By Craig Leask
Sunset Boulevard (1950), directed by Billy Wilder, is primarily set within the derelict mansion of aging and forgotten silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). After years out of the public eye, Norma has unrealistic ambitions of making a celebrated comeback to the screen. Her fragile mental state and unrealistic aspirations are aptly paralleled in the crumbling walls of her isolated estate.
As Joe Gillis (William Holden) states when first coming across Norma Desmond’s house in the movie:
“It was a great big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy 20s. A neglected house gets an unhappy look. This one had it in spades…Come to think of it, the whole place seemed to have been stricken with the kind of creeping paralysis… out of beat with the rest of the world… crumbling apart in slow motion.’
The house used in Sunset Boulevard (1950) was an actual house with an interesting history which includes several unintentional ties to the movie industry. The house had only three owners in the short 32 years between construction in 1925 and demolition in 1957: the man who originally constructed the house; the man who bought the house, but never resided there; and its final resident, the fictitious recluse, Norma Desmond, whom inadvertently made the house infamous. Each character associated with ownership of the house was also larger than life.
The mansion in the movie is located at 10086 Sunset Boulevard which would place the house west of Beverly Hills, toward Bel Air. In reality, the house wasn’t on Sunset Boulevard at all – its actual address was 641 S. Irving Blvd, occupying the full north side of Wilshire Boulevard, between Irving and Lorraine Boulevards in midtown Los Angeles, nowhere near the famed address.
The original builder of the house was a man by the name of William Oscar Jenkins, who constructed the house in 1922. Reputed by the Los Angeles Times to have cost of $250,000 to build, the house was the largest constructed in Los Angeles at that time. The gargantuan 14 bedroom home with separate garage and servant’s quarters was completed in late 1925 and occupied by Jenkins, his wife and five daughters for one year before business interests brought the family back to Puebla, Mexico, where they had been expatriates since 1901.
Over the next 10 years, the house was used sparingly by the Jenkins, occupied for the most part by husband and wife caretakers before being left derelict and uncared for by 1936.
Initially making his money in Cotton Manufacturing, sugar plantations and land purchases throughout Mexico, Jenkins eventually branched out to movie theatres. This included film production and exhibition throughout a network of more than 80 Mexican theatres he had assembled by 1946. During this time his daughter Mary tried her hand at acting under the name Susan Christie, with little success. These are the first ties of the house to the movie industry.
Paul Getty recognizing profits that could be made by the encroaching commercial developments eastward from downtown along Wilshire, began purchasing lots along the Boulevard and, in the process, acquired the now abandoned Jenkins house in 1936. With no plans to live in the house, it continued to deteriorate. Continuing the ties of the home’s ownership to movies, Getty’s fourth wife Ann Rork had been a silent film actress starring in: The Notorious Lady (1927), The Blonde Saint (1926) and A Texas Steer (1927). His fifth wife, Louise Dudley Lynch, acted under the name Theodora. Theodora Lynch played an opera singer in The Lost Weekend (1945), and had credits in Forgotten Women (1949) before finally playing the part of “elderly lady” in Beyond the City Limits (2001). She died in 2017.
Although the theatrical associations and lifestyles of the inhabitants of the house at 641 S. Irving Blvd. seemed dramatic, they faded in comparison to the life of the next “occupant” in the mansion’s history, Norma Desmond, who cemented the homes notoriety for all eternity.
The house was chosen for the movie as the perfect stage for a faded star, the deterioration of the once beautiful home mirroring the actresses own decline. Not only was it empty and available for the shoot, very little work needed to be done to “dress” the setting, as the house was already crumbling and overgrown at the time of filming. One major plot item that needed to be added was a swimming pool. Although the house was originally festooned with elaborate terraces, gardens and a tennis court, for some unknown reason, no pool had ever been installed. For the movie, one was installed, without any recirculation or filtration systems. Following production, the pool was boarded over until 1955 when it re-emerged briefly (without water) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Although the interiors of the house mirrored the homes’ exterior musty, faded opulence, Billy Wilder felt the size of the rooms limited his ability to accommodate the proper lighting, angles and camera movements he wanted. As a result, Hans Dreier was brought in and tasked with creating exact duplicates of the homes interior rooms, including the famous staircase, on a Paramount sound stage. This effort won him his third Oscar (he also won for Frenchmen’s Creek (1944) and Samson and Delilah (1949). The interior sets were intricately detailed right down to the duplication of the original custom floor tiles in the living room:
“You know, this floor used to be wood. But, I had it changed. Valentino said there’s nothing like tile for a tango.” Norma Desmond.
Immediately upon completion of the filming of Sunset Boulevard (1950), the interior sets were repurposed for Fancy Pants (1950) with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. Dreier was brought back to alter the sets once more, for A Place in the Sun (1951) starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters.
As mentioned above, the exterior and the empty pool were used in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The scene at the house appears towards the end of the movie as James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood’s characters hide out in an “abandoned mansion” acting out being an imaginary, idealistic family, prior to being discovered. The scenes at the house were required to be filmed quickly as J. Paul Getty allowed the producers only 4 days to complete their shoot on the property.
The building came to a sad end when The Department of Building and Safety issued a permit on December 11, 1956 to Getty for the demolition of 641 S. Irving Blvd. The once grand and infamous house was replaced with the six-story, block long headquarters of Getty Oil called The Tidewater Oil Building, (later renamed The Harbor Building), which opened on December 1, 1958 and remains to this day.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.