Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"War of Troy" Tapestry in "Sunset Boulevard" (1950)

Tomorrow is Halloween, so I thought it would be apropos to discuss a "monster" film in the spirit of the season. Of course, you know I'm not big fan of horror films, but I'm fascinated by psychological drama and the monstrosities that exist in normal humanity. After all, what is The Godfather besides a film about all people's inner monsters that may come out due to circumstances? But I'm going more grotesque, more... horrifying for this post. I'm going to write about Billy Wilder's classic noir Sunset Boulevard starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
A nice view of Norma's tapestry collection
Sunset Boulevard has become one of the more popular and well-known classic films because it continues to fascinate audiences with its story of the faded, jaded film star pulling a young man down with her in her descent to insanity. It's an enduring masterpiece that openly criticizes the darker aspects of an audience's fickle fascination with film and its stars, as well as a system that tolerates such self-indulgence. In short, Sunset Boulevard will always be prevalent because we, as film audiences, haven't changed. We're still crazy about a star one day and can't remember their name the next. "Fame," wrote Emily Dickinson, "is a fickle food upon a shifting plate." Fame's nature has not changed and it is certain that the fame-crazed Norma Desmonds have not disappeared either.
"I'm ready for my close-up"
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Perhaps the most iconic scene in the film is its dramatic conclusion. Norma, by this point, has descended fully into madness after killing Joe. The press flock her house- she has the fame she has so desperately desired for- and she slowly descends her grand staircase, symbolizing her descent from her euphoric high to the lows of insanity. Max, her devoted butler, lures the delirious Norma down the steps by pretending that she is once more the star, and he the director. Joe's voice over takes over the screen during part of her descent, while she walks between the stunned reporters. "The dream she clung to so desperately," he says conclusively, "had enfolded her." It becomes clear by the end that Norma thinks that she is on the set of a new film that she's starring in and she makes a small soliloquy to the Paramount staff which reveals how the only thing she values is her film career. Finally, and most famously, she turns serious once again and utters that famous line, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close up" and the camera fades away. It's pure cinematic brilliance and one of the best scenes that Wilder ever directed.
Once, while I was rewatching this scene, I ignored Norma (it was very difficult) and instead chose to notice the background: Max sadly realizing the madness he has encouraged, the reporters and Hedda Hopper moved by the tragedy of the scene they are observing but required to report, and the house. That terribly fabulous, or should I say, fabulously terrible house. Decadent, outdated, extravagant, all the adjectives apply to it. Filled with the exotic and bizarre, including the monkey and the organ, the most notable features are the objects d'art that hang upon the walls. For the most part, they're publicity shots of the real Gloria Swanson from her silent days. However, I turned to a different piece to investigate.
The Desmond Mansion was designed to look overly decadent, and cluttered,
representing the self-centered, cluttered mind of Norma herself. 
The view of "the Descent"
See the tapestries behind Norma
The walls of Norma's grand staircase are lined with tapestries. One tapestry in particular caught my eye because it looked authentically Medieval, or at least, a replica of a Late Medieval tapestry. So I started making an extremely broad search based on very little. The art director, Hans Dreier (bottom, right), is credited for his incredible sets for the film, which he won an Oscar for. He was apparently inspired by some of the notorious decorating styles of other former Silent stars to create an atmosphere of decadence and insanity, as well as the obvious feeling of clinging to the past. According to Sam Staggs' book, Close-up on Sunset Boulevard, Dreier turned to Paramount's extensive prop closet, full of real antiques and replicas, to fill the Desmond mansion and create, what he called, "an abode of spectres" reeking "of sex and melancholy."

From this, I gathered, that the tapestry could be one of four things: (1) a real Medieval tapestry owned by one of the Hollywood elite borrowed for the film. (2) An antique replica of a tapestry, probably from the 19th century, purchased by an art director in Europe specifically for Paramount's prop closet or (3) a contemporary replica of a tapestry commissioned or found for use of a period film and then stored in the prop closet, or (4) a replica commissioned specifically for Sunset Boulevard.
I'm pretty sure that the tapestry is a replica, but I'm not positive. It's age, however, is unknown. If I had access to Paramount's prop records I could probably search it, but I'm not sure. There is also a chance that the tapestry currently is in the Getty collection (J. Paul Getty's widow lived in the "real" Desmond mansion) at the time) and it's possible the tapestry belonged to her or at least her husband. The interiors, however, were created on a soundstage, so it would have been transported.

The Tapestry in the Scene
(See more complete detail above)
Detail of the "War of Troy Tapestry"
Victoria and Albert Museum 
While all this seems vague and speculative (because it is) I have identified the tapestry, though. It is from a late 15th century Belgian tapestry portraying the events in the Trojan War. The original panels from the "War of Troy" tapestry currently reside at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where they are prized. It is believed that these particular panels were part of a larger series about the Trojan War, which eventually was displayed in the court of Charles VIII of France. It's dating is fairly easy as the soldiers and events are dressed in contemporary 15th century costume, not traditional classical armor and such.
The Complete Panels of the War of Troy Tapestry
Only the final two sections appear in Norma's tapestry in the film
I know it's a replica for multiple reasons. First, the set's tapestry is assuredly based on the War of Troy tapestry. You can check details and shapes and they're all the same. At the same time, I know its a replica, because the film's tapestry obviously does not have the detail in the original. In addition, the field area near the bottom is longer. Most importantly, Norma's tapestry is bordered (unlike the original) and contains only 2/3 of the Victoria and Albert collection's tapestry.
War of Troy Tapestry (Detail)
This view is similar to the one behind Norma
Here's my guess, if I were to offer one. I can't promise that it's any good, but it's something. I think this was an antique replica, made for American or European tourists around the 19th century. There's obviously great craftsman ship in the piece. The re-makers cut some corners with the very fine detailed but they maintained the same designs (which actually are still extant, which is apparently very rare). I think that in the '30s or '40s, during some on-location film, some art director was scouring the area for antiques and possible props (a common occurrence), stumbled upon this, thought it was really cool (which it is) and locked it in the prop closet until Hans Zeier came along.
Norma's decadent, overdecorated, bizarre mansion
 full of pictures of herself and crazed memories
The tapestry fits for a lot of reasons. Superficially, it has that air of decadence needed for the Desmond mansion. Medieval objects usually do suggest a Gothic atmosphere. But Troy's story fits Sunset Boulevard in some way. Heroes and past heroes vying for fame (just as Norma vies for a chance to appear on film again). The madness of war versus the madness of fame. An emphasis of trickery and manipulation (Norma's manipulation of Joe equals Odysseus). And most of all a kidnapped and misplaced love (Joe is Norma's Helen).  Whether it was chosen for these thematic reasons or more superficial reasons is unknown.
Another view of "the Descent"
I always think its interesting to identify props that appear in key scenes like this, especially when the prop is an intricate piece of art like this tapestry. Whether you think the tapestry represents the decadence of Norma's existence or the flawed beauty of her pursuit of fame is purely up to you.

The Victoria and Albert Museum Collection: War of Troy Tapestry

Close-up on Sunset Boulevard by Sam Spaggs "Billy Wilder's Hall of Mirrors"

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