San Diego Classic Film Calendar

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Big Stars Small Screen – Sunset Boulevard

This is the first post in a series looking at stars that you know on the big screen (motion pictures) appearing on the small screen (television). Often movie stars from the Golden Age found long fruitful careers on the small screen, whereas megastars from the post-studio era often cut their teeth on TV before moving to the big screen. Each post, we'll look at one film, and then find TV shows where the people associated with that film appeared. 

We'll try to keep it to appearances where you can stream single episodes. It's probably not worth buying dvds of a whole season of My Three Sons, just to see Gloria Swanson in one episode. As a result, don't be surprised if you see series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone show up all over the place. Also, I've often joked that Murder, She Wrote was where great movie stars went to die, sorry. But if there was a classic film star still working in the 1980s and 1990s, it's quite likely that they did a guest spot on Murder, She Wrote. Big Stars Small Screens would not be possible without the help of the number 1 online film and TV resource, IMDB.


Yes, I know, that's not the shot
where she said it.
Since the title of this series is based on a quote from Sunset Boulevard, I thought it only fitting to start with that film. Unfortunately, none of the top three billed stars did a lot of TV. As an actor, William Holden only made a couple of TV movies, but I did find a show you might have forgot about where he appears as himself. Gloria Swanson appeared on a number TV shows, but very little is available streaming. However, I did find a couple things on YouTube (more is out there if you poke around). There's nothing for Erich von Stroheim except for a couple episodes of a 1950s TV series, Orient Express, not available as near as I can tell. Fortunately, as you go further down the cast list, you get a more small screen appearances. 

[Note that streaming info was true, I hope, at the time I wrote this. Your mileage may vary.]

William Holden

William Holden never did much television. However, one of TV's greatest stars worked for years in the 1930s and 1940s as a Hollywood contract player with making much of an impact, only to take the small screen by storm with a comedy series named after her in the 1950s. Of course, we are talking about Lucille Ball and I Love Lucy. In seasons 4 and 5, Lucy's husband Ricky (Desi Arnaz) decides to take a crack at Hollywood, bringing Lucy and neighbors the Mertzes (William Frawley and Vivian Vance) with them. 

I Love LucyEpisode 114
Season 4, Episode 17, titled "L.A., At Last"
Available on Hulu and CBS with subscription, and individual episodes available on YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Video, and Google Play

In the episode where the Ricardos and Mertzes first arrive in Tinseltown, Ricky is called to the studio leaving Lucy, Fred, and Ethel to fend for themselves. The trio decide to go to The Brown Derby restaurant in hope of spotting movie stars. When William Holden is seated in the next booth, hilarity ensues. I won't go into more detail for those who may not have seen it. Even if you have, it is well worth going back to.




Gloria Swanson

Gloria Swanson appeared on a number of TV shows in the 1960s, but nothing I could find streaming. In the early to mid-1950s, Gloria Swanson sought to create a musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard, under the name Starring Norma Desmond and later simply Boulevard. Initially, Swanson had received verbal approval to proceed with the project from Paramount but later that approval was rescinded. The following video shows Gloria Swanson singing "Those Wonderful People (Out There In The Dark)" on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show from that ill-fated musical.



If you poke around, there are a number of talk show appearances of Gloria Swanson, but this interview with Barbara Walters from 1981, I find the most interesting. In this interview, she discusses her career and personal life including her relationship with Joseph P. Kennedy, father of John F., Robert, and Ted Kennedy.



Nancy Olson

Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Season 4, Episode 17, titled, "Total Loss"
Available on Hulu with subscription

Nancy Olson plays the script-reader and William Holden's writing partner/love interest in Sunset Boulevard. She did quite a bit of TV work into the early 1980s and even appeared in an episode of the HBO series Big Love in 2010. In this episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Olson plays an overextended dress shop owner who looks to Ralph Meeker to help her out of her financial predicament with let's say less than perfect results.



Fred Clark 

The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 4, Episode 30*, titled "One Hundred Terrible Hours"
Available on Netflix and Hula with subscription, and individual episodes available on iTunes and Amazon Video
*Multiple online sources give the episode as 30, when I watched on Netflix, it was given as Season 4, episode 27.

In Sunset Boulevard, Fred Clark played Mr. Sheldrake, the producer from whom William Holden tries to get a job. He appeared on numerous TV shows in the 1950s and 1960s and had a recurring role on The Beverly Hillbillies as Dr. Roy Clyburn, the real doctor who is always trying to prevent Granny from doctorin'. He also was on Bonanza, I Dream of Jeanie, The Addams Family, and others. This episode of The Dick Van Dyke is a flashback episode where Rob tells a story of being a radio DJ and staying awake for 100 hours as publicity stunt. Fred Clark plays Rob's boss at the radio station.




Jack Webb

Dragnet 1967 (second series)
Season 1, Episode 1, titled "The LSD Story"
Seasons 1-4 available on Hula with subscription, and individual episodes available on YouTube, Amazon Video, and Google Play

Though Jack Webb has a small role in Sunset Boulevard, he is best known as Joe Friday on two separate TV series Dragnet 1951-1959 and Dragnet 1967 1967-1970 (they incremented the year in the series title as the show progressed). Jack Webb starred in all episodes of both TV series. I watched "The LSD Story" where Detectives Friday and Gannon tackle a new drug on the scene, LSD, which at the start of the episode was still legal. They are after user turned pusher, Blue Boy. At one point in the episode, they find themselves on the Sunset Strip, Sunset Boulevard, Daaaa da da daa.




Buster Keaton 

The Twilight Zone
Season 3, Episode 13, titled "Once Upon a Time"

Available on Netflix and CBS with subscription, and individual episodes available on iTunes, Amazon Video, and Vudu

Buster Keaton has a cameo in Sunset Boulevard as part of Norma Desmond's waxworks. He had numerous appearances on TV in the 1950s and 1960s. My favorite and the easiest to find is the "Once Upon a Time" episode of The Twilight Zone. Buster Keaton plays a janitor in 1890, working for a pair of scientists who have invented a time travel helmet, and he is transported forward in time to 1962. The beauty of the episode is that the portions set in 1890 are done as a silent film complete with dialog cards while the 1962 part is a talkie. Though the episode was written by Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Omega Man), I imagine that at least some of the visual gags were improvised on set by Keaton. Either that or Matheson really understood Keaton's comedy. Whatever the case, the results are awesome.




Bonus  – Carol Burnett as Norma Desmond at a Restaurant

In the 1970s, Carol Burnett and Friends did skits featuring Norma Desmond and her manservant Max. I remember seeing them as a kid, but didn't associate it with Sunset Boulevard, which I hadn't seen at that point. I only made the association in the last couple of years when someone mentioned it while live-tweeting Sunset Boulevard on #TCMParty. Though over-the-top, these sketches are still quite funny. In the following video, the Norma Desmond skit starts at about 0:56.

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