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Interview with Gloria Swanson

The first thing after the lights went out was this little pudding-faced girl on the screen, jammed into a subway crowd, trying to buy her ticket and get through the gates and onto the train.

That was Gloria Swanson 44 years ago. Not mysterious or glamorous in this picture, but a confused subway victim with her hat jammed down over her ears, struggling in a sea of giants and ignoring a bank clerk kind of guy who was winking at her and smiling a moist, obscene smile.

Then the train pulled into the station and she was hurled out onto the platform, despite her wishes, and deposited by the gate as the crowd disappeared. She dusted off her hat, regathered her dignity, turned and marched directly into a chain. And at the end there she was, doubled over the chain, helpless, struggling. Then the lights went on again and Gloria Swanson walked onto the stage of the Playboy Theater, dressed in white hat, a sedate but stylish blue dress, diamonds, and poise. She carried a white corsage in her hand and she looked - well, she looked great.

"We showed this one because it was about the only thing we could find that was complete in itself, not part of a longer film," Miss Swanson said. "That was me, 44 years ago. I was so happy for the opportunity to play comedy. I had been a siren in all these DeMille pictures, and then after I left DeMille nothing changed. The trains just got longer."

This evening was Gloria Swanson's "present" for the press, which has given her a warm homecoming welcome during her current appearance in "Reprise" at the Ivanhoe.

"I started out here in Chicago a long time ago, at the Essenay Studios," she said. "I'll never forget the morning I was lined up with a group of other nervous teenagers to be looked over by the great man, Charlie Chaplin. He came and examined us and he chose me, and I was hired.

"But an hour later, I was fired. I guess he didn't think I was very funny. "So I lost my chance to work with Chaplin, and that was a shame, because I could have learned so much about comedy . . ."

But somewhere along the way, Miss Swanson learned a great deal about comedy on her own. The scene in the subway was unmistakably Chaplinesque, the innocent victim pushed and buffeted by a taller, stronger, meaner world.

And Miss Swanson recalled another occasion when she imitated Chaplin, in the classic film "Sunset Boulevard."

"The Chaplin imitation in that one wasn't quite the same," she said, "because I was older and I didn't have the right face anymore, the round Chaplin face." But in the Chaplin episode and the rest of "Sunset Boulevard," and in many other films, Miss Swanson exhibited consummate acting skill.

"We learned as we went along," she said. "This was before method acting. I remember once I worked for two days in the basement of Macy's, learning something about shop clerks. A floorwalker carried on a little flirtation with me. That was how we did our research then.

"And we didn't have finished scripts, either. We'd improvise as we went along because we had to."

After her remarks and a final confession ("I just want to say that I could never swim, and never was a bathing girl") Miss Swanson presented the first Chicago showing of Harry Hurwitz's "The Eternal Tramp," a new film about Chaplin which she narrates.

"It's the young people who are keeping these old pictures alive," she said. "They see things in them that we, perhaps, didn't fully appreciate. Here is a film about Chaplin that will show you something about the things we did in those days."

Hurwitz's film covered the familiar moments in Chaplin's films: The tramp disappearing down the country road, the pawnbroker's examination of an alarm clock, the restaurant scenes.

There were also some seldom-seen Chaplin bits, including the scene in which a bully bends a gas lamp post to demonstrate his strength and Chaplin sticks the bully's head into the lamp and asphyxiates him. This was the scene that W. C. Fields commented on in 1945, muttering, "That damned ballet dancer."

After the showing, Miss Swanson stood in the lobby, greeting her guests.

Just being there, you somehow began to understand how it was that they used to call leading ladies "regal" and mean it as the literal truth.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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