET BLVD. Already here she’s playing an egotistical diva, a sort of light comedy sketch for the Norma Desmond to come. And one of her writers is one “Billie Wilder.”

But that isn’t even the most interesting aspect of this film, a Bavarian-set operetta-film which tries hard for charm but just misses. Joe May’s direction is solid, and maybe “solid” isn’t the word you’d want to describe a soufflĂ©, but it’s apt here. Movie also features Douglass Montgomery (AKA Kent Douglass, in a baffling mid-career name switch), unjustly forgotten star, looking very fetching in lederhosen (literally, singing-trousers), June Lang, real-life gangster’s moll, more of less convincing as an innocent small-town gal, and John Boles as Gloria’s ham beau. Montgomery and Lang’s singing is dubbed, apparently, but the full-throated work of Swanson and Boles is their own. But that’s not the most interesting aspect of the film either.

No, what’s most interesting about the film is the way its plot intersects with that of Wilder’s KISS ME, STUPID, mad twenty years later. Just as in the later film, the hero is a smalltown teacher and aspiring songwriter with an ambitious partner. Success seems to depend on winning the favour of a music biz bigshot, but romantic entanglements threaten the stability of the hero’s home life. Intriguingly, the 30s version stems from a musical play by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, whereas Wilder credited the inspiration for the 60s iteration as Anna Bonacci’s L’Ora Della Fantasia, by way of the 1952 Lollobrigida epic WIFE FOR A NIGHT.

I’m stressing the similarities, but there are substantial differences. The showbiz star played by Dino in KMS is split in two here, with John Boles and Gloria as singing stars and partners. And it’s the pair of them who are neurotically jealous, as well as obsessively philandering, so that in a sense both of them are playing Dean Martin and Ray Walston at the same time. And rather than staying in a small Bavarian village/Climax, Nevada, the movie relocates to Vienna for its second act.

If the movie isn’t too funny, and only gestures towards the endearing, featherweight charm it wants to own, it nevertheless is put together with skill and a dash of wit, and certainly doesn’t get anywhere near the hinterland of discomfort and revulsion that makes KISS ME, STUPID so… memorable. If we look at KMS as a kind of unofficial semi-remake, it puts it in line with Wilder’s demusicalisation of IRMA LA DOUCE, as well as his refusal to make CABARET and his discomfort with THE EMPEROR WALTZ — something in Wilder’s character made him reject the musical.

This is an interesting specimen, by the way — since the characters are mostly songwriters and musical stars, pretty well all the songs emerge from the action in a more naturalistic way than we associate with the form: Boles introduces a song of seduction by telling June Lang that it’s a number from his upcoming show, but he’s changing the lyrics to suit her. To call it “meta-textual” might be overdoing things, but it sort of is

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16 Responses to “Gloria Swan Song”

  1. La Faustin Says:

    What a gem of a connection … count on you, DC.

    Strange about Wilder and musicals, since he USED music and dance so beautifully. Do you suppose his stint as a Weimar taxi dancer made him cynical about the classic musical comedy hearts-overflowing-with-love-burst-into-rapturous-song motif?

    And what’s the story behind his not wanting to do Cabaret, please?

  2. Kind of bugs me that KISS ME STUPID takes it on the chin from so many quarters, I saw it in a darkened theatre many years ago and was delighted. People need to get over the fact that Ray Walston was no Peter Sellers, and just acknowledge the film as a whole. Love that it’s black and white, it has just the right look for the tale it tells. My favorite line from the film: when Spooner (Walston) brings Polly (Novak) home for the first time, and he tells her “It’s small but I keep it clean”, or something to that effect. He’s referring to his humble abode, but she initially construes something else entirely. My mind always lumps this film with Kubrick’s LOLITA. My favorite line from that film? After Mason’s Humbert has married Winters’ Mama Haze so as to be closer to young Lo, he feigns sexual interest by tugging on the string bow of Winters’ night gown. Winters: “Oh Hum, when you get like this I go as limp as a noodle”. Mason/Hum: “Yes, I know the feeling”.

  3. La Faustin Says:

    Wilder always struck me as the ideal LOLITA screenwriter and director — his literate refugee awareness of a strange country and a strange language beautifully congruent with Nabokov’s. And Polly the Pistol seems like a grown-up Lolita — who spent time, after Humbert and Quilty, as a truckstop waitress — granted a happy ending. Lord knows the landscape around Climax recalls “the foul kitchen of a diner (Help Wanted) in a dismal ex-prairie state, with the wind blowing, and the stars blinking, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen, and everything soiled, torn, dead.”

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    Much of America has subsequently turned into Climax, except with crystal meth replacing alcohol, and pathetic dreams of singing (i.e. American Idol) replacing song-writing. What a clever, prescient Billie!

    O the eternal fascination of John Boles’s HUGE boulder-like head!

  5. It is indeed strange about Wilder and musicals. He loved popular song, and his use of unknown Gershwin songs in Kiss Me Stupid is almost as striking as his use of “Isn’t It Romantic?” in Sabrina.

    The songs in Music in the Air were by the great Jerome Kern.

  6. The Boles boulder is indeed a striking edifice.

    Wilder helming Lolita is a fascinating idea: the Lolita we got via Kubrick (and WITH Sellers this time) delights me, but there’s something very perverse about it being directed by an American in Britain, pretty much the reverse of the apposite Wilder in America vision you imagine, La F.

    Apparently Wilder went to see Cabaret and loved it, but the subject was too painful for him to really contemplate. He never made a film about the Berlin of his youth. We’re told that ten directors turned the movie down (including Gene Kelly) before the studio turned to Bob Fosse in desperation — and a classic was created.

    When Ernest Lehman was working on The Sound of Music, Wilder said scornfully that no musical with swastikas could ever be a hit. The scene where Plummer tears up a bunch of the crooked crosses was added just to tempt fate or prove Wilder wrong.

  7. Here’s Kiri with the most famous song from that film (lyrics by Sondheim’s spiritual father Oscar Hammerstein.)

  8. david wingrove Says:

    Forgive my ignorance but…could Gloria Swanson actually sing?!

  9. It’s an impressively trained voice alright.

  10. Christopher Says:

    theres several You Tube clips of Swanson’s singing from recordings..check ‘em out..shes pretty good..

  11. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Sorry to burst your bubble – leder means leather, you’re thinking of lieder. Nice idea though.

  12. Ah, I was certain it couldn’t possibly mean singing-trousers, but I thought it would be fun to assert that it did.

  13. But since the latest round of merges and downsizing (gleichschaltung), “leder,” “lieder,” and “leiter” all mean “singer” and everything else means “trousers.” So in a very real sense, you were correct.

  14. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Oops – didn’t hear about that one! Sorry David.

  15. Ah, Newspeak was bound to catch on sooner or leder.

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