Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

When Her Pictures Got Small: Gloria Swanson, Glamour, and Postwar Stardom

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

When Her Pictures Got Small: Gloria Swanson, Glamour, and Postwar Stardom

Article excerpt

a press kit from 1954 trumpets the pos- sibility of winning a weekend with Gloria Swanson, who at the time was starring in the television "anthology" program Crown Theatre with Gloria Swanson:

Glamour is for the girls . . . and what could any gal from eighteen to eighty find more glamorous than a new personality, a com- plete new wardrobe, and a week in New York City, as the guest of the Queen of Them All- GLORIA SWANSON! This is the grand prize in CBS Television Film Sales' GLORIA SWANSON GLAMOUR CONTEST-now being conducted for all stations programming Crown Theatre with Gloria Swanson. ("Gloria Swanson Glamour Contest")

The preceding paragraph is but one small part of an elaborate instructional packet that in- cluded multiple advertising setups, mock-ups, and detailed instructions on how best to imple- ment the contest. The packet also included several head shots of Swanson and replications of a sketch that served as the "brand" of the series. The sketch, obviously Swanson, depicts the star with long black gloves and large jewelry and emphasizes her trademark mole and open- mouthed half-smile. The kit provides a snap- shot of one of the ways in which early television programming-and syndicated programming in particular-attempted to attract stations through promises of old Hollywood glamour and star power.

At the same time, the kit advertises a pro- gram that even the most devoted television historians can only faintly recall. In this way, its existence highlights the ways in which Swan- son's glamour was, ultimately, unamenable to television-for Crown Theatre with Gloria Swanson (1954-55), like her previous foray into television, The Gloria Swanson Hour (1948), was a failure. Both lasted but one season and have since retreated into the cobwebbed cor- ners of television history. But as recent work in failure studies reminds us, studying debacles and disappointments that mark media history may teach us just as much as, if not more than, those media products that have succeeded. Working under this assumption, Gloria Swan- son's postwar television career is instructive, for although she may have failed as a televi- sion star, she enjoyed tremendous success elsewhere: in 1950, she starred in Sunset Bou- levard, a critical and box office smash, before launching a blockbuster dress line, "Forever Young by Gloria Swanson," that would endure for over thirty years.

Such discrepancy of fortune may be traced to the specific valences of Swanson's glamour and star image activated by each product. Her forays into television featured a facsimile of Swanson's star image from the 1920s: classically glamorous, opulent, urban, and thoroughly unironic. Despite efforts, such as the press kit described here, to transfer her star aura to the confines of the small screen, the straight reproduction of her classic star image was dissonant with not only dominant discourses of postwar glamour, but also those associated with television in general. In con- trast, Swanson's role in Sunset Boulevard and the Forever Young dress line both renegotiated the Swanson image, shading its nostalgic value with distinctly postwar understandings of glamour, consumption, and stardom. Sunset Boulevard turned classic glamour, embodied in the form of Norma Desmond, into a tragic farce, whereas the dress line employed an entirely different tact, reframing Swanson's glamour as enduring and readily available to the middle- aged, middle-class woman.

Several scholars have examined the pe- riod of early television stardom, yet the work of Swanson has slipped through the cracks. Indeed, it would be difficult to even label Swanson a television "star." Her small-screen failures were not unique; dozens of Hollywood stars attempted and failed to rejuvenate or restart their careers through television in the 1950s. Yet Swanson's path through the disintegration of the studio and star systems is nevertheless worthy of scrutiny and study because her career trajectory reveals the com- plicated ways in which Hollywood and its stars attempted-sometimes successfully, but often- times not-to trade on the memory of classic identities by repackaging them in accessible, small-screen form. …

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