Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Constant Constance… The Primitive Lover (1922) & Her Sister from Paris (1924)

"I enjoy making people laugh…  this type of work comes easiest and most naturally to me, I am not a highly emotional type….”

Constance Talmadge was one of the most energetic of silent film actors, with clear, open expression, and in possession of two of the biggest, loveliest, eyes in Hollywood. She is my abiding performance memory from Intolerance as she ripped into every opportunity she had to make an audience connection amongst Griffith’s sprawl.

Publicity still from Her Sister from Paris
She was a natural and even without the connections to her savvy sister Norma, would have made it on her own and probably in any era. Yet, Intolerance aside, did Constance ever make any really great movies and, as to a lesser extent with Norma, is this perhaps the reason why the once mighty Talmadge brand has faded more than others who were at their level in the middle silent period?

This is an over-simplification of course, but perhaps we should remember some actors because of their fame and contemporary position as much for the modern appreciation of their creative output? Perhaps we need a more historiographical view?

Account must also be taken of the actor’s professional self-awareness: Constance knew very well what she had to offer and, given the level of success she enjoyed, that was what she set out to achieve, even if the quality of ideas was sometimes illusive…

"…it is exceedingly difficult to get exactly the kind of comedy I especially want. I want comedies of manners, comedies that are funny because they delight one’s sense of what is ridiculously human in the way of little everyday commonplace foibles and frailties – subtle comedies, not comedies of the slap stick variety." 
Constance in Blue Book of the Screen (1923)

Here are two examples of her early twenties output that reflect the impact decent material and support could have on Constance’s energy levels.

The Primitive Lover (1922)

Directed by Sidney Franklin from a Frances Marion scenario based on Edgar Selwyn’s successful stage play The Divorcee, The Primitive Lover allowed the 23 year- old actress (and producer) to show an innocent, dreamy side to her persona as she graduates from spoilt, indecisive, fantasist to a woman of resolution.

Constance plays Phyllis Tomley who opens up the film imagining an extended fantasy in which, marooned at sea on a raft with just a goat and cake for provisions, accepts all too readily the sacrifices of her male protector as he throws himself overboard so that she and her fiancé may survive.

Constance and Harrison Ford
She awakens from her reverie as we discover she was reading the closing stages of her former lover’s book, The Primitive Lover. She turns to her down at heel husband, Hector (Harrison Ford) and asks if he would love her enough to sacrifice himself? She’s bored and spoilt and Hector doesn’t really know what to say or do: he’s a drip.

If only her ex, heroic writer Donald Wales (Kenneth Harlan) hadn’t tragically lost his life just after his book’s publication… But, what’s this, a headline in the paper reveals that he has been found alive and, a few moments later he’s bounding back into Phyllis’ life: the whole thing had been a rouse to sell more books, Hector had been in on it and there was no intention to hurt the love of his life…what!?!?

Inexplicably, Phylis forgives Donald and rather turns on Hector who, rather decently volunteers to stand aside so that the two can be married. Game over and it’s not even half time… except it isn’t and Hector, in spite of going through with the divorce is inspired by a non-nonsense multiple bigamist Indian Chief (Chief John Big Tree) to hatch a plan to either win back his wife or at least prove her “primitive love” for Donald.

He ambushes them on their honeymoon in the Wild West and forces them to live in a shack so that Donald can prove himself the man he wrote he was… Aided by the Chief he sets them tasks and all is going amusingly until real trouble arrives. Who’ll be man enough for Phyllis when the chips are really down?

The Primitive Lover is entertaining fair allowing the three leads enough room to get some laughs at each other’s expense. It is, of course, roaringly un-PC in “new money” but does make fun of the pride and prejudices of both sexes. Constance is a little constrained by the formula though and doesn’t quite raise the bar to her usual level.

Her Sister from Paris (1924)

With a crisper script and better supporting actors – including herself – Constance does much better in Her Sister from Paris.

She plays Helen Weyringer in a stale marriage with Joseph (Ronald Coleman – hard to imagine I know…) but she just won’t party like she used to and he still wants his fun. Coleman’s great: a slightly-more substantial John Gilbert with more than a hint of “cruel” and who would go on to have success into the talkie era.

Helen and Joseph's domestic strife...
Joseph confesses his frustration to his friend Bob (the most excellent George K. Arthur – last seen on this blog trying to ride a bicycle in The Wheels of Chance) and spying a picture of a beautiful French actress very similar to how his wife used to look, resolves to head off to find her in Paris…

But the actress isn’t French and she’s also Helen’s twin sister, only distinguishable from her sibling by a beauty spot on her cheek, cropped blonde hair and a much higher energy reading.

As chance would have – dash it all! – Helen is also en route to Paris to seek sisterly solace and explaining all to her twin, Lola aka La Perry, the showgirl hatches a plan to teach wayward Joseph a lesson!

George K. Arthur and Constance
So it is that Helen has a Lola make-over and plays at being her sister for her clueless husband. Will her old man start an affair with the woman she thinks she is or will he come to his senses and realise that he needs to take as much responsibility for the good times he feels he’s missing with Helen.

It’s classic farce but smartly directed by Sidney Franklin and so very well played by the two Constances, Coleman and Arthur. It’s not a major movie just the kind of film that entertained a lot of people a lot of the time and you know that can’t be bad.

Decisions, decisions...
The Primitive Lover is available from Amazon on a cheap but OK DVD from Alpha Home Entertainment whilst Her Sister from Paris is available on Kino DVD in a double bill with Her Night of Romance, also with Mr Coleman and of which more later...

I’ll leave the last words to Constance, she and Norma both knew what they could offer: “My sister could cry real tears over two sofa cushions stuffed into a long dress and white lace cap, to look like a dead baby… That is real art…

…in my way, I take my work quite as seriously as my sister does hers… One must leave a great deal to the imagination on the screen… so, like the cartoonist, I try to emphasize the salient characteristics, which, of course, in my particular work, bring out the humorous side of the person I am portraying."

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