There’s Nothing Like Tile for the Tango

It’s a compulsion.

When I get within sniffing distance of Sunset Boulevard, this strange thing happens; I’m overcome with a kind of cinematic Tourette’s Syndrome. The connection to the movie may not be logical to anyone else in the vicinity, but that doesn’t stop me from bursting out, sometimes in the middle of a sane conversation, to share some chance thought or anecdote about the making of the movie I can’t ever seem to get enough of.

All this talk about New Years Eve plans tonight and it happened again. Last night, I was out with Goldblatt and Fleischer at some party by the Pacific Design Center, and though I made it seem like I was interested in the conversations at hand, what I really wanted to talk about was my favorite New Years Eve scene in the movies. I braced myself for a good while nodding and yessing and being good – and then came the point when I actually couldn’t contain it any longer. I burst open with the force of ten minutes worth of repressed Billy Wilder stories, regained consciousness ten minutes later to a circle of slackjawed faces, and promptly changed the subject to Invictus.

Well, now it’s blogtime.

One of the joys of re-watching Sunset Boulevard is hunting for the little real-life pieces of Hollywood history Wilder and co-writers Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman Jr., scattered like breadcrumbs throughout the picture, leading the viewer back home to the silents. Sometimes the references are overt (Gloria Swanson, a silent legend, plays Norma Desmond, a silent legend), but the really juicy – and I daresay touching ones – are more coded.

The pivotal New Years Eve scene, in which Joe Gillis (William Holden) discovers that Norma really actually does love him, contains its fair share of breadcrumbs, but my favorite is the one about Valentino.

“You know,” Norma says to Joe, “this floor used to be wood, but I had it changed. Valentino said there’s nothing like tile for the tango.” How clever, Billy. In real life, Swanson and Valentino made a film together, Beyond the Rocks in 1922, and in it they danced a tango.

But it gets cleverer. To shoot the tango, cinematographer John Seitz used a device called a Dance Dolly, which amounted to a sort of moveable platform on wheels. Nothing special there. But when you learn that Seitz first introduced the technique to shoot Valentino dancing the tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, you might be more than a little impressed.

Okay, one more thing. It doesn’t have to do with Hollywood per se, but this scene always makes me think of young Billy Wilder’s Weimar days, when he made his living quite literally haunting nightclubs as a dance gigolo, charging old ladies ten cents a turn. But did Billy, like Joe Gillis, ever provide them with more than just terpsichore? Wilder says no, but who can be sure? “I was not the best dancer,” he said, “but I had the best dialogue with the ladies I was dancing with.”

Happy 1951.


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