There are so many twists and turns in Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary Boulevard! A Hollywood Story that you would easily be forgiven for thinking simply could not have happened. A must-watch for anyone who is a fan of old Hollywood.
When Gloria Swanson, the iconic star of Sunset Boulevard, saw an opportunity to parlay her silent film glory into a new phase of her career, she began to envision a musical stage adaptation of her most famous film. Enter Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, two struggling songwriters (and romantic couple) looking for their big break. Instead, the men find themselves whisked away by Swanson to a sumptuous house in Palm Springs, where the trio set to creating the musical from the ground up. But, as the days wear on, a triangle begins to take hold that goes beyond a mere creative partnership.
What happens when life almost imitates art so perfectly that it becomes difficult to differentiate the two? This is the conundrum that Schwarz unfurls before us in his latest film, yet he is not content on just focusing his story there (although with the archive material found, you would forgive him if he did). No, while simultaneously telling us the journey that our three subjects take, Boulevard! A Hollywood Story also broaches the topics of obsession, the efforts to hide one’s sexuality and the stance that Hollywood took (and in truth still does) with ageing actresses.
Running all these topics side by side allows the audience to witness something quite remarkable in Hollywood history. For the first portion of the film, we see how the trios’ lives merged and the development of their Broadway musical. Swanson’s recordings of the songs written are wonderful and unique as she was.
The treasure of having so much archive footage and audio still available is what allows Boulevard! A Hollywood Story to elevate itself. It isn’t just a series of talking heads discussing what happened; we get to see and hear it for ourselves. Also, the decision not solely to focus on Swanson is equally eye-opening. Not only do we see how Hollywood treated her throughout her career, but we see the fear in Stapley of being found out to be gay. While seemingly an open secret amongst those who knew him, he knew that at that time, if he revealed his sexuality to the media or public, then his stock and work would dry up sharpish.
For the most part, this diversion works. Still, with a film with such a short runtime, it perhaps would have been better to curtail some of his moments (for the specific reason of him having his own piece as his story is fascinating) so that we could focus on the story that was built about the musical’s development and sudden and unexpected revival. But unfortunately, by splitting the story to talk about those two central themes, it feels as if we lose a little more of either story, never fully satisfying our want for more information and analysis.
With an abundance of material at hand, Boulevard! A Hollywood Story could easily have gone on longer as you do become increasingly engrossed as each stone gets turned over. Full of tragedy for all of those involved in various ways, from relationships to aspirations for their careers, we see what could have been. It is an excellent document of a time hopefully ending in the industry. Actresses do not just get tossed aside due to their age, and burgeoning talents do not have to hide their sexuality to keep a career.
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