Sunset Boulevard’s Origins in an Evelyn Waugh Novel

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Sunset Boulevard’s origins in an Evelyn Waugh novel have been forgotten, Steve Sailer says:

That Waugh’s The Loved One kick-started Sunset Boulevard wasn’t originally a secret. Although an extensive Google search finds almost no mention of the connection in recent years, Sunset Boulevard‘s cinematographer John Seitz told film historian Kevin Brownlow of Waugh’s influence on the movie, saying that Wilder and producer Charles Brackett “had wanted to do The Loved One, but couldn’t obtain the rights.”

And this isn’t just hindsight. After playing herself in Sunset Boulevard’s final scene, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper burbled on June 15, 1949:

It was mighty grim on the Sunset Boulevard set after Gloria Swanson shot and killed Bill Holden.… Billy Wilder… was crazy about Evelyn Waugh’s book The Loved One, and wanted the studio to buy it. Thought it would make another Lost Weekend. Waugh wrote it while he was here as a guest of Metro. The studio officials were trying to make up their minds if his book, “Brideshead Revisited” could be filmed.

The main characters in both The Loved One and Sunset Boulevard are young but washed-up screenwriters who live with older Hollywood has-beens from the silent-movie era in their fading houses with empty swimming pools.

The unmistakable giveaway is that Waugh’s Dennis Barlow works for a pet cemetery, while Wilder’s Joe Gillis is mistaken for the man from the pet cemetery when he first stumbles into Norma’s mansion.

Here’s a clip from the 1965 film rendition of The Loved One, with Robert Morse as Dennis the animal undertaker and Milton Berle and Margaret Leighton as his bereaved clients. And here’s the corresponding clip from Sunset Boulevard, where Norma (Swanson) informs Joe (Holden) of the expensive coffin she wants him to deliver for her dead chimpanzee. (Interestingly, the film adaptation of The Loved One gives the matron with the dead dog a pistol and a hysterical manner in apparent parody of Swanson.)

Why has awareness of Waugh’s influence on Wilder disappeared?

The Loved One is a minor Waugh novel, although not without some spectacularly funny pages. And the ambitious but uneven 1965 movie version is more a curiosity than a success. Most Waugh adaptations tend to be overly faithful to their hallowed sources, but The Loved One was directed by Tony Richardson at the nadir of Waugh’s reputation and, following his Best Picture Oscar for Tom Jones, the brief apex of Richardson’s. Thus, the intermittently funny film is stuffed with over-the-top material invented by Terry Southern of Dr. Strangelove notoriety.

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