Sunset Boulevard (lost alternate opening from noir film; 1950)

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This article has been tagged as Needing work due to its lack of references and a direct quote taking up a large part of the article.



Sunset Blvd Title.jpg

Opening titles to the film (a photo of Sunset Boulevard's actual stenciled name).

Status: Lost


Sunset Boulevard is a 1950 film noir directed by Billy Wilder, then and now hailed as one of the greatest films of all time.

A real-world melodrama about Hollywood mythmaking, the film co-stars William Holden as struggling writer Joe Gillis and former silent film actress Gloria Swanson as likewise faded screen goddess Norma Desmond, into whose comeback plans Gillis is fatally drawn. Her performance earned her a real-life comeback of sorts, including an Oscar nomination, one of eleven the film received. The film itself was among the first selected for preservation by the United States Library of Congress.

Alternate Opening

As it happened, however, the version of Sunset Boulevard that was shown to initial test audiences had an entirely different opening than the theatrical release. From the screenplay (courtesy of Aurora's Gin Joint film blog):

A dead man lies on a slab with an identification tag on his toe. It reads, Joe Gillis. For a moment the room is semi-dark then as the music takes on a more astral phase, a curious glow emanates from the sheeted corpses. The long row of tags sway from the breeze of the ventilator system. A man’s voice says, “don’t be scared, there’s a lot of us here, it’s alright." Gillis answers, “I’m not scared.” His head doesn’t move but his eyes slowly wander to the slab next to him. There, under a partially transparent sheet lies a fat man, aged sixty or so. His eyes are open too and they’re directed at Gillis. The fat man says, “how did you happen to die?” Gillis, “Me? I drowned.” On a slab against the opposite wall lies a blonde boy of about eleven. His swollen child’s face also peering through a transparent sheet. The boy says, “So did I. I drowned. Right off the pier at Ocean Park. It’s only bad when you try not to swallow. If you open your mouth and let it in it doesn’t hurt a bit. I wish my folks would come and get me.” The fat man asks Gillis, “Where did you drown, the ocean?” Gillis, “No. Swimming pool.” Fat Man, “A husky fellow like you?” Gillis, “Well, I had a few extra holes in me. Two in the chest, one in the stomach.”

While Wilder thought it was one of the best things he ever filmed, when it was shown to the first test audience, the reaction was laughter as soon as the corpses began to speak. Two more preview audiences reacted similarly.

Displeased, given the overall bleak, cynical tone he was trying to establish, Wilder decided to go back and re-shoot the scene from scratch. This required shelving the film for six months past its original release date and is reported to have cost Paramount Pictures $150,000, but no-one complained when they saw the revisions. The new opening has become iconic.

Availability

Along with the original ending to another Wilder film, Double Idemnity, people have sought after this scene, but to no avail. Fans were disappointed, when the DVD was issued, to find the 'bonus feature' of the original opening consisted only of snippets of the original script and the surviving outtake shots, none of which included Holden. The completed opening was only ever shown to those few test audiences, and little is known about what became of it. Given its reception, it is highly unlikely that it survived.