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A Can of Beans
World premiere in New York: 10 Aug 1950
18 Apr--11 Jun 1949; addl scenes and retakes: 18 Apr, 18 Jun, 21 Jun-23 Jun, 7 Jul 1949 and 5 Jan 1950
Duration (in mins):
109-110 or 115
Duration (in feet):
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(Joe [C.] Gillis)
Erich von Stroheim
(Max Von Mayerling)
(1st finance man)
(2nd finance man)
Cecil B. DeMille
Anna Q. Nilsson
H. B. Warner
E. Mason Hopper
(Girl on telephone)
John Skins Miller
(Electrician, Hog Lye)
Robert Emmet O'Connor
(Captain of police)
(Captain of homicide)
Arthur A. Lane
Archie R. Dalzell
Sanford E. Greenwald
(Police lieutenant/Body in pool)
Early one morning, police arrive at a large house on Sunset Blvd. in Beverly Hills, where a man's body floats face down in the pool: Six months earlier, while down on his luck, screenwriter Joe C. Gillis is living at the Alto Nido apartments in Hollywood, California. Joe is served with a court order commanding him to relinquish his car or pay $290 in back payments by noon the next day. Hoping to make a quick deal, Joe meets with Paramount studio producer Sheldrake to peddle a baseball/gambling picture he has written, but is turned down. While in Sheldrake's office, Joe encounters studio reader Betty Schaefer, who pans the script as formulaic. Sheldrake then refuses him a personal loan, as does his agent. Despairing, Joe makes plans to return to Dayton, Ohio, where he worked as a newspaper copy writer. While driving down Sunset Blvd., he spots the two men who are trying to repossess his car and successfully eludes them, but then has a blowout. He coasts into the driveway of a dilapidated 1920s mansion and hides the car in an empty garage. Joe then enters the house, where stoic butler Max von Mayerling orders him upstairs to consult with "madame" immediately. Joe soon discovers that he has been mistaken for a mortician, who is due to arrive with a baby coffin for "madame's" dead pet chimpanzee. Joe recognizes the faded woman as Norma Desmond, once a famous silent movie star. When she rails against modern talking pictures, Joe tells her that he is a screenwriter. Excitedly, she announces that she is planning a return to the screen in a story she is writing about the Biblical figure Salomé. When Norma discovers Joe is a Sagittarius, she is convinced of their compatibility and hires him to edit her lengthy screenplay for $500 per week and puts him up in a room over her garage. The next day, Joe awakens to find that all his belongings have been moved from his apartment, and that Norma has settled his debts. Although he is angry at Norma for her presumption, he acquiesces because he so desperately needs a job. Joe soon learns that Norma's fragile but enormous ego is supported by the scores of fan letters she still receives, and two or three times a week, Max projects her silent pictures on her living-room movie screen. As Norma and what Joe calls "the waxworks," Hollywood old-timers Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H. B. Warner, are playing bridge one night, two men arrive and tow away Joe's car. To appease the distraught Joe, Norma arranges for Max to refurbish her old Isotta-Fraschini, an extravagant Italian sports car. The once reclusive Norma becomes increasingly controlling. After a rain storm soaks Joe's room, she has him moved into the bedroom adjacent to hers, where her three former husbands slept. When Joe notices that none of the bedroom doors have locks, Max explains that Norma's bouts of melancholy are often followed by suicide attempts. Joe then realizes that Max has been writing Norma's fan letters so that she will not feel completely forgotten. On New Year's Eve, Norma stages a lavish party for herself and Joe, but he flies into a rage because he feels smothered. Feeling rejected, she slaps him, and he leaves the house. At a lively party at the home of his friend, assistant director Artie Green, Joe again meets Betty, who is engaged to Artie, and is excited about one of Joe's stories. Joe asks to stay for a few weeks, and Artie agrees to put him up. When he calls Max to have his things sent over, however, Max tells him that Norma slit her wrists with his razor blade. Joe returns to the house at midnight and finds Norma weeping at her own stupidity for falling in love with him. She pulls him to her and they kiss. After Norma recovers, she has the pool filled, and announces that she has sent her script to Paramount's director of epics Cecil B. DeMille, with whom she made twelve pictures. One night, Joe sees Artie with Betty at Schwab's Pharmacy. Although Betty tells him she has nearly sold one of his stories, Joe says he has given up writing, and leaves. Norma later gets a call from Paramount, but refuses to take the call because DeMille has not called her himself. Finally, Norma visits the studio unannounced. While Norma receives the long-awaited attention she craves on DeMille's set, Max learns that the earlier call was an inquiry about her car, which the studio wants to use for a film. While on the lot, Joe sees Betty, who is busy revising his story, and agrees to collaborate with her on the script in her off-hours. Norma misinterprets DeMille's pitying kindness for a deal, and a staff of beauty experts descends on her house to ready her for the cameras. Betty and Joe, meanwhile, meet repeatedly in the late evenings, and he begins to care for her, but keeps his other life with Norma a secret. One night, Max reveals to Joe that he was once an influential Hollywood director who discovered Norma when she was sixteen and made her a star. After he became Norma's first husband, she left him, but when Hollywood abandoned her, he gave up his prosperous career to return to serve her as a butler. Eventually, Norma, suspicious that Joe is involved with another woman, finds his and Betty's script and goes into a deep depression. Meanwhile, Betty receives a telegram from Artie, who is filming in Arizona, asking her to marry him immediately. She confesses her love to Joe, and he admits he wants her, too. When he arrives home that evening, however, he catches Norma calling Betty to expose him as a kept man and giving her the Sunset Blvd. address. When Betty arrives, Joe bitterly explains that he is Norma's companion. Betty urges him to leave with her immediately, but he tells her he is bound to "a long term contract with no options" and allows her to leave. He then packs, with the intention of moving back to Ohio, and returns all of Norma's gifts. Joe then tells her that there will be no film of
, that the studio only wants to rent her car, and that her fans have abandoned her. Shouting that "no one ever leaves a star," Norma shoots Joe twice in the back and once in the stomach, sending him to his death in the pool. A throng of reporters and policemen surround the house, but the police are unable to get Norma out of her bedroom, until Max directs the Paramount newsreel crew to set up their equipment at the bottom of the stairs, and tells Norma that the cameras have arrived. In a state of delusional shock, Norma descends the stairs as "Salomé" while Max tells the cameramen to start rolling. At the bottom of the stairs, Norma announces, "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille."
Paramount Pictures Corp.
Paramount Pictures Corp.
C. C. Coleman Jr.
(2d asst dir)
D. M. Marshman Jr.
John F. Seitz
(Dir of photog)
Glen E. Richardson
(Spec photog eff)
"The Paramount-Don't-Want-Me Blues," music and lyrics by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans.
Passed By NBR:
Paramount Pictures Corp.
Western Electric Recording
Beverly Hills (CA)--Sunset Boulevard
Motion picture actors and actresses
Motion picture screenwriters
Motion picture directors
Motion picture studios
New Year's Eve
The film's working title was
A Can of Beans
. Although most contemporary and modern sources refer to the film as
, the opening title card is a street sign that reads
The opening scene of the film is accompanied by offscreen narration spoken by William Holden as his character, "Joe C. Gillis." "Gillis" informs the viewer that the crime scene is situated on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles, CA, where the murder of a lowly screenwriter has occurred at the home of a major screen star. Although Gillis is the murder victim, he refers to himself in the third person. He then switches to the first person as the film flashes back to six months earlier.
Information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library reveals that as of May 1949, the final sequence of the script had not been submitted to the PCA for approval. In a letter to Paramount, PCA director Joseph I. Breen noted that "[t]he most recent of th[e] material seems to indicate the introduction of a sex affair between Gillis and Norma which was not present in the earlier material....[I]t seems to us at this point that there is no indication of a voice for morality by which the sex affair would be condemned nor does there appear to be compensating moral values for the sin." By Jul 1949, however, the PCA determined that the completed script met the requirements of the Production Code.
The film originally opened with a scene in the Los Angeles morgue, where "Joe Gillis'" body has been placed, and closed with another morgue scene. In the original opening, "Gillis" talks with his fellow corpses, before narrating his own story. According to news items, the scene, which modern sources report was written solely by Billy Wilder because Charles Brackett found it too morbid, was included in preview screenings. However, when Jan 1950 preview audiences laughed during the opening, the film's release was delayed by six months and the morgue scene was cut. Co-writers Wilder and Brackett dissolved their thirteen-year partnership after this film.
According to news items, Montgomery Clift was originally cast as Gillis, and Mae West was initially considered for the role of "Norma Desmond." In a modern interview with Billy Wilder in
The New Yorker
, Wilder noted that the role of Gillis was written for Clift, who withdrew from the film just prior to production. According to modern sources, Fred MacMurray was considered for Gillis, but found the role unappealing. Marlon Brando and Gene Kelly were also considered, according to modern sources. After West declined the role of Norma Desmond, modern sources add, silent stars Pola Negri and Mary Pickford were sought. Swanson was fifty-one when she shot this film; although her film career began in 1915, she became famous in the 1920s, working frequently with director Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount. Swanson left the studio in 1928 to produce her own films, but lost a substantial sum of money on
, an extravagant production directed by Erich von Stroheim, who was fired by Swanson in mid-production because of his excesses. A portion of that film, which was not released in the United States, is seen in
Over one hundred early photographs of Swanson at the height of her career are also seen in the film.
Although Swanson made a successful transition to sound films, she retired in 1934, and appeared in only one film before starring as Norma Desmond. Von Stroheim, originally an actor, became a renowned director, his most famous film being the 1925 M-G-M film
, based on the Frank Norris novel
. This is the first film in which von Stroheim and Swanson worked together since
. Like von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille was a director famous for extravagant, epic-proportion films, and appears in
on the set of
Samson and Delilah
(see entry), which was in production just prior to this film. In addition to Swanson, DeMille and von Stroheim, Wilder also cast Buster Keaton and many lesser known silent stars, such as H. B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, Gertrude Astor, Eva Novak and Franklyn Farnum in bit roles.
Doane Harrison, the supervising editor for this film, was listed as "co-director" in the Paramount Collection at the AMPAS Library. Billy Wilder stated in a modern interview that while this credit should not be interpreted as equal to the director, he considered Harrison a highly-esteemed collaborator. Harrison was present on the set during shooting to add his input on the concept of the scenes, and to recommend certain shots. Wilder noted that Harrison contributed in this manner to all his films, and that, in addition to lending an "elegant" visual style to the films, he aided in keeping to a short production schedule.
item notes that portions of the song "Diane," music and lyrics by Erno Rapee and Lew Pollack, are heard in Frank Waxman's score for
. According to an
article, the exteriors of the Desmond mansion were shot at a twenty-five-room mansion on Wilshire Blvd. at the mouth of Crenshaw Blvd., originally built for wealthy businessman William O. Jenkins, and purchased in 1936 by J. Paul Getty. Paramount added the swimming pool for the film. The extravagant mansion, which was commonly known as the "Phantom House" because it remained empty for many years, was destroyed in 1957. Paramount Production Files also note the following information about the locations: The driveway of the "Desmond" home was shot at the then-Janss estate on Sunset Blvd. A replica of the interior of the famous Hollywood haunt, Schwab's Drug Store, was constructed for this film. Other location shots include the entrance gate to Paramount Studios, the exteriors of the Alto Nido apartment building on Ivar St. above Franklin Ave. in Hollywood, the Los Angeles County Morgue, and Schwab's Drug Store, Griffith Park, the Bel Air golf course and various portions of Sunset Blvd., Stone Canyon Road and Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. A
item reported that an "exact replica of Los Angeles County Morgue was built" for the morgue interior scene.
Most reviewers praised
, declaring it a "stand-out" and "brilliant" (although the
review declaimed it as a "pretentious slice of Roquefort"). The film was named "Best Picture of the Year" by the National Board of Review. The Hollywood Foreign Correspondents Association awarded
a "Golden Globe" for best picture, as well as one to Billy Wilder for best direction, and an award to Gloria Swanson for her performance. The film won Academy Awards for Best Writing (original story and screenplay), Best Art Direction (black & white) and Best Music (scoring dramatic or comedy picture), and received the following Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (von Stroheim), Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Nancy Olson), Best Cinematography (black & white), Best Directing and Best Film Editing.
In Jul 1993, in London, Andrew Lloyd Webber opened his musical adaptation of this film, also titled
The film continues to have an avid following among modern audiences, and lines such as "I
big, it's the pictures that got small" are remembered as part of celebrated Hollywood legend. According to modern sources,
was the last major American feature film to be photographed on nitrate stock. The picture was ranked 16th on AFI's 2007 100 Years…100 Movies--10th Anniversary Edition list of the greatest American films, moving down from the 12th position it held on AFI's 1997 list.
p. 308, 318.
22 Aug 1950.
3 Feb 1949.
17 Apr 50
17 Apr 50
15 Jun 49
17 Apr 50
Los Angeles Times
24 Feb 1957.
Motion Picture Herald
5 Aug 1950.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
22 Apr 50
21 Jun 93
New York Times
2 Jul 1950.
New York Times
11 Aug 50
19 Apr 50
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AFI Catalog of Feature Films
and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
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