#ClassicFilmReading: Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star by Stephen Michael Shearer

I did it!

I definitely worded it poorly in my Lillian Gish review, but I had two more books to finish before this summer's Classic Film Reading Challenge ended and I disliked Gish's book that much that I almost abandoned the challenge entirely. 

I rallied, and I'm glad I did because I loved Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star by Stephen Michael Shearer. And I finished the Classic Film Reading Challenge! 
My big thing this summer was silent film stars, and I'm glad I ended on Gloria Swanson. I would love to read Swanson on Swanson, her 1980 autobiography, but Shearer's book told a more complete story of Swanson's life and the times she lived in.

And Shearer reveals that Swanson largely made up a lot of her story, built her own myth, and took credit for just about everything that happened in her life. Even for 'designing' the Chanel clothing she wore. 

Shearer traces Swanson's life and places her career in context of the silent era; how she really became one of the earliest moguls in the industry. Reading this, there were a few times I thought to myself: if you were a man, you'd be one of the most praised men in Hollywood history. 

Even if she made poor choices, she owned them. If I had a dollar for every time she was sued or legally threatened, or bankrupt, I'd have a good wad of cash in my wallet right now; and despite the setbacks, she kept working, kept climbing, and powered through until she was one of the most memorable stars of the silent era. 

And after her career seemed to fizzle out, she still stayed active, whether it was on screen roles or off screen antics that kept her name in the press. What I loved learning about Gloria Swanson is that she knew she was larger than life and lived every single day that way.

There's a considerable chunk of this book devoted to Sunset Boulevard and how it revitalized Gloria's career. At times she seems to have leaned into the myth of her being just like Norma Desmond and other times she balked at the comparison. For whatever it's worth, it made her the ultimate legend. One of my favourite parts is when she skewers a TV Guide reporter in the early '60s who asked her if she was anything like Norma. 

"Yes, dear, of course it was biographical. I live in the past. I really never got past 1935. And there's a man floating facedown in the bathtub upstairs. Would you like to see him?" 

I'd definitely recommend this book if you're looking to deepen your knowledge of the silent era and one of its most famous stars; it does a better job at painting a complete portrait of the time than any other book I read this summer. 

No dishy Hollywood gossip because this review would be 100,000 words alone just on her sass and wit, but in keeping with 'silent era stars mingling with Grace Kelly' that I started in the Lillian Gish review, here's Gloria's connection to her: she was invited to Grace's wedding to Prince Rainier. My kingdom to whoever explains the reasoning to me in the comments!

And that's a wrap on this summer's Classic Film Reading Challenge! As always, Raquel, it's a treat to take part in this every year. Already planning my read pile for next summer!


  1. Congrats on finishing the challenge! I always love reading your reviews.


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