Life and Death in L.A.: May 2024

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Scrapped: The Original Opening Sequence of “Sunset Boulevard” was Even Stranger than the Final Cut, and Audiences had a Peculiar Reaction to It

Erich von Stroheim, William Holden, Gloria Swanson,
"Sunset Boulevard" (1950).

Test Viewers Were Stunned, Amused and Confused

Joe Gillis (Holden), a life cut short.

By Paul Parcellin 

At the start of "Sunset Boulevard," hapless screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) floats face-down in a swimming pool with several bullet holes punched into his torso. He’d been the long-term houseguest of deranged former silent screen siren Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) until, in a fit of grief and jealous rage, she used him for target practice.

She’d hired Gillis to polish a hopelessly disorganized screenplay written by and for the delusional Norma as a vehicle to reignite her long-dormant career. Of course, things didn’t work out that way. By the film’s end, we learn that Norma’s return to the klieg lights is on permanent hold and she’s about to be hauled off to a sanitarium. Meanwhile, cops are fishing Gillis out of the pool with pruning hooks. So much for Hollywood endings.

For those who’ve never seen the film, that’s hardly giving too much away. Almost everyone has at least heard of the gruesome setup that puts the story in motion. As the film opens, we see the police and a caravan of news reporters speeding down Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard toward the scene of the crime as daybreak washes over the City of Angels. Angelenos will immediately sense that this story is fictional – Sunset is all but traffic-free. Even in the early morning hours in 1950, that’s pure poppycock.

Norma Desmond (Swanson)
in a hysterical rage.
But the opening sequence that appears in the final cut wasn’t the first one that director Billy Wilder had in mind. Preview audiences viewed a quite different and even more bizarre opening, and their reaction was not the one Wilder anticipated. 

The sequence in question was quickly re-edited into the version we’re all familiar with. All that remains of the original are a few short clips without sound and some still photos. Consequently, few have ever seen the completed original opening and it appears that no one is sure if copies of the entire sequence still exist.

However, surviving script pages outline the remarkably strange introduction that ended up in the dust bin. It opens with shots of the coroner’s wagon speeding along the streets, delivering the earthly remains of Joe Gillis to the city morgue. 

The body is taken into the sterile facility, toe-tagged, and wheeled into a room temporarily housing other recently deceased unfortunates. But ethereal music fills the air and a strange glow emanates from beneath a bed sheet covering the cold, still dripping wet Gillis. Suddenly, he reanimates, as do his new roommates, who begin to chit-chat among themselves. 

Each has a tale of woe about the circumstances leading up to their demise – a truck crash here, an accidental drowning there. Gillis is a bit of a curiosity to the others due to his Hollywood connections and because he was murdered. So, he begins telling his story, and thus, narrating the rest of the movie from beyond the grave, or in this case, the slab.

Preview audiences in Evanston, Illinois, and Poughkeepsie and Great Neck, N.Y., laughed at the morgue sequence and were unsure whether the film was a comedy or drama.

Enroute to the city morgue.
After the opening credits, when the story moved down Sunset Boulevard and into the L.A. County Morgue, spectators were stunned. Years later Wilder recalled, “When the morgue label was tied on Mr. Holden’s toe, they started to scream with laughter. I walked out of the preview, very depressed.”

The revised cut shows the arrival of police and reporters. Next, we’re assaulted by a complex and eerie view of the corpse that appears to be filmed from the bottom of the pool. From our vantage point, we look up at Gillis and see his lifeless face. The cops are poolside, looking down at the dead man and they seem to be looking down at us, too, as we gaze upward from the depths of Gillis’s watery grave.

Getting that one shot took a good deal of work and planning. First, since there was no swimming pool at the location, Paramount had to dig one. After much experimentation, art director John Meehan set up the shot. At the bottom of a portable process tank, he placed an eight-by-six-foot dance rehearsal mirror.

 After sinking the tank to the bottom of the pool, he placed a muslin canopy behind the police and news photographers, which, shot in black and white, would mimic the dawn sky. With those elements in place, cinematographer John F. Seitz could light the scene effectively in a short time. The camera was set up alongside the pool and Seitz pointed it down at the mirror on the bottom of the tank and filmed Holden’s bobbing reflection. 

According to Meehan, the shot “turned out to be a simple, inexpensive way to get through-water or underwater shots” by removing the need to use expensive underwater equipment. Meehan noted that the water had to be well filtered for clarity and kept at a low temperature of about 40 degrees because at higher temperatures the natural gases that build up in water would cut down on light transmission.

It’s unclear, however, how long Holden, face down in the frigid water, had to keep his eyes open and how he managed to stave off hypothermia.

A grim end for Gillis.
Despite the efforts to smooth over the original segment’s jagged edges and tone down its comedic content, the revised opening still caused a stir. In Hollywood, Paramount arranged a private screening for the various studio heads and specially invited guests. 

While many were appreciative of the film, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer was incensed by the cheeky sendup of Tinsel Town. He allegedly shouted at Wilder, “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you.” The outraged movie mogul tried to buy the film so that he could bury it. Fortunately, he failed to do so.

Critical response was positive and box office receipts were good, making “Sunset Boulevard” an undisputed hit. But Gillis’s snappy, matter-of-fact voice-over narration, a sardonic mix of blunt fact, barely restrained venom, and self-deprecation didn’t sit well with all reviewers. 

Thomas M. Pryor wrote for The New York Times that the plot device of using the dead Joe Gillis as narrator was “completely unworthy of Brackett and Wilder, but happily it does not interfere with the success of ‘Sunset Boulevard’.” Taking a more hostile tone, The New Yorker described the film as “a pretentious slice of Roquefort,” containing only “the germ of a good idea.”

According to Sam Staggs in his book Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard, no audience has seen the morgue sequence since 1949, although Wilder did save the footage.

When Sherry Lansing, head of Paramount, approached Wilder about including the deleted sequence as an addendum to the DVD version of “Sunset Boulevard,” he refused. Although Wilder sometimes claimed to hold the missing sequence, he told director Cameron Crowe, “I don’t know who has it now.”

This article was originally published in the Dec. 2023 issue of The Dark Pages. Check out The Dark Pages newsletter at: