Friday, 9 March 2012

Office politics... The Social Secretary (1916)

When I started work in the tallest tower block in Croydon (if you can make it there…you can make it anywhere…) it was in the early days of word processing when there were still “elevenses”, a staff canteen and a row of glamorous secretaries chosen to keep the marketing managers happy.

After three years of university politicisation, I was fairly appalled by this. Why, some of these men (and they were almost all men) were married whilst others were just unsavoury…yet, still the flirting and the ogling carried on. (Have things improved "post feminism"...when the British PM is openly condescending to female colleagues?)

I therefore found the premise that Norma Talmadge's character in The Social Secretary was too attractive to be left alone to do her secretarial work quite believable. I’d seen such things with my own eyes, even if the brand managers were less physically direct (at least whilst sober).

A Social Secretary, directed in 1916 by John Emerson from a scenario by Anita Loos amongst others, shows Norma’s character, Mayme, go through a succession of jobs in which her bosses waste little time in hitting on her.

She resolves to beat this by making herself look as frumpy as possible and wearing big round glasses with her hair tied back in a way that kept on reminding me of Julia Sawalha’s Saffy in Absolutely Fabulous: she still looks eye-catching...there's Hollywood "plain" for you.

This disguise helps her to establish herself as the personal secretary in the house of Mrs Van Puyste (Kate Lester), a widower who’s children still live at home the occasionally inebriated Jimmy (Gladden James) and his young sister Elsie (Helen Weir).

Things go well until the family are targeted by one of Mayme’s former letching bosses, Count Limonittiez sleazily played by Herbert Frank. He resolves to marry Elsie and thereby regain the fortune and position he has frittered away.

Jimmy returns too drunk to enter the house through the usual means and crashes through a window. Thinking him to be a burglar, Mayme crowns him with a vase but, after dragging him to his room he discovers that, hey, she’s actually quite a looker.

Jimmy’s memory survives his hangover and the two begin a liaison out of sight of Mrs Van Puyste. They are spotted by an eagle-eyed muck-raker, The Buzzard played by a marvellously creepy Eric von Stroheim!

Whilst they try keeping the press at bay, The Count succeeds in romancing Elsie and is set to announce their engagement. Mayme exposes his true nature in front of Mrs van Puyste but he cunningly lures Elsie away to his hotel where he aims to elope.

Mayme and Jimmy race over with the Buzzard not far behind. Reputations and fortunes are on the line!

This is a straight-ahead romp in which gives Norma Talmadge the chance to show how well she could do comedy. It’s a winsome performance and a likeable film with good support notably from Gladden James and, especially, von Stroheim.

My only gripe would be the quality of the print. It’s good in parts and mostly bearable but the Classic Video Streams DVD could have come from a better source. Still, it exists, and for the Talmadge fan – a century too late to catch her peak – it’s most welcome.

The DVD also comes with a selection of shorts of varying length and quality. These include The Helpful(?) Sisterhood (1914) about a young student led astray by her college soriety group – it includes sister Constance amongst the girls who lead Norma off the straight and narrow.

His Official Appointment (1912) is a sad little tale about a retired Colonel who waits for an appointment that never comes - he rescues Norma’s character from a runaway horse but to no avail. Nobility trampled by indifference in the end.

Then there’s an excerpt from The Devil’s Needle (1916) a harrowing account of morphine addiction which features Norma as an addicted artist’s model who starts off her painter on the road to ruin. Interesting how this subject was handled a century back… is there nothing new except what has been forgotten?

These Vitagraph films showcase the dawn of Norma Talmadge’s career and her growth to pre-eminence. Through the darkly shaded, scratched and bleached out images you can clearly see why her acting stood out and why her expressive and well proportioned features enabled her to present a more grown up and credible girl next door than maybe even Mary Pickford.

A Social Secretary is available from or direct from Classic Video Streams themselves. It must be hoped that the recent Kino Talmadge twofer, Kiki and Outside the Law, will encourage more of her films to be restored and re-released.

She’s proof absolute that naturalism was a key asset in the Hollywood cinema of the teens.

1 comment:

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