This post is my contribution to this year’s blogathon, For the Love of Film. This year the beneficiary of the blogosphere’s largess is Cupid in Quarantine (1918), which Marilyn Ferdinand calls “a one-reel Strand Comedy that tells the story of a young couple conspiring to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak.” This may be the most eye-poppingly oddball comedy premise the Siren has ever encountered. Surely this film deserves to be saved for its daring alone.
Together with Roderick Heath of This Island Rod and today's host, Sam Juliano of Wonders in the Dark, we’re trying to raise $10,000 to go to the National Film Preservation Foundation to cover laboratory costs for the film’s preservation as well as a new score for the film’s web premiere. The streaming film will be available free at the NFPF website.
Today is the last day. Help the Siren help Marilyn, Rod and Sam to bring it home for the folks at the NFPF! A random drawing of donor names will determine eligibility for some nice prizes including (ahem) a signed copy of the Siren's novel, Missing Reels.
Please read, and donate! The Siren is too ladylike to name names, but she has seen crowdfunding for some mighty dubious stuff this year. THIS is a good cause, and one that will yield you tangible results: preserving a piece of film history. Traditionally, it's the small donations that add up for us. So don't be shy!
The silent film the Siren watched most recently was Kiki, an absolutely delightful comedy from 1926 that starred Norma Talmadge as an inept wannabe showgirl (she can sing, but after that, the party’s over). A relaxed, funny Ronald Colman plays the showbiz impresario who's the object of her affection; Gertrude Astor is the snooty star who stands in plucky, orphaned, dead-broke Kiki's way.
It was directed by Clarence Brown, who later told Kevin Brownlow, “Norma Talmadge was the greatest pantomimist that ever drew breath. She was a natural-born comic; you could turn on a scene with her and she’d go on for five minutes without stopping or repeating herself.”
|Norma Talmadge puts one over on the landlady in Kiki.|
Brown knew whereof he spoke. Norma Talmadge is really, truly wonderful; fresh, natural, unaffected.
But Talmadge is the second-most famous casualty of sound, after John Gilbert. We know now that the history of Gilbert’s “white voice” (a late-1920s euphemism for effeminate) is, as Henry Ford would put it, bunk. What about Norma? Is that bunk, too?
|She looks miserable, doesn't she.|
The story of Norma Talmadge, and the Brooklyn patois that supposedly sank her overnight, might in fact be more famous than Gilbert -- but pseudonymously. Nowadays not that many people know that the immortal Lina Lamont is a direct parody of Talmadge’s fall. Singin’ in the Rain even goes so far as to set the character’s disastrous first try at a talking picture in 18th-century France. In 1952, there were still people around who remembered the 1930 picture, DuBarry, Woman of Passion. It was Talmadge’s last film.
The Siren adores Singin' in the Rain, but its influence on the view of silent-film history has been, let's just say, not good. It's probably just as well that the Talmadge connection has been forgotten by the general public. Lina is a superb comic creation, talentless, avaricious, with the brains of a sequin. Norma was intelligent, talented, and held in much affection by people like Anita Loos, as the Siren once wrote before.
And let’s not dwell on the great Sunset Boulevard, often claimed to be based in part on the long, reclusive retirement of Norma, during which she apparently became dependent on painkillers for crippling arthritis. Billy Wilder was always cagey about whether art had ungallantly imitated life, but sadly, the bare outline fits. (Although, as Mae Murray is reported to have said on seeing the film, “None of us floozies was that nuts.”)
Legend has it that Norma’s sister, Constance, a star in her own right, sent a telegram advising Norma to get out. There are different versions around, so the Siren will reproduce the one she likes best:
QUIT PUSHING YOUR LUCK BABY STOP
THE CRITICS CAN’T KNOCK THOSE TRUST FUNDS MAMA SET UP FOR US STOP
True or not, to this day precisely why Norma Talmadge didn’t take as a talkie star is a matter of some debate. If you want to hear her voice, you have a chance with New York Nights above. It’s an extremely interesting early talkie, with a nice turn by Lilyan Tashman. Gilbert Roland was not at the top of his acting game, but lord, he always looks good. It's a bit static, but there are gritty moments that seem to herald the Depression-oriented pre-Codes to come, and other scenes that are rooted in pure melodrama.
As for the Talmadge voice, it is pleasant, hardly a Lamontesque assault on the eardrums, and perfectly appropriate for her showgirl character. On the other hand, if you go to the 15:30 mark, and listen to Talmadge deliver the line, “Some birthday party” in an accent that sounds straight outta Flatbush, it is easy to understand why her voice came as a shock.
Greta de Groat, a scholar whose Norma Talmadge site is absolutely splendid — a place to read about the whole of this great star’s career, and lose hours doing so — says simply that “the world was moving on, and in the excitement of discovering new favorites, the public was letting go of the old stars.” De Groat has seen DuBarry (the Siren has not) and claims that the accent so apparent in New York Nights is nowhere in evidence. Alexander Walker, in The Shattered Silents, buys into the idea that Norma’s voice doomed her, but maintains that she was nearly unique in that regard (the only other name he cites as vocally doomed is William Haines). He’s worth quoting at some length:
Just looking at the best examples of silent screen acting show how much of value was irrecoverably lost. Sound made acting more naturalistic, but also lazier. Words did the work. They diminished the mobile, finely nuanced quality of the screen mime and began the process in which the sense of people playing parts in a dexterously visible way is lost sight of a in a stylised naturalism that requires a dominant personality to make it bearable from film to film...Once they had dialogue on their lips, the silent idols suffered a grievous loss of divinity. They became more like the audiences watching them. This helps explain why the talkies altered star values so radically. What they did not do — and this needs stressing — was ruin the silent stars.
Talmadge had been planning to star in The Greeks Had a Word for Them for Samuel Goldwyn, but walked away. It was another showgirl character. Kiki, it should be noted, didn’t take with a public that loved their Norma as a dramatic heroine. Perhaps that was in the back of her mind. Her looks and talent had established her as one kind of star, and once that was the case, the fact that she might have been good in another type of role wasn’t enough to save her career. She’d been one of the most celebrated beauties in movies, but she was nearing 40, that age that knocked even Margo Channing sideways. Norma took little sis’ advice.
|Norma, holding the baby, in The Lady (1925), directed by Frank Borzage. De Groat says the second reel is missing and there is deterioration on the surviving print, but it still impressed a California audience some years back.|
As for why she is so little remembered today, well, she has that in common with a number of other silent stars. But Norma was especially unlucky. Norma’s films were acquired by the mysterious, litigious Raymond Rohauer, the man who controlled Buster Keaton’s legacy. (Buster, of course, was married to Norma’s sister Natalie.) Rohauer left the films to the Library of Congress, but in de Groat’s words, they had been “sorely neglected.” Some of the prints were only partially salvageable; some were all there, but damaged; still others were simply gone. It’s a story that stuck in my mind as I was writing Missing Reels.
The good news is that of her 51 films, de Groat says “31 are thought to be complete, and 11 more are preserved in part.” There are a few out on home video now, and the Siren plans to chase them down. But for Norma Talmadge ever to be a name on a level with better-known silent stars like Clara Bow, the films have to get back in circulation. And perhaps they will. De Groat also points out that since she began the site, several films, including Kiki, have come out on DVD.
As I say more than once in Missing Reels, I’m basically an optimist. When it comes to film preservation, it’s the only attitude that can keep me sane.
Here’s looking at you, Miss Talmadge. Your movies deserve a better fate.