For me, there’s no doubt Norma was the better dramatic actress, had greater performing ambition and more range – no matter how much I love “Dutch” as well. Her controlled expression was certainly put to good effect in Going Straight, Smiling Through and The Devil’s Needle and even lighter fare such as The Social Secretary. She could hold the camera’s gaze as well as Mary and Lillian and she was more womanly-grown-up than either and maybe that’s part of the problem.
Norma was often cast, even by herself, as a lower middle class woman in situations of moral compromise and the audiences lapped these films up even if now their story lines are too over-used to generate much dramatic impact , no matter her skills as an actress. Perhaps she and husband/producer Joseph Schenck targeted the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation too firmly at their winning formula: the popular middle ground?
And how tastes change.
These two films represent extremes of Norma’s career: one an almost risible western and the other a far classier affair well directed by Frank Borzage and allowing the actress to really show her ability. They show what she could do and what she clearly chose to do and the day job served her very well…
It’s also a remarkably frank film in terms of young Wetona’s sex life. She creates a scene at the tribe’s tribute to their gods by revealing her inappropriate casting as their “vestal virgin”: she has been having relations with a white man and father, severely unimpressed, plans to exact messy retribution.
|Gladden James looking shifty|
Hardin offers to take responsibility until such time as Hardin is “ready”… it sounds a bit vague but we get the drift. Wetona goes along, her faith in Tony remarkably unshaken… even though we’ve worked him out long ago.
|Wetona about to fail the vestal medical...|
Norma has a lot of screen time and a fair amount of close-ups to allow her to show her skill but the story rings slightly false in spite of some genuine conflict and peril, most of it constructed on narrative sand… That face simply isn’t given enough emotional to work with and the close-ups only serve to remind the viewer how much real drama is missing.
|Thomas Meighan and Norma|
Then again, Edward Weitzel was more positive in Moving Picture World, January 4, 1919 “…none of her impersonations has revealed deeper feeling or a better understanding of the art of acting. There is never the slightest doubt in the mind of the spectator as to what Norma Talmadge is trying to convey. …she is picturesque and beautifully human…”
See… even then “… the bearer of heavy burdens…” but "...beautifully human..." all the same.
Secrets (1924) is an altogether more satisfying film not just because of a superior story but obviously through Borzage’s inventive direction which provides a much richer dramatic scope. Based on a stage play – itself adapted from an opera – the film starts in the present and works forward from the past in a clever script from Frances Marion.
It’s 1924 and Norma is seventy-something Mary Carlton anxiously waiting for an improvement in the failing health of her husband John (Eugene O’Brien). She barely looks like Norma (30 at the time) and, even through the poor quality haze of the Silents are Golden DVD, she is clearly relishing the range of this role. She begins to look through her old diary and drifts off remembering her earlier life…
|Norma goes from 1924 back to 1865...|
|George O'Brien and Norma Talmadge|
Five years later and the couple have established a home stead and have a small baby. A doctor calls to tend to the sick infant and reveals that a gang led by local ruffian Jack are intent on gaining revenge on him for his part in capturing one of their own.
The gang duly arrive and John defends house supported by Mary who refuses to let him sacrifice himself. The tense battle is lent further poignancy when Mary discovers her baby has perished and confirms the death by using a mirror to try and detect any signs of breathing… the saddest of silent mimes. Realising her husband must fight on, Mary cuddles the dead baby pretending that he is asleep…and you’d have to be made of granite not to be moved. Talmadge handles these moments with incredible grace.
|Holding a mirror up to life|
But another crisis takes place as her husband’s affair with one Mrs. Estelle Manwaring (Gertrude Astor) is revealed by her parents. Matters come to a head when Estelle arrives and brazenly asks for Mary to let John go, claiming that she has ruined his life and cannot make him happy… it’s a point of view but we wonder what the steadfast Mrs Carlton could possibly have done…
|Gertrude Astor, Donald Keith and Norma Talmadge|
The scene shifts forward to the present day: will there be one last act for Mr and Mrs Carlton?
“It is a work of art, deftly handled with a divine touch that makes it stand out as one of the greatest screen characterizations in years…” raved Variety, before continuing...“The direction of Frank Borzage must be credited with a great part in the success that the picture is certain to have. He has taken Miss Talmadge and handled her in a manner that makes her reveal artistry such as she never displayed heretofore…”
This final point takes us back to Jeanine Basinger’s comment: but here it was not just Norma’s talent that was engaged – there was a very personal investment in the performance that gave it such integrity. An actor must draw on personal experience to convince but there’s always control. Maybe with the right combination of director, script and circumstance, Norma Talmadge really put on a show?
We should see more… unfortunately only Wetona is currently available on DVD and it is to be hoped that Secrets and Norma's other film with Frank Borzage, The Lady (1925) will someday get the release and restoration they deserve.
*In her book Silent Stars - essential reading!
** Press comments lifted from Greta de Groat's superlative Talmadge site. Go straight there now!