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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

When Even Biggest Names Get Forgot


Latter-Day Dig for Norma Talmadge

Among pioneer film historians, Richard Griffith stood tall. He co-wrote seminal The Movies (w/Arthur Mayer) and a 1950 edition of The Film Till Now, with Paul Rotha. He also did The Movie Stars, published in 1970, the year after Griffith died. In it, he surveyed players up to then that achieved fame in films. Griffith was born in 1912, so was exposed to them either in prime, getting there, or lately coming off it. One that got a chapter was Norma Talmadge, who Griffith admitted was past and forgot by the sixties (Talmadge herself gone since 1957 at age 63). We’ve pondered stars once big that few think of anymore, Norma Talmadge a deepest sixed, known perhaps as Buster Keaton’s sister-in-law, but what more? Trouble for me is having too little context in which to place her, despite lifelong troll for old pictures. Fact in stone: Norma Talmadge was about the biggest female name in 20’s film, nipping always at Mary Pickford or whoever else had a rung up. Everyone who loved Talmadge, their number in millions, have gone to reward. I miss living in a world where there was always somebody who remembered anybody that worked in movies. Think how once there were fans among us for first-run Broncho Billy or John Bunny. No more!

Griffith recalled and spoke well of a Talmadge vehicle called The Lady. In it, she ages from girl to old woman, a sort of act Norma did best. The Lady is lost, or was when Griffith spoke of it in the late 60’s. We miss a lot for not having access to so much of what pleased in the silent era. How can anyone reach reliable conclusion as to what or who was best back then? There seems only enough of Norma Talmadge to get hints, and for what home view affords, a fraction of that. Kino released a two-fer of Kiki and Within The Law in 2010, possibly as response to burning question of who heck Norma Talmadge was. The pair is typical and atypical … latter because Talmadge did mostly melodrama, which Kiki is not … typical for Within The Law being melodrama as purest distilled, that being Norma’s strength. We imagine melodrama was what folks endured before a next Chaplin or Lloyd flashed up. Fact is, I think given choice of but one, they’d have given up fun stuff to keep the sawmill and railroad tracks (as in tied to ...). Melodrama had been a way of performance life for length of everyone’s lifetime. I’m told emotional hair-raising was an only way to take audience minds off hardship of their lives. The higher pitched, the more effective. Judging by trauma dished in melodrama, in movies and certainly on nineteenth-century stages, there must have been a lot of hardship to rinse away. Being chief laundress for her public’s emotional tension made Norma Talmadge a least disposable of any 20’s star, so how then was it so easy to dispose of her before the 20’s even ended?

There must be a limit on how many times one can play a same essential part. Richard Griffith said Norma’s essential role was Norma, each time a variation on what she had done before, this expected, nay insisted upon, by her fans, known procedure for screen folk, to remain so with talkies, persisting unto today, but Norma Talmadge was not one to oversell travails, which is to say she underplayed much of stock situations handed her, making all the more a shame there isn’t Talmadge in quantity to evaluate and maybe cheer for ahead-of-time technique. I watched Within The Law, based on a play by Bayard Veiller, rousing for its day, being of a department store drudge at $5 per week, accused of stealing and innocent of that, but sent up river for three years and swearing to square account with the got-rocks owner who wouldn’t let a judge show mercy. She pulls the time, learns how to do rackets just cautious enough to keep cops off her, “love balm,” as in breach-of-promise suits, made legit by having lawyers always present and no taking payoffs direct from elder millionaires being fleeced. I recite the yarn because yes, it compels even now, was good enough to remake with Joan Crawford in 1930, then again as a 1939 B with Ruth Hussey. Within The Law is all-Caps melodrama, but Norma Talmadge plays the situation like Ibsen and Eugene O’Neill got together on it, her uplifting ordinary stuff into something believable, if not sublime.

was flip side to Within The Law, an easier modern sell because it is comedy, has Ronald Colman for a male lead, and was directed by Clarence Brown, who was resourceful from start with a megaphone. Must say, and unexpectedly, that I prefer Norma the dramatist over a pushy would-be chorus singer who all but overtakes Colman household and opens his mail before burning letters she wants him not to see, this all meant to be cumulatively endearing, but isn’t. Kiki was 1926, Talmadge having reached early thirties, so a tad late for untamed gamin stuff, plus on her thirty looked at times severe thirty, due possibly to lifestyle excess Richard Griffith mentions. Kiki, like a lot of other Talmadge ventures, was remade for talk, Mary Pickford giving it a go just a few years later. Talmadge meantime saw decline before screens spoke. 1928’s The Woman Disputed dipped, a fact plain enough to make her spend a year off girding for sound. There was Brooklynese to be ridded of, said some, and even if Norma seemed not to care about staying a star, her dedication to speech culture suggested a desire to keep in the arena. Sister and also-luminary Constance had bailed, no talkies for her, and Natalie, the Talmadge who did not make good in movies (tried, but given up), was unloading a consolation prize no longer prized, which was husband Buster Keaton. Could any Talmadge believe, were they still around, that Buster would be a sole one from the clan remembered, still revered, us obliged to travel leagues to find anyone who know, or care, what any Talmadge was.

There is a Connie Collection, also Kino, which I haven’t investigated, partly because I never found her that attractive, Natalie in fact my choice between the two were it necessary to choose, yet the family, including a dragon mother who evidently ran the roost, saw Nat as the Ugly Duck. Just my reaction, or changed standard since the 20’s? Sole image of Mrs. Keaton is her spending Buster’s money fast as he could earn it, a sop for clothes, luxury, other sillies, and goaded on, I suspect, by sisters and Mom. Also never liked the two Keaton boys name-change to Talmadge, but maybe they were better with that label in a Hollywood still status conscious even after Norma-Constance had quit and Ma was gone. Norma’s initial talkie try was a wash. There didn’t seem to be even curiosity, translate to B.O. spike, for New York Nights, which had a good director (Lewis Milestone), designer (William Cameron Menzies), other pluses as arranged by Norma-husband Joseph Schenck, him devoted still to her career if eased out of the bed chamber (Gilbert Roland his successor there). NY Nights got but $621K against $712K spent on the negative … so much for what Norma sounded like.

How quick they forget, though others of silent emote were as unlucky. She would try once more, Dubarry --- Woman Of Passion, a disaster by all account --- certainly so by UA account books, $753K out the door, only $437K coming back, time indeed for Norma Talmadge to chuck the career, which didn't much matter because there was money as invested by the mother. Story got round of a fan who approached Norma, her saying, “Get away, I don’t need you anymore,” an amusing blow-off, one she maybe made up to discourage others who might intrude. Norma married George Jessel in the 30’s, an idea good for him and vaude marquees where he could exploit her. Jessel used the faded name but good, Norma said to have been a stood-still stooge for his act. If this wasn’t for the cash, then why did she do it? Love of Georgie? She’d get over him in any case, marry a doctor next, and that stuck to the ‘57 end. There are other Norma Talmadge titles that stream … Amazon has several plus discs of dubious source. My curiosity was satisfied with the Kino DVD, so am not likely to rattle this skeleton further. Still it’s a pity to see (or rather, not see) an actress be so neglected. Are we the poorer for being Norma-less?


Blogger Ken said...

Yes, it is frustrating that Norma Talmadge’s output is so difficult to assess – the majority of it being lost forever. I’ve actually liked most of what I’ve seen. And definitely concur that her restrained underplaying ages very well. She and the wonderful Edna Purviance often registered the kind of relaxed yet dignified charisma Irene Dunne generally displayed in the sound era.
Neither “The Social Secretary” nor “The Forbidden City” are great films. Yet Talmadge anchors both very securely with a compelling presence, intuitively employed to fine effect. I don’t like “Kiki”. Haven’t seen “Within the Law”. But I have seen her two talkies. I think she’s fine in “New York Nights”; her vocal tone and inflection make me think of early sound Evelyn Brent or Barbara Stanwyck. Not bad company to be in. “DuBarry”, though is definitely a dud. Sound era Norma’s simply not right for 18th century royal frou-frou.
Sorry – and a bit surprised – to hear of your near immunity to the charms of sister Constance. I’m sure you’ve seen “Intolerance’. And – for me - it’s hard to imagine not capitulating to her terrific work in it. Comedy quickly emerged as her forte. She’s certainly a charmingly energized partner for Fairbanks in “The Matrimaniac.
I’ve seen “The Love Expert” on Youtube and it’s a delight. Caught “The Duchess of Buffalo” at a film convention years ago and the audience adored it. I urge you to investigate “Her Night of Romance”, part of that Kino double feature you’ve resisted exploring. CT’s marvelous in it. As is co-star Ronald Colman. Definitely my favorite film of 1924!

1:42 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I'm afraid the Greenbriar gang may know Richard Talmadge (no relation) better than Les Soeurs Talmàdge.

2:26 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I'm sure you're right, Ken, about Constance Talmadge, and I do recall how good she was for "Intolerance" and the Fairbanks picture. Indeed I will get out the Kino disc with her and Colman together. Why not? --- as it's sitting right beside the Norma pair.

3:12 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

The Pepe LePew cartoon "Past Perfumance", made in 1955, is set in a silent movie studio in Paris. We see a poster for "Reen et Teen et Teen, Canine Gallant", a limo belonging to "Clara Beaux, Le "IT" FILLE (Rowr-Row)", can-can dancers identified as "Macque Sennette Beauties d'Bath", and a stage were "Frank Butlaire" is shooting an animal film. Random figures include a cop with a pie, a vamp, and a sheik.

Pepe saunters in with an autograph book, inquiring after "Talma Normadge" (twice). Chuck Jones and company seem to assume that stands as good a chance of getting a laugh as the other references.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

First time I heard of Norma Talmadge was in Joe Franklin's ghostwritten "Classics of the Silent Screen" circa 1970. This is probably the second.

9:47 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberst casts a vote for Constance Talmadge, and speaks to survival rate of sister Norma's backlog:


Mine's a vote seconded for Constance Talmadge, definitely look at the Kino Double bill because she's delightful in both THE DUCHESS OF BUFFALO and HER SISTER FROM PARIS (another worth seeing is her penultimate, BREAKFAST AT SUNRISE (1927)). I've always found Constance the most attractive and certainly vivacious of the three sisters, Norma perhaps the more classic beauty, but sorta like Dorothy Gish compared to Lillian, Connie would probably be the one more fun to go home with.

More of Norma's pictures exist than generally thought, Rohauer got his mitts on the surviving material, which Cohen Media now owns, though unfortunately a number of features are missing a reel or two, probably the main reason why they are not seen so frequently. What I've seen of her 20's work is not my cup of tea, but in her early Triangle features she is quite good, one example you didn't mention is GOING STRAIGHT (1916), with Norma playing a married society woman with a criminal past, her acting in it is very natural and underplayed.


6:23 AM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

Speaking of the two Keaton boys name-change to Talmadge:

The Talmadge Clan likely rationalized that the Keaton name was unworthy of the family's status once Buster was given the heave-ho by Natalie (and Keaton's Hollywood career was anyhow considered a washout). Yet as adults, when Robert Talmadge got into some trouble (Robert's 1946 motorcycle accident in which his female passenger was killed) he was "Buster Keaton's Son" in all the headlines. And when James Talmadge became a real estate promoter and wanted to promote himself, he asked for his father's permission to call himself "Buster Keaton Junior" and sometimes just "Buster Keaton" in his ads.

Sure, there are two sides to every story. Buster was no saint, but neither were the three sisters. What I find particularly reprehensible about Team Talmadge is that when Buster became a grandfather for the first time (February 28, 1945), he didn't learn about it until June, when he received a letter from his son, stationed in Guam. The Talmadges knew about the event all along, of course, and none of them bothered to get word to Buster.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Telling Buster her family thought having babies animalistic. as Natalie is reported to have done, indicates a snootiness on the part of the Talmadge Clan that makes me want no part of them.

I am certain that up to that moment Buster was fine. After it I'm certain he was not.

He should have at once asked for a divorce and moved on.

5:21 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers the Talmadges:

The Talmadges have never been much more to me than words or pictures, part of the passing scene to someone else’s story. I saw “DuBarry, Woman of Passion” many years ago, when a Philadelphia UHF station carried it, but I was as interested in William Farnum as Norma Talmadge. Constance Talmadge made a very appealing Mountain Girl in D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” with the slender figure and blonde good looks that I’ve always appreciated—what someone once referred to as a “palomino”—but I’ve never sought her out. Natalie was a strange girl, the one whose appearance would be most likely to find an audience today, but with a kind of still-born personality that could never have flourished with Keaton. An unfamiliarity with them, however, is more and more a matter of choice, with so much of their work now available on the web. The insights you've shared intrigue me, and I find that I should want to spend some time with them.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Samantha Glasser said...

The Constance Talmadge Kino set is worth seeking out, but I think Norma is fascinating. The Wexner Center ran The Sign on the Door prior to Cinevent one year and I was happy to see it. Although the pianist made fun of it at the end, I thought it was a solid melodrama. The Devil's Needle is available on blu-ray and The Social Secretary is a fun film, but my favorite film I've seen so far is Within the Law. Norma's version of the story is superior to Crawford's and I'm a big Crawford fan so that's saying something.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Yep....CotSS was the one for me, after years of FRACTURED FLICKERS or SILENTS PLEASE!....that was about the same time I saw, I think, WHEN COMEDY WAS KING on TV and the PBS series THE TOY THAT GREW UP....

10:46 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Fun fact gleaned from Scott Eyman's new Cary Grant bio: young Archie Leach's favorite star when he first discovered movies was Broncho Billy Anderson. Anyone able to identify any of Broncho Billy's influence on Cary Grant?

9:30 AM  

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