Sunday, May 17, 2015

For the Love of Film IV: Did the Talkies Doom Norma Talmadge?

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:


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.

Gilbert Roland, Talmadge, and Arnold Kent in Woman Disputed (1927) directed by Henry King and Sam Taylor. A silent movie, it came with a much-mocked Movietone score that included a song: "Although you're refuted / Woman Disputed / I love you." For better or worse, Library of Congress print is missing the score.

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.


Marilyn said...

I'm really taken with the idea that words made the actors lazy, but I don't know if I agree with it. Perhaps right at the change to sound, though it must have been a lot more work for them initially - think of poor Alice White who had to take two years off to take acting lessons, only to have no career to come back to. If the actors lost their divinity, I tend to think that was more the responsibility of their employers than the actors themselves - certainly actors today are endowed with an Godlike, all-knowing status, both worshipped and reviled, they have done nothing to deserve.

Thanks for being part of the blogathon!

The Siren said...

I think Walker had in mind the earliest, most static talkies, but he was also very much a silent-movie partisan who felt that the best stars were the first stars. I don't necessarily agree with it either, but it's so well put I threw it in there, anyway.

Thomas Doherty said...

Great piece, Farran. The whole silent to sound thing is so fraught with legend: as you can hear on any pre-Code Gilbert film, he has a perfectly fine voice. I've always thought two factors are at work in explaining why so few silent actors made the transition successfully: 1) anything associated with the 1920s evoked the wild party of the Jazz Age, the hangover from which we are now suffering from in the early 1930s. A guy like Lloyd is just doomed-- he is so tied to an alien zeitgeist; and 2) no voice could match the tonalities we imagined and mooned over in the 1920s. Of all the huge stars of the silent era, I think only Garbo, as Tynan notes, glided into sound without missing a beat.

The Siren said...

I think there were others, like Ronald Colman. But it was a crazy time. The one thing I think Singin' in the Rain gets right is how crazy scared people were.

Lea S. said...

For me, Norma's pronounciation of "idea" as "idear" came as a surprise! Her voice really does have a pleasant sound to it--and not terribly different from any other actress's. I haven't seen Du Barry either, but wouldn't be surprised if Norma was able to class up her vocals relatively easily.

This theory about talking taking precedence over acting in early talkies interests me too. In quite a few of those late '20s and early '30s films the actors seem to be trying so hard to say their lines with just the right emphasis, or trying to "project" like they would on a stage. I don't buy the idea that this made actors lazy, but it certainly made for less emphasis on subtleties in body language or facial expression--at least for a time.

gmoke said...

A useful example of "silent acting" today might be Robert Redford in "All Is Lost." As I grow older, it's the small but salient gestures and expressions where actors knock me out.

Birgit said...

I am glad that you showcase the wonderful Norma Talmadge. I think of how we think of people when we hear their voice. When we finally meet them we are usually surprised because we had created an image in our own mind of how they would look. I think the same can be said of the silent greats. In some cases, people had an image of how they would sound and when the public finally heard them it didn't jive with their image of how they should sound. Now that is just one of many reasons. I listen to her voice and she sounds swell to me. I am glad that many of her films have been saved since so many have not had the same luck

Silents, Please! said...

Very nice piece! I've never been able to find much enthusiasm for Norma Talmadge, but maybe I should give Kiki a chance. I do think it's telling that Mary Pickford remade it as one of her early talkies.

By the way, two of Norma's films are available on the European Film Gateway: The Safety Curtain (1918) and Smilin' Through (1922). I have English subs if you want them.

The Siren said...

Birgit, that's a simple but really great way to put us in the mindset of people meeting silent stars in talkies for the first time. It's true, in the online world, that the voice often doesn't match. I've met people with dainty online personas who have foghorn voices and people who are very aggressive online who sound a bit like Betty Boop.

Silents, Please, I haven't seen the Pickford Kiki. Unlike Gilbert, where I think he's as good or better in his talkies, I have to say I prefer the great Pickford's silents. Talking wasn't something her art needed. How nice of you to offer the DVDs! I think I am good for now. But I definitely want to find a more typical Talmadge role; Smilin' Through was a big hit for her.

Silents, Please! said...

Dear Siren, I actually haven't seen the Pickford Kiki either, but the pictures make it look like quite something. A change of image for Mary, certainly!

As for the linked films, I actually don't have DVDs, but the online videos have Dutch intertitles and just wanted to point out that EN .srts are available if desired. :)

The Siren said...

Haha! Squiting at the screen in the early morning, I didn't notice they were links. Thanks so very much, I will bookmark them.

Henry Holland said...

I wouldn't call William Haines "vocally doomed", what ended his career was being busted by the LAPD for having sex with a man at a downtown YMCA and refusing Louie Mayer's demand that he enter in to a sham marriage. He was offered a part as one of the "waxworks" in Sunset Boulevard but turned it down.

The Siren said...

Henry, I probably should have elaborated on that. It made me raise an eyebrow, too, and I think it's been supplanted by later research. (The Walker book dates to 1978, so it seems he could have been more forthcoming?) Haines was a beloved figure and his long marriage in-all-but-name to Jimmy Shields always struck me as one of the great unsung Hollywood romances of all time.

I have Scott Eyman's The Speed of Sound on my to-read list; hopefully it clears up a lot of things.

Joe Thompson said...

That was a nice piece, Farran. Now that I have heard more early talkies, I appreciate Greta de Groat's idea that people had gotten tired of certain stars. I liked Norma's voice. We lost something when people started talking (and singing) on the screen, but we made some gains, too. I have trouble picturing Fred Astaire in a silent.