Andrea Kalas and her crew have been doing some repair work on “Sunset Boulevard.”
The classic Billy Wilder film, that is, not the actual Los Angeles street.
This vintage cinematic masterwork about the dark side of the movie business has been given a digital overhaul that restores the moody, black-and-white noir beauty that held audiences in its thrall when it first opened on the big screen Aug. 10, 1950.
It's now available in a pristine Blu-ray edition from Paramount Home Video.
“I think a lot of people really are connected with Hollywood and the history of Hollywood, and this is such a great movie that tells that story so well, because it was made at the time it was, and it has so many people who made that history actually in the film, that I think helps people connect with it,” said Kalas, who is vice president of archives at Paramount Pictures.
The film stars William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim and Nancy Olson, with a script by director Wilder (“The Lost Weekend,” “Some Like It Hot”), producer Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.
It tells the story of Joe Gillis (Holden), a struggling screenwriter who's trying to elude a couple of repo men who are after his car for overdue payments. To shake his pursuers, he pulls into the garage of what appears to be a vacant old mansion, only to discover that it's inhabited by forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond (Swanson, actual former silent film star) and her stone-faced butler Max, a forgotten silent film director who's also Norma's ex-husband (Stroheim, actual great German director).
Gillis quickly learns that Norma is obsessed with a triumphant return to the screen that she's certain is destined to happen, and she's even written a massively epic and exceptionally bad screenplay that she wants Gillis to doctor for her. Gillis plays along in order to keep himself financially afloat, but soon finds himself in a psychological trap, a young man kept by a middle-age, seriously disturbed, suicidal woman.
And to complicate matters, he falls in love with a young studio script reader named Betty (Olson) who could be his emotional and artistic salvation, but is it too late for him to be saved?
Stars play themselves
A whole roster of real old-time stars play themselves, and Norma's friends, including Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, Franklyn Farnum — even Cecil B. DeMille and Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper — also play themselves.
It's pretty interesting, even telling, that the people who helped pioneer the Hollywood film industry, only to be all but forgotten by 1950, were willing to lend their real names and selves to the making of this disturbing Tinseltown tale. And Swanson herself submitted to unflattering makeup and harsh lighting that emphasized her advancing age.
“Wilder and Charles Brackett did actually part company over that very fact,” Kalas said. “Wilder really did want to emphasize the lengths that she goes to, to try to prepare for the role that she thinks she's going to get. And Brackett thought that was a little too garish. But Wilder thought it was really telling the story well. I sort of leave it to the ages to decide which way is better, but it is a fascinating way ... how youth and beauty are encapsulated in her struggle to keep her stardom alive.”
Making it like new
Kalas' main concern was making the film look young again.
“We unfortunately did not have the original negative of the film,” she said. “We had a duplicate negative to start with, so we unfortunately had to start with sort of a compromise in image quality. So we approached it by scanning it at the highest possible resolution of 4K, and then we had a print from the original release that had been stored at the Library of Congress that we could use as a reference. And that was really an important reference for us because it really told us what the original look of the film was, the very important sort of darks and shadows that the cinematographer, John Seitz, had created.
“And so we used that as a reference to use digital tools to clean up scratches and dirt and return the look of the film to the restoration that you see now. There were no major, major points of damage. There were a few frames missing here or there, so we had another element which is called the fine grain that we would use to replace certain frames, and I'm not talking about major pieces missing. I'm talking about a couple of frames in different scenes. So we would carefully use the print and compare the two different elements that we had, and make sure that we had every single frame intact.”
In addition to the restored stark shadows and dark interiors, and digitally rejuvenated soundtrack, the disc also contains two hours of in-depth bonus material on the film's origin and its path to becoming a classic; featurettes on Swanson and Holden; and a previously unreleased deleted party scene of revelers singing “The Paramount-Don't-Want-Me Blues,” which was obtained from the Academy Film Archive. The clip features Academy Award-winning songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans singing with the crowd.
“It's fun, isn't it?” Kalas said. “It's such a terrific song. You can really laugh along with it. I don't know. I think ... there may have been some concern that it was a little too Hollywood insider. But I think it appeals broadly. I think a lot of people will enjoy it, and I'm glad that it's now out there for people to enjoy.”