Silent film’s highest-paid star
By Paul Hall, ReMIND Magazine
Born Gloria May Josephine Svensson on March 27, 1899, in Chicago to Adelaide and Joseph, Gloria Swanson was an only child. But she wouldn’t stay in Chicago long, as her father was in the U.S. Army and the family frequently moved.
Swanson spent much of her childhood in Puerto Rico and never intended to enter show business, but at age 15, a visit to Essanay Studios in Chicago set things in motion.
It was after that visit that Swanson was asked back as an extra. She proceeded to work with a variety of talent in the business, including Charlie Chaplin, for $13.50 a week. This success would lead her to leave school to work full time. Shortly thereafter, her parents separated, and she and her mother moved to California.
Swanson’s popularity swelled as she appeared in comedies alongside Bobby Vernon. The two did multiple films in the teens, including The Danger Girl (1916) and The Sultan’s Wife (1917), that led to Swanson’s signing with Paramount Pictures.
At Paramount, she often found herself working with the legendary Cecil B. DeMille. It was DeMille who turned Swanson into a romantic lead and helped make her the most sought-after woman in Hollywood. Audiences longed to see her films for not only her work, but also her wardrobe. She was a trendsetter and quickly became one of the most photographed women in the world.
When Swanson received an enormous offer from Paramount in 1927 to keep making films there, she decided to jump to the newly formed United Artists. It was the lure of being her own boss and making the films she wanted that appealed to her.
The move paid off, as in 1928 she produced the controversial film Sadie Thompson. While everyone pleaded with her to make a commercially successful film, Swanson walked the edge with a film that pushed boundaries. In the end, Swanson would garner a Best Actress Oscar nomination at the 1929 Academy Awards and, proving that Sadie Thompson wasn’t a fluke, was back the following year with a nomination for her 1929 film The Trespasser.
Arguably her most famous performance was as Norma Desmond in the 1950 release of Sunset Boulevard, which earned her a third Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe win.
All of this work reportedly earned Swanson $8 million between 1918 and 1929.
Beyond the movies, she was featured on television and in theater, and penned a successful autobiography, Swanson on Swanson. There, the actress finally confessed to the truth of the longstanding rumors of an affair with Joseph P. Kennedy. The Hollywood Walk of Fame honored her with two stars, one for television and one for film, a culmination of an amazing career in the entertainment industry for silent film’s highest-paid star.
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