For the longest time, I’d heard nothing but amazing things about Gloria Swanson’s autobiography Swanson On Swanson. It seemed like everyone and their mother had read it and they all called it one of the best – if not the best – books on classic Hollywood they’d ever read.
Once Raquel announced this year’s #ClassicFilmReading challenge, I knew right away that I’d be adding this book to my TBR. It had been sitting on my bookshelf for far too long and it was about time I cracked it open.
You know how sometimes when you read a book, you immediately find yourself falling in love with the main character? You can’t stop thinking of them, you want to learn everything about them and you wish you could have known them in real life? Like they never stop surprising you the further on you read? That’s exactly what happened to me while reading Swanson on Swanson and now I’m, like, the biggest Gloria Swanson fangirl ever.
I’ve always known who Gloria Swanson was and how enormous her impact was on classic Hollywood film, but I never realized just how influential she really was (I know how stupid that sounds, trust me). Gloria Swanson was there for everything: the birth of Hollywood, the birth and rise in popularity of silent film, the birth of celebrity fame and culture. She experienced all of this firsthand and man did she have a story to tell about all of it!
In writing her autobiography, Swanson was incredibly candid. There were times I found myself physically cringing at the abuse she suffered at the hands of her romantic partners, peers and employers. Some of the events she described in the book were absolutely heart-wrenching and horrifying and I found myself still thinking about them days after reading those specific passages. Her early marriage to actor Wallace Beery – she was 17, he was 31 – was particularly terrifying and, I swear, I will never look at Beery the same way again.
Unfortunately, Wallace Beery wasn’t the only man who took advantage of and abused Swanson. You could argue that the ill treatment of women was commonplace in the early twentieth century, but that’s still no excuse. Swanson was a powerhouse and a real firecracker and though she was handled poorly by many different people throughout her life and career, this incredible and resilient woman knew her worth. Gloria Swanson – a businesswoman, truly – was fully aware of how important she was in Hollywood and how much of an impact she had made in the film industry and was completely unwilling to compromise her values or beliefs (especially for any man). Swanson was truly ahead of her time.
From her early days as an ingenue at Essanay to the rumblings of fame and fortune at Paramount, to her partnership with United Artists and her eventual film comeback in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Swanson leaves nothing out in her autobiography.
One of the things I loved most about Swanson On Swanson was the enormous amount of information Swanson included in her narrative when discussing things like movie-making, producing, touring and promoting. Oh, and the bit about her walking off the set of Queen Kelly helmed by none other than notorious classic film director Erich von Stroheim was pretty marvelous too.
Swanson rarely threw away any of her personal belongings or letters, so when it came time to write her story, she had countless sources of information to pull from. Quoted in her book at the start of nearly every chapter are either film reviews, magazine and newspaper clippings or personal correspondence that support the details covered within the chapter. I really enjoyed that – seeing the correlation between widely published press materials and her own personal take on many events that occurred throughout her life. Oftentimes, the magazines and newspapers got it so terribly wrong and most of it was pretty laughable.
The majority of Swanson On Swanson focuses on her early life and career. To be honest, despite how much I enjoyed reading this book, there’s very little in it about Swanson’s later years. Or, if there is, it’s pretty much skimmed over. The edition that I read was 535 pages long (including index), and Swanson’s later life and career wasn’t mentioned until maybe the book’s final third. Still, though, Swanson remained perfectly candid and honest throughout.
One thing many of you may already know about Gloria Swanson is that she was married six times. Yes, she tells the story of all of her marriages in Swanson On Swanson but no, I don’t want to bring up her marriages here. I feel like when a woman chooses to marry multiple times, they’re unfairly judged by the masses (and by men, especially). Let’s just say she loved and married often and leave it at that. That in no way decreases her worth; the woman was an absolute boss who knew her worth, worked hard and made a massive impact on classic Hollywood film. If you ask me, that’s how she should be remembered.
One of the things I started doing as I came to the end of the book was watching old interview clips of her on YouTube. Her appearances on The Dick Cavett Show are my favourite ones to watch. Guys, listen to her voice. Originally, Gloria Swanson aspired to be an opera singer, and I totally get that just going by the sound of her speaking voice alone. She had the most melodic, sweet, sing-song speaking voice I think I’ve ever heard.
Did I like it?
Yes, I absolutely loved it. I loved getting swept up in Swanson’s world – every minute of it. Reading along and having her navigate my way through her life was a real treat and I found myself feeling every single emotion there is under the sun.
One of the most touching bits of Swanson’s book came right at the end, on the final page practically — she described how disappointing and painful it was not being able to watch some of her earliest works again either because they were lost or because they were left to rot and disintegrate inside some abandoned studio warehouse.
If you haven’t read Swanson On Swanson, I urge you to pick it up as soon as you can especially if you’re a classic film fan and want to learn more about the dawn of Hollywood and the film industry. Don’t do what I did and wait years to read it. I promise you, you’ll love it. And you’ll probably turn into a devoted Gloria Swanson fangirl just like I did.
Rating = 5/5 stars
I read and reviewed this book for Raquel Stetcher’s #ClassicFilmReading challenge.