gLoria Swanson’s most enduring role is Imperial Queen and bitterly eclipsed Norma Desmond on Sunset Boulevard. But to fully appreciate Desmond’s faded glory in the 1950 Billy Wilder noir classic, you have to see the Swanson silent films. Stage Struck – directed 25 years earlier by Allan Dwan – both adores and pastiche the visual opulence of the silent era, with a plot that reflects the adulation of glamorous actresses. It also offers a brief chance to see Swanson as a sparkling Salome, the role Desmond coveted for his ill-started comeback.
Salomé’s sequence is part of Stage Struck’s tongue-in-cheek prologue, filmed in a compelling debut version of Technicolor, featuring assorted scenes from the life of “the greatest actress of all time”. On stage, we see Swanson bombarded with bouquets by an ecstatic audience; on the street, she is mobbed by a worshiping audience desperate for a brush with fame. During a sumptuous banquet, she suddenly takes the role of Salome and climbs the stairs of a temple, returning with a tray bearing the head of John the Baptist.
Or is she serving someone’s lunch? With a match cut, Dwan goes from this extravagant fantasy to a no-frills restaurant in West Virginia, where waitress Jenny (also played by Swanson) masquerades as Salome with her tray and ends up spilling a customer’s order. Jenny dreams of becoming an actress but is surrounded by crowds of hungry diners rather than star-eyed fans. Stage Struck asks why people want to perform. Despite the extravagant riches of the prologue, it settles on the kind of humble response actors often give when they recall their childhood: the simple urge to entertain.
The restaurant where Jenny works is known for its wheat cakes, prepared by a display case. The griddle is usually held by Orme (Lawrence Gray), to whom Jenny is devoted, and he relishes the opportunity to entertain spectators by flipping the cakes like a showman. Jenny takes over the hot plate one day and finds that she loves making customers laugh. But his dream of studying theater is also due to Elme’s obsession with stage and screen pin-ups; alone in her room, she imitates the poses of the goddess of women on her walls. The game is learned, suggests the film, by observation: Jenny studies these stars closely, down to the smallest details of their dress.
Archetypes abound in Stage Struck: Jenny is the loyal friend, nicknamed “Mouse” by the guy she loves who just isn’t worth it. Orme has eyes full of glasses for glamorous stage star Lillian Lyons (played by Gertrude Astor), who brings excitement to the small town in the same way Deadwood does for Miss Adelaid Adams in Calamity Jane ( 1953). When Jenny takes on the role of “Satisfied Wife” for her final acting exam, you don’t know if the joke is just about how she goes about it (using a stuffed dog as a husband) or the fact that these are the ones her training will reward her. While Stage Struck occasionally satirizes gender roles with self-awareness, it still serves up a battered plot in which Orme demeans and coerces Jenny (who in one scene self-harms to keep her attention).
Jenny is also exploited when she has the chance to perform on a showboat, the Water Queen. She’s seriously preparing to recite Longfellow’s The Day Is Done to be thrown in the ring with a boxing champion as part of the entertainment. The Water Queen was a true theatrical boat operating on the Ohio River and the film gives a brief glimpse into the comedic lives of these vaudeville troupes immortalized in Jerome Kern’s Show Boat (filmed in 1951).
Local newspaper articles documented the filming of Stage Struck in New Martinsville, West Virginia, where Swanson was greeted with as much hysteria as Lillian Lyons. One of them reported that “10,000 people from out of town” came to see her while “all the girls want their hair cut like Gloria’s.”
Almost 100 years after the creation of Stage Struck, an endless array of disposable entertainment is right at your fingertips (and, thanks to social media, the privacy of megastars too). High-quality digital theater, while relatively scarce at the start of the pandemic, is now widely available, and of course we’re used to watching movies when we want to. The intense appeal that unreachable screen and stage stars possess in Dwan’s film is a sign of a gone era where, after audiences left the auditorium, brilliant snapshots and publications like Theater Magazine and Photoplay have been reviewed until their next comeback.
“I am tall – it is the images that have become small,” said Norma Desmond, lamenting the loss of the era of silence. Stage Struck, in truth, is a rather small image on its own, but it somehow helps to capture the big impression that actors leave in our daily lives.