Monday, 12 March 2012

Safety first… Norma Talmadge in The Safety Curtain (1918)

The Safety Curtain has one of the better reputations of early Norma Talmadge features. Made in 1918 by the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation – the company she founded after leaving Vitagraph at the age of 23 – it was directed and written by Sidney Franklin from a story by Ethel M Dell.

Norma plays Puck, a young “dainty dancer” on the London stage who is unhappily married to the shows’ strongman, Vulcan, played by Anders Randolf with a sneer and malicious intent. Puck is beaten and seemingly defeated by this monstrous man who makes merry with other women in the cast whilst expecting Puck’s total loyalty under threat of his corporal punishment.

A dastardly nobleman, Lord Sylvester played by Gladden James (also with Norma in The Social Secretary as covered below…), tries to take advantage but Puck is not interested in following her husband’s path of dishonesty.

Puck comes to life on stage and if it is the quick feet of Ms Talmadge we see during her dance, her early ballet training did not go to waste. Amongst the audience is a British soldier, Captain Merryon (Eugene O'Brien) at home from India on leave. He watches enthralled until suddenly there is an explosion on stage.

Puck tries to calm the audience and calls for the safety curtain to be lowered, but it is not enough to prevent the fire and she ends up being carried to safety by Captain Merryon whilst others, including Vulcan apparently perish.

Puck agrees to marry Merryon and to begin a new life in India. There is nothing to keep her as she is thought to have died alongside her husband.

Time passes and the two enjoy happiness in the Raj. All changes though when Puck is sent to stay in cooler climes during the brutal summer. She re-encounters Sylvester who once again tries to take advantage. Refusing his advances Puck races back to Merryon through torrential rain.

Just when she thinks she has finally escaped her past a knock at their door sometime later reveals Vulcan, very much alive and looking to “re-possess “his wife.

Merryon sees him off but Puck does not want to bring disgrace to her captain and goes after the man who has brought her so much misery… The “safety curtain” Puck had attempted to bring down on her old life appears to have burned down completely…Will there be any happiness for Puck and Merryon?

The Safety Curtain
is a well-constructed film which has you rooting for the characters throughout its incident-packed 50-odd minutes. Franklin directs well with some excellent cutting, especially during the theatre fire and towards the final climax. He also knows how to bring out the best from his major asset and there are ample close ups for Norma to show her superb acting ability.

O’Brien is also good as her steadfast Captain whilst Gladden James is thoroughly horrible as the weasely Sylvester. As for Vulcan… you really wouldn’t want to meet Anders Randolph in a dark alleyway!

But it’s all about Talmadge and a performance that matches the one she gives in Going Straight. This story could so easily have slipped into more basic melodramatic territory but, as ever, we *believe* in Norma Talmadge. She doesn’t let us down.

I got my copy from one of those online purveyors of out of print and copyright DVD-Rs. It’s in better quality than anything on the Classic Movies Streams DVD and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to get a clearer view of this great actress doing what made contemporary audiences love her as much as Pickford and Gish!

I would also highly recommend Greta de Groat excellent Norma Talmadge Website - an incredibly well-informed and researched site covering all things Talmadge!

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