Some silent stars live on as half-remembered shadows famous in name only, the odd still photograph and by association with others. It may only be in a routine list alongside Pickford, Gish and Bara that I first heard the name Norma Talmadge and yet she was one of the most popular stars of silent era and arguably more popular than some of the aforementioned at her peak.
This is my ignorance and as part of my ongoing mission to rediscover and reconnect, I set out to right any wrongs I may have done Ms Talmadge through omission. And, as with so much of the arts, when the deeper you go the more you can differentiate and understand…Norma is no longer just a name on a list but someone I can see had a high level of skill and a quite unique presence.
Norma Talmadge featured in hundreds of short films for the Vitagraph Company from 1910 to 1915. Then, having joined Triangle Pictures, she made longer form films of which Going Straight, made in 1916, was one of the first. Directed by Chester M. Franklin and Sidney Franklin the picture clearly shows the guiding influence of DW Griffith who oversaw a lot of the production at Triangle. There are expert intercuts and parallel scenes, close ups reminiscent of Pig Alley and the action is tightly marshalled throughout.
Talmadge is superb, acting naturalistically and given ample close ups to demonstrate her restrained playing which has more in common with Gish and Pickford than some of the more dramatic queens lof the era.
She plays Grace the wife of successful businessman, John Remington, played by Ralph Lewis. The two live in wedded bliss with their young family in one of those sizable wooden properties we brick-bound Brits envy. However, inspite of this apparent normality, both Grace and John were once part of a group of professional criminals known as the Higgins gang. Grace finds a clipping about their trial and a flashback explains their violent past.
There are some exciting action scenes as the police chase the gang down streets and over walls as shots and fists fly. There’s some great intercut close ups of the various protaganists as the chase nears its conclusion – really well directed. The police break into the gang's hideout and there’s an almighty scrap between all parties including Higgins/Remington and his second in command Jimmy Briggs, played by the excellent Eugene Pallette.
Both men are caught but Grace manages to evade capture. After John has served his time, the two decide to live an honest life and are obviously succeeding well in this. But all is threatened when John is spotted by their old cohort Briggs, who gratefully accepts John's money but refuses his help to start himself on the straight and narrow.
Briggs threatens to reveal Grace’s criminal past and John has little option but to join him on one last robbery. He goes to commit the crime with Briggs whilst Grace stays over at a well-healed friend’s house after a card party. As it turns out – in a coincidence not too uncommon at the time – Briggs and John are burgling the same house.
Whilst John works on the safe Briggs drifts upstairs to find jewels. He encounters Grace and the two struggle with one of her children being seriously injured, John comes to the rescue but Briggs escapes. Will their child survive and will Briggs succeed in gaining revenge and ruining their new life?
It is undeniably melodramatic but Talmadge is believable and understated even in the most fraught moments. She has a number of close ups that allow her to illustrate the emotional shifts in the story and she does so mostly through facial expression and without the flailing “acting arms” of some contemporaries.
She has what my father would have described as a "handsome" face and one that makes it hard to believe she could ever have been a gangster but, all the same, we accept that she was. You can understand her versatility even from this one film and see just why she won the admiration and affection of so many.
She’s another whose looks appear to be “out of time” and could have made her successful in any period of screen acting. It’s a face you enjoy watching on many levels and has a fascination and a depth that would ensure her a long career at the top.
She remained popular right up until the turn of the 30's making a couple of talking pictures. She spent months having her voice coached before making New York Nights (1929). She’s good in that film, which has some interesting ideas but not enough story or style (although there’s a teenage Harlow in there if you look hard enough!). By this point she was in her late-30s and lacking the kind of roles to help transition into both talkies and middle age, she bailed out telling her fans “I don't need you anymore and you don't need me."
There’s frustratingly little of her work widely available even though more exists than was once assumed (for more details, see the excellent Norma Talmadge Website). Going Straight is available on Grapevine DVD along with the less impressive Children in the House. It is well worth watching to see why she was such a dominant force in early Hollywood.
Jonathan Crombie (1966-2015)
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