Gloria Swanson

Program notes by Kristin Thompson, Dept. of Communciation Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison

To modern audiences, Gloria Swanson is Norma Desmond, the deluded  aging screen star in Billy Wilder’s acerbic 1950 classic, Sunset Boulevard.  Longing for an impossible comeback (or “return,” as she insists on calling it), she famously declares of silent movies, “We didn’t need dialogue.  We had faces!”

Sadly, most audiences today can’t fully appreciate that line, never having seen one of Swanson’s star turns from the silent era.  Sunset Boulevard came along only a couple of decades after Swanson’s career fizzled with the coming of sound.  In 1950, many film-goers would still have known exactly what she meant.  The revival of films like Sadie Thompson allows the current generation to discover Swanson’s career in its heyday.  In fact, Sunset Boulevard brought the actress her third Oscar nomination.  Her first nomination was for Sadie Thompson.  (Her second was in 1929, for Edmund Goulding’s The Trespasser—a lesser film restored by George Eastman House a few years ago.)


Swanson started her career in the mid-1910s acting in comic shorts for Mack Sennett’s Keystone.  Her rise to fame came with a series of roles in sophisticated and sometimes risqué social comedies by Cecil B. De Mille, including Male and Female and Why Change Your Husband (both 1919).  By the late 1920s, Swanson was an extraordinarily popular star and was powerful enough to produce her own films.

The distribution firm United Artists, which released Sadie Thompson, is usually associated with its four founders, D. W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Mary Pickford.  The company also distributed independently produced films with other stars, including Buster Keaton and Rudolph Valentino (such as last year’s silent film, The Eagle).  Sadie Thompson was one of Swanson’s UA films, as was the abortive Queen Kelly (directed by Erich von Stroheim and used as the film Desmond shows Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard).  It was based on W. Somerset Maugham’s story, “Miss Thompson,” published in 1921 and based on a real incident that the author had witnessed in 1916 during a South Seas journey.  Its director, Raoul Walsh, had begun his career in 1915 with the extraordinary film about slum life and redemption, The Regeneration—subject matter with distinct parallels to Sadie Thompson.  Walsh went on to direct many major popular-genre films of the sound era, including the gangster pictures The Roaring Twenties (1939) and White Heat (1949).

The review praises the performances of Swanson, Lionel Barrymore as the hypocritical reformer, and Raoul Walsh as the Marine who woos Sadie.  “Mr. Walsh introduces just the right note of rugged health, of real impending salvation for Sadie from the abnormal shadow that pursues her under the delusion of saving her soul.  You understand how this humble soldier loves Sadie and how she loves him, and that is something you often cannot understand about the hero and heroine of the average picture.”  Indeed, given how short the film is, the relationship between these two develops with a remarkably natural liveliness that makes the ending all the more touching.

During the 1960s, the history of the silent cinema was only beginning to be explored.  Sadie Thompson was largely forgotten, and yet the pioneering film historian George C. Pratt, then Associate Curator of George Eastman House, included a review of the film in his teaching packet for a silent-film course at the University of Rochester—a packet that later became Spellbound in Darkness (1966), a seminal collection of texts on the era.  That review, which had appeared in the National Board of Review Magazine in February of 1928, characterized Sadie Thompson as being unusual in “telling a story of meaning and interest to the mentally adult motion picture-goer.”  (Complaints about films being aimed at kids are not as recent in origin as we might think!)

Sadie Thompson still

Sadie Thompson had excellent production values.  One of Hollywood’s finest art directors, William Cameron Menzies (who also designed The Eagle), created the sets, and one of the cinematographers, George Barnes (who also filmed The Eagle) went on to an impressive career that included Busby Berkeley musicals like Gold Diggers of 1935 and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.  

The pictorial riches created by such artists are obscured in some stretches by the deterioration of the print.  Many silent films have been lost due to the tendency of pre-1950s nitrate-based stock to corrode.  Watching Sadie Thompson, we can see just how close it came to disappearing forever.  Fortunately it was rescued, and Kino International has assembled still photographs and scraps of footage to reconstruct the missing ending.  Despite its occasional physical flaws, Sadie Thompson shines through as a beautifully filmed, marvelously acted, and surprisingly sophisticated creation of the late silent era.

Maugham’s story has also been published as “Rain,” and Lewis Milestone directed another excellent adaptation of it in 1932 under that title, starring Joan Crawford as Sadie.  Seldom have the same story and the same role been so well rendered on film only a few years apart.

Sadie Thompson still 2

The Creation of the Sadie Thompson Film Score
by Barbara Hedlund, CUSO Principal Cellist/Director 1st Choice Music Services

In 1984, Kino International purchased the rights to the 1928 silent film Sadie Thompson from Gloria Swanson's estate. To commemorate the film's restoration and video release two years later, Kino commissioned award-winning composer Joseph Turrin to create a new musical score.

No stranger to film scoring, the Emmy and Grammy nominee accepted the challenge. Writing a new soundtrack allowed Joseph Turrin to relive a part of film history and create the only totally original score for a silent film.  In the Silent Film Era, most scores were improvised on the spot by the organist, pianist, or a small pit orchestra which played previously composed and published classical music.

The 97-minute score is written for conductor and 18 players (two flutes with a piccolo double, one oboe, two clarinets with a  bass clarinet double, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, two celli, one double bass,
a piano, and percussion).

For conductors and musicians, accompanying a silent film is a challenging, exciting and sometimes strenuous experience. The intricacies of accompanying with precision timing and underscoring dramatic intricacies are particularly demanding upon the conductor. Film accompaniments require the same skills and flexibility to
accompany a concert soloist, singer or dancer in the opera or musical theater.

Projection of silent films with live music accompaniment offers audiences a look back into the silent film era and helps enhance their viewing and audio experience. The Champaign Urbana Symphony invites you to enjoy the show!