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A Tribute to the George Eastman House
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,The Trespasser

The Trespasser (1929)

In Sunset Boulevard (1950), Gloria Swanson's deranged, reclusive silent movie queen, Norma Desmond, unfurls one of film's most famous lines: "We didn't need sound. We had faces!" But in The Trespasser (1929), Swanson for the first time had sound. It made a difference and stopped a brief downslide in her fortunes. The most illustrious silent film star of her day not only made the transition into talkies, but uncorked an authoritative singing voice as well. "Love, Your Magic Spell Is Everywhere," written by Elsie Janis and Edmund Goulding for Swanson to sing in the film, made her a recording star as well. It also helped lay the foundation for Goulding's reputation as a skilled director of women, especially in romantic melodramas. Happily, the George M. Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., saw fit to restore and preserve it.

Goulding was the right man in the right spot. Swanson at this point was choosing and developing her own material with the backing of Joseph P. Kennedy (yes, that Joseph P. Kennedy). She saw their would-be epic, Queen Kelly (1929), starring Swanson as a jungle bordello madam, going down in flames after Swanson fired director Erich von Stroheim when the director's budget overruns escalated. Writer-director Goulding was one of four helping hands called in to finish Queen Kelly, which waited decades for a release owing to its reputation as a fiasco. Swanson, moving on, kept Goulding on the payroll to write a script and direct what Swanson realized had better be her talking film debut. Goulding wrote it in three weeks, the cameras rolled unimpeded, and The Trespasser opened in London a few weeks before Black Thursday ushered in the Great Depression, and a few weeks later in New York.

The public loved it, partly because of the novelty of Swanson plus sound. But the film she was to refer to as an almost off-the-cuff production that earned Kennedy back a lot of the money he lost on Queen Kelly, left the would-be Hollywood mogul's ego bruised. After the next Swanson-Kennedy production, What a Widow! (1930) tanked, the Kennedy-Swanson liaison was over. In her autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, she recounts how, after the premiere of The Trespasser, Swanson was summoned to a meeting with a mystery guest. It turned out to be Cardinal O'Connell of Boston, who did Kennedy's dirty work for him by informing Swanson that her off screen liaison with the Boston financier had to end because it compromised Kennedy's Catholicism. A few years later, Kennedy turned away from Hollywood to concentrate exclusively on finance and politics.

One has to view The Trespasser in the context of the novelty and notoriety hovering over it like a double halo. By the standards of the modernism quite firmly in place in 1929, The Trespasser is pretty creaky stuff, soap opera of a pre-talkie melodramatic style, with excessive miming and mugging and no end of coal tar sloshed onto the eyelids of Swanson's stenographer weathering a lot of vicissitudes. Early in her career, she played a stenographer for Charlie Chaplin in His New Job (1915). Here she's seen as a steno for a prosperous lawyer (Purnell Pratt), who has eyes for her, but is outflanked by Robert Ames's son of a Chicago tycoon, who asks her to elope with him. They do, but their happiness doesn't last long, as the new hubby's steamrolling old man (William Holden - no relation to Swanson's Sunset Boulevard co-star) shows up at their honeymoon hotel with an agenda.

He also introduces the question of just who The Trespasser is. The old plutocrat thinks she's a fortune hunter just out to glom onto the family's money. It never occurs to him that he's The Trespasser here, arrogantly barging in on their marriage. Too shrewd for a frontal attack, he suggests to his perhaps too-suggestible son that they annul the marriage, and redo it later in a more conventional way, after introductions to their social circle, the announcement of an engagement, and, suitably down the line, a conventional church wedding. When the son doesn't match her outrage and actually weighs the merits of the idea, Swanson's Marion Donnell storms out, angry and heartbroken.

In the second act, she's back at work for the same lawyer. In addition, she's being kept by him in a swanky Lake Shore Drive apartment. It's not that she's mercenary. It turns out that on her night of elopement bliss, Marion was impregnated, and now has a toddler son to support. It doesn't hurt that this display of sin cleansed by maternal solicitude is accompanied by Swanson getting that chance to strut around, suffering nobly, in a succession of sleek fashions, the sporting of which had made her one of the pre-eminent clothes horses of the day. Erte would have been proud of her wardrobe. More than one art deco necklace is of museum quality. Another mitigating factor in this Pre-Code era outing is that there seems to be a genuine affection between her and the married lawyer. She may pine for the tycoon's son, but she suffers in style.

Until, that is, fate intervenes to give her fortunes another spin. Actually, another couple of spins. Fortunes come, fortunes go, love, far from being everywhere, is in extremely short supply. One Gregg Toland shot of rain drenching Chicago to a reprise of "Love, Your Magic Spell Is Everywhere" pretty much says it all - more wittily than the screenplay. One can sympathize with Swanson describing the filming of The Trespasser as a relief after the epic snafus of Queen Kelly. If you can accept the fact that it's about craft, not art, and put yourself in the place of a Depression-ridden, escape-minded mass audience, you can see why the public ate it up. Swanson, who in effect retired after making seven more films, didn't have another financially successful talkie until Sunset Boulevard. And any doubts you may harbor about Swanson's ability to put a song over will be put to rout if you listen to her sing "If You Haven't Got Love." Arguably her best vocal ever, it would have been a perfect theme song for The Trespasser were it not for the fact that it didn't come along until she made Indiscreet (1931).

Producer: Edmund Goulding
Director: Edmund Goulding
Screenplay: Edmund Goulding
Cinematography: George Barnes, Gregg Toland
Music: Josiah Zuro
Film Editing: Cyril Gardner
Cast: Gloria Swanson (Marion Donnell), Robert Ames (Jack Merrick), Purnell Pratt (Hector Ferguson), Henry B. Walthall (Fuller), Wally Albright, Jr. (Jack Merrick), William Holden (John Merrick, Sr.), Blanche Frederici (Miss Potter - Nurse), Kay Hammond (Catherine 'Flip' Merrick), Mary Forbes (Mrs. Ferguson), Marcelle Corday (Blanche).
BW-90m.

by Jay Carr

Sources:
Swanson on Swanson, Gloria Swanson with William Dufty, Random House, 1980
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