WHERE HAVE ALL THE HEROES GONE? Gloria Swanson and a Talk About How We Got Here From There

Gloria Swanson photograph by Edward Steichen, 1924

Gloria Swanson photograph by Edward Steichen, 1924

“Where have all the heroes gone?” asked Sherman. He asked this plainly and earnestly, without even a hint of irony. He looked to be about 16-years-old and not remarkable at first glance, just a kid. He wore a cardigan sweater, had messy hair, a well-worn t-shirt, jeans, and Converse high tops. Maybe a geek but not a proud geek.

I looked at him with a sheepish grin. Or was it devilish? He’s asking me, a somewhat jaded full grown man, who has his own set of doubts? I could talk his ear off, if that’s what he wanted. First, we needed to establish what kind of hero he felt was missing. A superhero? I know a lot about superheroes but that is only because I know a lot about comics. Or was he referring to another kind of hero? Given his sensitive nature, and likely fully intact idealism, he could be easily reassured that we’re all heroes when you come right down to it. When the rubber meets the road, we can all rise to the occasion, right?

“So,” I finally asked, “what kind of heroes have we lost, Sherman?”

“I don’t know who I am, Hank, I don’t feel that I belong,” was Sherman’s unexpected response. Very unexpected. And not tiresome at all, which I had expected.

“Do you blame Facebook for your problems? Lord knows, I do.”

“Facebook. That’s part of it. Yeah, and Twitter. And the whole lot of them.”

“Alright, Sherman, at least we now have a point of departure. Things can only go up from now on, you know what I mean?”

“No, not exactly, but go on.”

“Nature. We all need to get back to nature.”

“Okay. And then what?”

“We become our own hero.”

“Oh, I like that! Did you just come up with that?”

“Yeah, just came to me, just like that.”

Sherman, as you can see, is a highly impressionable young man in need of more experience, more education, and more spice. He will learn and probably not the hard way.

“Sherman,” and I asked this with genuine curiosity, “do you love geek pop culture?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t think I’ve sampled enough good parts of it.”

“Okay, that’s a good way of looking at it. You’re on the right track. And you do realize there’s all sorts of culture out there in the world, right?”

“Yeah, I do. I guess I need to seek it out more. I keep seeing glimpses of it.”

“On the internet, right? A reference to Shakespeare, maybe. Or to Groucho Marx. You just don’t know where to begin, am I right?”

“Something like that.”

“You’ll be fine, Sherman.”

“All the heroes got smaller.”

“That reminds me of that line recited by Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond, in ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ when Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, says, ‘You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.’ And Norma Desmond says, ‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.’ That was 1950 and Gloria Swanson was playing a woman way past her prime, even though, in reality, she wasn’t. She was only one year older than Sandra Bullock is now.

Anyway, yeah, all our heroes have gotten small. It may seem that way. People tend to feel there was a golden age. I think we look at those YouTube segments of intelligent conversation coming from the likes of Norman Mailer or Orson Welles on some talk show and we feel we’ve lost something.

Well, back then, television was king. Intellectuals looked up to TV in some respects. It was a smaller playing field, TV was dominant, and we had higher hopes for it. Today, everything seems to be everywhere all at once, scattered.”

“Things were already chaotic with television.”

“Well, sure, chaotic and disconnected. As much as some held out hope for TV, we were also supposed to kill our televisions–but we didn’t. Instead, we stayed up all night watching assorted junk.”

“And now we have more and more assorted junk 24/7.”

“That’s right.”

Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," 1950

Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard,” 1950

“Who was Gloria Swanson?”

“That’s a good question. Now, there’s a hero for you. The feeling evoked in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ was of the great divide that occurred when the silent movie era abruptly gave way to sound. It put a lot of actors, who simply could not make the transition, out of work for good. Out with the old and in with the new.

Instantly, they became ghosts. That’s how Hollywood, and society, perceived them. Some rose to the occasion and played with that idea: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Gloria Swanson are the best examples that come to mind.

Gloria Swanson was once the greatest, and most wealthy, star in Hollywood. She would always retain that silent movie era glamour. In ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ she clearly demonstrated that, at 50, she still had style, even if she was playing a delusional wacko.

Billy Wilder’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is nothing short of a miracle. Way ahead of its time, it provides the ultimate mashup of life and art. Norma Desmond is a premature relic living in the shadows. A scene of her screening one of her greatest performances is actually Gloria Swanson in ‘Queen Kelly,’ from 1929.

Gloria Swanson in "Queen Kelly," 1929

Gloria Swanson in “Queen Kelly,” 1929

In reality, ‘Queen Kelly,’ while arguably great art, is one of the greatest movie financial failures of all time. Vastly over budget and lavish, it nearly sunk Swanson who was, as she put it, ‘in charge of finances.’

Two men guaranteed that ‘Queen Kelly’ would fail: its overzealous director, Erich von Stroheim; and its distracted financier, Joe Kennedy, who was having an affair with Swanson. Yes, the same Joe Kennedy who spawned the Kennedy dynasty. Left unsupervised, Stroheim pursued his mad genius. Kennedy pulled out and left Swanson holding the bag.

In ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ Stroheim plays a character much like himself. His character, Max Von Mayerling, is living in the shadows with Norma Desmond. Swanson had the fortitude, and genius, to play Norma Desmond to the hilt and play off ‘Queen Kelly.’ She turned it into this surreal gem, this mystical movie within a movie of the story of her own life and that of Hollywood.”

“Hank, you’re my hero.”


“Yeah, but I say it with a hint of irony.”

“I’ll accept that.”


Filed under Commentary, Creative Living, Culture, Essays, Facebook, Henry Chamberlain, Heroes, Hollywood, Internet, Media, movies, Silent Movies, Social Media, Superheroes, writing

3 responses to “WHERE HAVE ALL THE HEROES GONE? Gloria Swanson and a Talk About How We Got Here From There

  1. This is a great post because it’s entertaining, informative and makes you think (specifically the “We become our own hero” line) ! Thanks so much for following my blog, made in Marseille, France !

    • How nice to get your comment. Look forward to more. Yes, this piece was fun to write. I just sit down to write sometimes and let things take their own course. Now, I find myself wanting to learn more about Gloria Swanson, silent movies, and fashion.

  2. Pingback: Advance Review: GLITTERBOMB #1 | Comics Grinder

Leave a Reply