Sunset Boulevard (1950): Caron Narcisse Noir Mystery (Almost) Solved!


There’s a urban legend according to which Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) mentioned Caron Narcisse Noir in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, thus scoring the first major product placement in cinema. You find this piece of news everywhere on Internet, basically in every single review of the perfume. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you but this is what I said, nothing more than a urban legend.

Yesterday evening I took the time to watch the film for the nth time and there is no mention [1] to the Caron perfume. The only moment in which Joe Gillis (William Holden) comments on Norma’s perfume is from the movie-watching scene. “She’d sit very close to me, and she’s smell of tuberoses, which is not my favourite perfume, not by a long shot.” According to Fragrantica, tuberose can’t even be found in the olfactory pyramid of Narcisse Noir! Maybe the legend started from the fact that Swanson was said to have used this perfume on set, but there’s a big difference between saying she used it on set and saying it was mentioned in the film. I can’t rule out the possibility that a bottle of it was on the busy dressing table of the diva, but I couldn’t find it. Show me a screencap and we’ll discuss about it.

[Post updated in July 2020] Six years have passed since I first posted about this mystery and now I can finally say it’s been almost solved. Thanks to the invaluable information provided by M, a reader of this blog, we can trace back the false rumour of Gloria Swanson mentioning Caron Narcisse Noir in Sunset Boulevard to a fact.

M found a 1927 issue of the magazine Photoplay where What the Pictures Do to Us by Terry Ramsaye points out a shopping mania sparked by Sam Wood’s Beyond the Rocks (1922), a silent film starring Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino. The article states that “a peculiarly shaped bottle, squat and widespread, with a curious and imposing big black stopper, ornamented with flower carvings” can be seen in one scene where Theodora (Swanson) is making up. The perfume (identified as the 1911 Caron creation) intrigued the women in the audience so much that it soon sold out in shops.

This information is incredibly exciting, because it would indicate the first placement of a perfume in cinema history. I knew it was too good to be true, though: I watched the film twice and the scene mentioned in the article is nowhere to be found. Maybe the version available on YouTube is not the original one, maybe some scenes are missing; in any case, *that* scene is missing. But it’s not over: there’s a scene where a narcissus perfume actually makes its appearance!

The scene is set at a chalet in the Alps, where Theodora and her middle-aged husband Josiah Brown (Robert Bolder) are spending their honeymoon. A waitress pours some narcissus perfume on a handkerchief and gives it to Theodora. Soon after the woman loses the handkerchief, which falls to the ground; it’s picked up by a waiter, who goes around the tables to find its owner. The handkerchief gets into the hands of Lord Hector Bracondale (Rudolph Valentino), who sensuosly smells it. Even if the two protagonists first met years before, this moment sets their romance in motion.

You can see that the bottle is not Caron Narcisse Noir [2], but it’s a narcissus perfume nonetheless. This makes things complicated. What is the truth? Did the film have a scene not included in the version I watched where the Caron perfume was actually visible? Or did the fans of the film just go to the stores asking for a narcissus perfume and the Caron one was the only one with that name? This uncertainty breaks me but at least now it’s clear why Gloria Swanson was so strongly associated to a narcissus perfume. This association has kept going up to this day if so many people still think Narcisse Noir is mentioned or seen in Sunset Boulevard (it’s not!), a film Swanson starred in 28 years after Beyond the Rocks.

[1] If you check the movie script, you will obviously find no mention to Narcisse Noir.

[2] This is not the bottle of Narcisse Noir but it’s probably more exciting than that.

Even if the prop masters stuck a generic narcissus label on it, the bottle was the magnificent flacon tortue by Guerlain! The turtle-shaped bottle was created by Baccarat in 1914 to celebrate the opening of the Guerlain boutique at 68 Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Thanks to concepteaux for identifying the flacon tortue, thus adding another layer of complexity to an already complex – yet fascinating – topic.

27 thoughts on “Sunset Boulevard (1950): Caron Narcisse Noir Mystery (Almost) Solved!”

  1. I am loving your blog! And now I will have to watch SB again. Funny-my brother thought the same thing-that Norma Desmond says her fragrance is Narcisse Noir, Black Narcissus. And I totally remember the tuberose quote (I LOVE tuberose fragrances). In real life, Gloria Swanson spent inordinate amounts of money on fragrance-it was very important to her.

    Now back to your archives 🙂

    1. Hi Carole!
      Thanks for the appreciation.
      I’ve watched “Sunset Boulevard” many times because it’s one of my favourite movies, but last year I watched it again only to see if the Narcisse Noir quote was real or not. I don’t know if I was more disappointed (there was no mention to the Caron perfume) or pissed off (where did bloggers get this information, since there’s nothing in the film?).

  2. I agree it’s not Narcisse Noir. Surely the most likely source of a reference to a tuberose perfume in a 1950 film would have been Germaine Cellier’s Fracas, introduced by Piguet in 1948? That “loud” scent of “buttered tuberose” would have been everywhere in Beverly Hills and Brentwood — Wilder and Bracket must have caught it at every party for months as they wrote the script.

    1. A mention to Fracas would have made lots of sense! It’s a good observation: the queen of tuberose perfumes must have made an impression on Billy Wilder. Thanks for your comment 😃

      1. Narcisse Noir was certainly on the minds of audiences in the late-40s, but that was because of the eponymously titled Black Narcissus (The Archers, 1947). Sabu, who plays “the young general,” names the perfume he “orders from Army & Navy Stores, London;” in the classroom it not only startles his classmates into giggles, but galvanizes — one might even say, “ravishes” — Sister Ruth (‘m hoping I remember correctly, and it was she in the classroom scene with the young general). That frankly sensuous film is sure to delight all parfumiers/parfumieres!

        1. Yes, it’s correct: it’s Sister Ruth who falls for the luxury and the sensousness of Sabu’s world. I recently watched the Powell & Pressburger film for the first time: very striking from a visual point of view.

  3. Totally agree with you. O have the Sunset Boulevard DVD , and o have watched the movie many times and Caron’s N Noir perfume is never mentioned or showed in the film. I have watched the crowded Norma’s vanity table at the film, and it’s not on it. Tnank you.

    1. Oh wow! I really think you solved it!!! I think very few people know about this Swanson movie but probably the rumour started circulating from “Beyond the Rocks” and in people’s minds Narcisse Noir became her signature scent. Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I’ll update the post with the great news. xx

  4. So pleased! I think there was no print of the film until one was found in Holland about five years ago… the restored film is on YouTube, but, despite some sniffing of flowers and scented handkerchiefs, I can’t see the perfume actually in use!

    Here’s the film:

    and the restoration:

  5. The line is actually from another brilliant Billy Wilder film, Double Indemnity.
    It was spoken by Fred MacMurray in a voice over referring to Stanwyck.

    1. I couldn’t find any mention to Narcisse Noir (or to any other specific perfume) in Double Indemnity. When asked about the perfume on her hair, Stanwyck/Phyllis replies that it’s “something French. I bought it down at Ensenada.” What line are you referring to?

      1. The line I meant was,
        Something to the effect of,
        “She smelled of Tuberose and it wasn’t my favorite, not by a long shot.”

  6. Towards the end of the film, when Norma Desmond prepares and powders herself for her final scene, on her dresser there stands a bottle (the bottom left corner) with a stopper that looks very similar to original Narcisse noir stopper. There were bottles similar to this one in Caron’s repertoire, but I cannot find a photo of Narcisse noir in this exact flacon. However, potentially it can be that moment, to which many people are referring to.

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