Sunday, 1 July 2012

Norma Talmadge… Smiling Through (1922)

Smiling Through (also Smilin’ Through) was a box office smash in 1922 – 6th highest grosser after the likes of Robin Hood, Blood and Sand, Manslaughter – and, at this point its star, Norma Talmadge, was arguably second only to Mary Pickford.

Having raved about Mary I must return to Norma for she could act with a subtlety and a believable force unmatched by most contemporaries. And, as with Miss P she had a like-ability, energy and common touch that struck a chord with millions.

Smiling Through was based on the 1919 Broadway play staring Jane Cowl, who also co-wrote with Jane Murfin under the male pseudonym of Allan Langdon Martin. It was a play about eternal love that wrestled with the impact of the Great War… after such carnage you had to hope there was something more to life than death.

The story is a simple one and undoubtedly populist. As the New York Times review pointed out “…it is entirely sentimental, and it is well done. Those who like photoplays deliberately sentimental will be attracted to it…”. Moving Picture World pronounced that "Smilin' Through is a personal triumph for Norma Talmadge…” whilst also commenting that it will make good box office: “…a safe, satisfying success.”

It’s interesting to put this melodramatic and emotive film in the context of the period: a well-made, professional film that more than met business objectives and enhanced the status of its star. Modern viewers may find the production simplistic and too sugary but, at the time, people wanted the sweet stuff… We still need it now but the wrapper’s different.

Underneath the sweet was quite a lot of sour… Smiling Through’s main male character, John Carteret (played by Wyndham Standing) lives in hate following the tragic murder of the love of his life on their wedding day. Moonyeen (played by Norma) is a young Irish girl who has fallen for this upright English gentleman, but she has also unwittingly stole the heart of Kenneth Wayne (Harrison Ford… “no, not that one”… never gets old…).

Wayne tries to murder Carteret at the wedding but only succeeds in killing Moonyeen after she throws herself in front of her true love. Her death is a tragedy echoing the untimely ends met by so many at this time - the audience and film, cannot let this be the end.

This is told in flashback someway into the film. The story starts many years later with Carteret an old man obsessed with his memories and his hatred of all things Wayne. He still dreams of his love though and holds a doll against the moonlight to see the shadow of Moonyeen against his garden gate.

He adopted Moonyeen’s niece, Kathleen (also played by Norma) and she is the one bright point in his life. Yet, into their midst comes Jeremiah Wayne (Ford again) who has returned from a life in America and is unaware of the bad blood.


There's a lovely scene when Kathleen and Jeremiah meet at a ball in Dunstable. Kathleen rebuffs the advances of earnest Willie Ainsley (Glen Hunter) and pulling a variety of comedicalyy-disgusted faces, she manages to get the newcomer to invite her to dance.

The two go off to talk and fall in love but Carteret finds them and refuses to sanction their relationship. Undeterred they begin to meet in secret, aided by Doctor Owen (Alec B. Francis) who wishes his best friend would forgive and forget.

But Carteret is not going to change his mind even when Jeremiah joins up and leaves for France in 1914.

The Great War passes and Kathleen waits anxiously for her lover’s return but Jeremiah has been wounded and does not want her to marry him out of pity. Carteret is more than happy to accept this – the man has a heart of stone!

He starts to get his come-uppance though as Kathleen blames him for Jeremiah’s distancing… and Carteret tells her just why he hates the Waynes. But it’s not enough to convince her and she resolves to leave him.

Spoilers ahead: Left alone with friends and family alienated by his hatred, Carteret finally asks his friends for help in re-uniting the young couple.

There’s not a dry eye in out living room as Jeremiah proposes to Kathleen in the manner she instructed him to before the war. Talmadge’s emotional display here is so very impressive, she seemed to specialise in close up transitions from sad to happy and her huge dark eyes shine with relief and compassion.

Meanwhile, Carteret plays dominoes with his old pal the Doctor and, at last released from his emotional cage, he is joined by the spirit of Moonyeen. They are, at last reunited in the afterlife and, Moonyeen says that if only people knew what follows after death they’d spend their whole lives smiling through…. sentimental but reassuring to a population still mourning the deaths of millions.

Directed with efficiency by Sidney Franklin, Smiling Through was filmed largely on set – apart from a brief location shoot when Kathleen is first encountered a Californian inlet passing itself off as Ireland. This enclosure reflected its Broadway origins and adds to the cosy feel.

The cast is good, especially Alec B. Francis, whilst Harrison Ford excels especially as the bad Wayne, but it is Norma’s show and she dominates every scene she’s in always reaching out to the watcher with her expressive features, dancer's poise and those shininng eyes.

The print I watched was pretty good with the exception of some bleaching and peripheral damage after about an hour. It’s to be hoped it gets a clean up and proper release at some point - I’ve seen worse official releases from the twenties.

Catch it if you can and settle back to fully appreciate the skill and appeal of Norma Talmadge, a major contributor in the development of screen acting and a great, intelligent, entertainer.

And for those who think this blog is sometimes a little random... the reason Norma Jean (see previous post) was called Norma is because her mother was a big fan of Miss Talmadge.


  1. This is the first time I have visited your Awesome blog. I have enjoyed my stay.

  2. Thank you Dawn - that's made my day! Best wishes Paul