Thursday, 9 October 2014

A game of two Talmadges… The Heart of Wetona (1919) vs Secrets (1924)

Of all the major stars of the silent ere – and I mean major - Norma Talmadge seems to be one of the hardest for modern viewers to connect with. Jeanine Basinger* is particularly good value of this point suggesting that whilst sister Constance had a definite persona that rises above her films, Norma was a more protean presence dependent on the strength of her material and that material was very much attuned to the tastes of the time.

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…

Wetona worries...
The Heart of Wetona (1919) features Norma as the daughter of a white mother and an Indian chief Quannah (Fred Huntley), she has been educated in the East but still speaks in broken English… This is a film about the nobility of the savage as well as their hot-headed-ness and adherence to strange old religions. Of its time… naturally.

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
The guilty man is irresponsible Anthony Wells (Gladden James – who always looks a wrong ‘un) a young man who avoids responsibility at every turn in spite of the patronage of Government agent, Hardin (the asdmirable Mr Thomas Meighan).

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...
No spoilers… you can probably work it out for yourself. Needless to say, James is suitably craven, Huntley is a very noble savage and Meighan is excellent as the stand-up, stand-by guy.

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
The Variety reviewer was unimpressed…  “…it is hardly a star part for Miss Talmadge. To be sure she is the pivotal character about which the plot revolves, but the role is purely a receptive one, and she is called upon to do little but pose as the bearer of the heavy burdens.”

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...
We’re whisked back to 1865 when a 16-years old Mary is being prepared for a ball by her mother (Emily Fitzroy) and aunt. This is the lightest-hearted part of the film and there’s much fun to be had with the application of various large constructs that form parts of the tent-like evening wear… The joviality stops when Mary’s father, William (George Nichols) reveals that he has discovered her nascent affair with one of his clerks (O’Brien).

George O'Brien and Norma Talmadge
Mary is locked in her room but decides to elope – on a penny farthing no less – with young John and to head off for America…

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
Moving forward to Mary’s 39th birthday in 1888 we hit one of the missing sections of this copy4 – by now Mary has three more children Blanche (Alice Day), Audrey (Mae Giraci) and John Jnr (Donald Keith – Merton of the Movies himself!). She has also been reconciled with her family.

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
Mary being Mary she offers to let John go if he truly loves Estelle who senses victory only to have her hopes dashed as John returns and decides no contest… Norma’s performance of quiet resolution and dignity is persuasive and genuinely moving…

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…”

Silent scream
Photoplay agreed saying that “The photography, particularly in the first part of the picture, is touched with real loveliness. And the scenario, by Frances Marion, is always searchingly human. But it is the personality, and the ability of Norma Talmadge that makes this a thing worth seeing.”

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!

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