Sunset Boulevard (1950) cuts through the fat of Hollywood and tells a self-aware story about its own industry. Many of its characters are pulled straight out of real life and based on personal details that in 1950, when silent films weren’t the distant memory as they are today, likely felt even more obvious to audiences watching them. Aging silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is, of course, an incredible caricature of the animated and over-dramatic lost silent star, but Sunset Boulevard’s genius goes beyond a single character.
Norma’s butler Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim) is eventually revealed as a former (and renowned) silent film director. He discovered Norma, made pictures with her, fell in love, married her, divorced her, and has dedicated his life to the misguided but emotionally-motivated task of enabling her delusions of continued celebrity and someday returning to the stage. In the real world, Erich von Stroheim was himself a promising silent director who directed Gloria Swanson in Queen Kelly (1928). When talkies arrived, his transition wasn’t successful. He only created two sound films and faded, becoming known as an actor taking small parts in low-budget films and performing cameos. As Roger Ebert wrote in his Great Movies review of the film, “When Max the butler tells Joe (William Holden), ‘There were three young directors who showed promise in those days, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Max von Mayerling,’ if you substituted von Stroheim for von Mayerling, it would be a fair reflection of von Stroheim’s stature in the 1920s.”
Yet here he is, in Sunset Boulevard, playing a renowned film director turned butler. Granted, his role in Sunset Boulevard was to much greater acclaim than a bit part as a Nazi or a cameo of himself—he received an Academy Award nomination for the role—but the parallels between art and life are potent.
During the film, Norma and Joe cuddle up for a private viewing of a film in Norma’s living room. “I guess I don’t have to tell you who the star was. They were always her pictures—that’s all she wanted to see,” Joe tells us. Max is in charge of the projector. The film they watch is supposedly part of Norma’s repertoire as a silent film star; in reality, it is Swanson and von Mayerling’s. The film is Queen Kelly, and as the director and star watch their work from over two decades earlier it becomes beautiful irony for the characters. As Norma watches the film and says, “We had faces then!” it stands as a delightful moment of self-reference.
Sunset Boulevard was the first time American audiences got to see a clip of Queen Kelly, which was never released in the States. It found renewed attention following the film.
Swanson and von Mayerling’s self-cameos within the film are one of many ways Sunset Boulevard pulls the real world into its land of fantasy. Norma’s waxworks card-playing buddies, for instance, consist of silent film greats Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner. Norma uses real names when talking about moviemaking folks, and when she visits the real Cecil B. DeMille on set at Paramount, he’s actually working on the set of Samson and Delilah (1949). But the clever insertion of Queen Kelly into Sunset Boulevard’s narrative stands as the most memorable bit of the film’s audacious ability to peer beyond the fantasies of Hollywood. Whether von Stroheim or Swanson suggested using the clip in Sunset is a matter of debate—either way, it was effective.