“Gloria Swanson” by Steve Starr

Gloria Swanson

Part 2

Her Gilded Cage

Movie poster advertising Gloria Swanson’s 1922 film Her Gilded Cage. Critics considered it more of a fashion show than a film, and Swanson herself was not fond of it.

In Gloria’s next film at Essanay, Sweedie Goes to College (1915), she met Wallace Beery, a gruff, accomplished actor who first won fame a few years earlier in a series of comedic shorts playing a female 250-pound Swedish maid named Sweedie. A few months later, Beery left the studio for Hollywood, but before departing he proposed marriage to Gloria. Wallace sent a postcard to Gloria urging her to come to California where the film industry was flourishing. With her mother in tow, Gloria joined Wallace and immediately landed a contract with Mack Sennett Studios. Although she thought Wallace, at twice her age, was old enough to be her father, he became her first husband. They eloped on her birthday. When the ceremony was denied because Gloria could not prove she was of legal age, they picked up her mother and took her along for permission. On their wedding night, Wallace got drunk at a bar, went back to their hotel room, and brutally raped Gloria. He tore her nightgown, ripped her skin with his beard, and left her a cold, hurting, bloody mess. Though scared and horrified, Gloria was ecstatic when she found out she was pregnant. One day, she awoke with severe abdominal pain and asked Wallace to get her some medicine from the local pharmacy. Her husband returned with a bottle, placed it on her nightstand, and suggested she take five capfuls. Gloria became horribly nauseated and passed out in pain. When she came to, a nurse was in her room at a hospital. A poison had aborted the child and nearly killed her. The marriage lasted less than two months.

“I not only believe in divorce, I sometimes think I don’t believe in marriage at all.”—Gloria Swanson

Beery and Swanson both began working in Mack Sennett comedies, known for their “Bathing Beauties.” Though Swanson later realized that the split-second timing of these movies improved many of her skills, at that time she thought of them as vulgar and degrading. Amid her loud complaints, Sennett tore up her contract. Gloria then signed with Triangle Pictures, where she was soon bogged down in silly love stories. In 1919 she joined Artcraft Paramount Studios. That same year, she married her second husband, Herbert Somborn, president of Equity Pictures, and they had a daughter named Gloria. Somborn later became the owner of the famed Brown Derby Restaurant in Hollywood. After a year of marriage, Somborn decided to divorce Swanson and gain publicity for himself and his small studio by accusing her of adultery with 13 different men, including director Cecil B. DeMille. The charges were ridiculous, because Gloria was having an affair with only one other man, director Marshall Nielan. Gloria decided to settle out of court, and they finally divorced in 1922. She never forgave Somborn, who died in 1934.

Why Change Your Wife?

Early advertisement for Why Change Your Wife?, 1920.

Swanson began rising to fame in Cecil B. DeMille epics. Always dressed in spectacular gowns and jewels, millions of fans could not get enough of the actress whom DeMille first cast in Don’t Change Your Husband (1919). Standing only four-foot-eleven, with dark chestnut hair and blue eyes, it was Swanson who brought the word “glamour” into common usage. In Male and Female (1919), the fearless, elegantly-dressed Gloria, dripping in hundreds of pearls and bedecked with peacock feathers, allowed herself to be pawed at by a live lion. In You Can’t Believe Everything (1921), the non-swimmer jumped off a pier into deep water to “save” her co-star. Her willingness to risk life and limb for the movies earned her great respect from directors. Gloria loved to titillate her fans with statements considered scandalous at the time, such as “I not only believe in divorce, I sometimes think I don’t believe in marriage at all.”

In 1922 Gloria starred opposite the famed Rudolph Valentino in Beyond the Rocks. Publicity for the film shouted that Swanson wears “...fifty luxurious new gowns.” The movie was lost for 73 years until a print was discovered in Holland. Now restored, the silent film was shown again in the United States in October, 2005.

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