Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve with the Talmadge Girls

Last year the Siren was traveling from New York to Seattle with four-year-old twins and her 14-month-old in tow. Should you ever attempt this, the Siren has one word for you: Bribes. Our bribes consisted of factory-sealed juice and milk boxes, one for each kid, which careful reading of the relevant airline guidelines seemed to indicate was permissible.

The security guard, however, must not have read the same Web page, because she hauled out all of our toddler baksheesh and arranged it on the table with a scowl that said we were about to get busted, big time. "I'll have to call my supervisor," she said, with the air of one who says, "I'll have to call Judge Jeffreys." Said supervisor arrived, a small and stressed-out man in his uniform shirtsleeves. The guard took him aside and the Siren heard her saying, "It's too much, they're trying to bring way too much." But instead of glaring at the Siren and her rule-bending brood the supervisor cocked an eyebrow at the guard and the Siren heard him say wearily, "They're traveling with three kids, f'Chrissake. Let 'em take in the juice."

He turned and started to walk away and the Siren cupped a hand to her mouth and called, "HEY!" He turned.

"Merry Christmas!" called the Siren, with gusto that would have befitted the Cratchits. The supervisor grinned and mouthed, "You too."

To that supervisor, and all those who are willing to bend the rules to make a holiday brighter, the Siren dedicates this story.

It's from Anita Loos's completely charming book about her relationship with silent stars Constance and Norma, The Talmadge Girls. Anita, Constance, the third Talmadge sister, Natalie (who would later marry Buster Keaton), and the formidable Talmadge mother, Peg, decided one year during their 1920s heyday that a warm California Christmas just wouldn't do. So the four ladies took the storied Twentieth Century to New York City and arrived just after midnight on Christmas Day. They found a Christmas tree on Vanderbilt Avenue, but no decorations. They deposited the tree in their hotel suite and Peg went to bed but Constance, Natalie and Anita, being more adventurous sorts, went out determined to find something with which to trim the tree. After wandering the deserted streets they found a drugstore in Grand Central that was open and staffed by a handsome, but sleepy clerk. He immediately recognized Constance Talmadge, but sadly admitted that his drugstore had nothing for tree-trimming.

And we were on our way out when the clerk, seeing romance about to disappear from his life forever, called, "Oh, Miss Talmadge! Come on back!"

He proceeded to unearth a box of small objects wrapped in silver foil, which glistened in the light. When Nate asked what they were, he said evasively, "What does it matter? They look like icicles, don't they?

Dutch [Constance's nickname] agreed eagerly and purchased all he had of them. The young man now ventured further. "Could you use some balloons?"

"Terrific!" Nate piped up. At which our benefactor produced a package of small deflated balloons, which he explained could be blown up and secured with dental floss. After which our young friend bethought himself of surgical cotton to serve as snow. Then, in a parting gesture, he presented Dutch with the two strings of colored lights that were blinking above the cash register.

The drugstore clerk, utterly in love with Dutch at that point, carried the "decorations" back to the hotel suite where he, Anita and Talmadge girls decorated the tree.

"Let's wake Peg up to see it!" dared Nate. And it was agreed to risk Peg's fury. When she entered, wearing her nightie and sleepy-eyed, we waited breathlessly for her reaction.

"Why," she exclaimed, "it's absolutely gorgeous!"

Dutch's suitor now felt safe enough to introduce himself to the mother-in-law of his dreams. "Mrs, Talmadge," said he, "my name is Lester Noonan and I'm honored to make your acquaintance."

As Peg blinked at him, Dutch placed a caressing hand on his arm. "Lester dug up all the ornaments for our tree!" she announced.

But she spoke a little too fondly, for Peg immediately began to assess the young man's attractions. As if he were not even present, she asked, "And where did you dig him up?"

"At that all-night drugstore!"

"Drugstore!" Peg repeated in a tone that placed all drugstores in a category with cesspools. Suspiciously, she turned to remove one of the icicles from the tree, examined it, and then in smoldering fury she addressed Lester.

"Why you sonofabitch!"

"Peg!" we all remonstrated.

"Do you know what this thing is?"

"What?" asked Dutch.

"It's a suppository!"

Lester blanched and looked flat enough to creep under the wall-to-wall carpet.

"What's a suppository?" inquired Nate.

"That's right! show your ignorance!"

Now Peg yanked one of the small balloons from the tree. "And d'you know what this object is?...It's a goddamn contraceptive!"

"What's a contraceptive?" asked Dutch.

"It's only due to my upbringing that you don't know!" Again Peg turned on Lester. "It's scum like you who give movie stars a filthy name!...Take that nasty thing apart before Walter Winchell gets wind of it! Or Town Topics! Or, God help us, Louella Parsons!"

We removed the unholy objects from our tree and Lester found a trash bin in the back hall where he could bury them.

We had scarcely finished when Norma and Joe [Schenck, later Norma's husband] descended on us from Atlantic City...

"Merry Christmas!" exclaimed Norma. But then, spotting the tree with its unlit bulbs and gobs of cotton snow, she gasped, "What is that thing?"

...But at that point Joe was already coming to the rescue. He picked up the phone, called the hotel management, and commandeered the enormous Christmas tree that decorated the downstairs lobby.

By that time the bells of St. Bartholomew's were chiming 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' and through the windows we saw snowflakes drifting like a benediction. There is nothing in the world that can warm the human heart like a snowy Christmas in New York. And as Lester forlornly approached Dutch to say "Well, Miss Talmadge, good-bye," Peg, in an upsurge of Christian spirit, invited him to join the family party. In reaction, Dutch's gaze took on the nearest thing to love light I had heretofore encountered.

Happy Holidays and a joyous New Year from the Siren's family, to yours.

(Above, the Talmadge girls in San Diego. Left to right: Constance, Natalie, Buster Keaton, director Clarence Brown (identified for the Siren by Rudyfan1926), Norma, Peg. Middle, Constance. Second from bottom, Anita. Bottom, Norma.)


Vanwall said...

Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year to you and yours, Oh Siren! Thanks for anecdote, it was priceless, and lovely piccies, t0H!

Peter Nellhaus said...

Have a fun holiday, or at least as much as the kids will allow!

ratatouille's archives said...

Hi! Self-Styled Siren,
That is a wonderful anecdote!...and funny!
Btw, I wished you a "Very Merry Christmas! and a Happy New Year! on my blog, but I decided to wish you the same on your blog.

Merry Christmas! and much happiness to you and your Family in the coming year!
DCD ;-)

Karen said...

Ah, Siren, who could ask for a better story to usher in the hoidays? Bless you, and Bless us, every one!

The Siren said...

Merry Christmas to all of you!

mndean said...

Merry Christmas!

rudyfan1926 said...

Merry Xmas Siren. The "unknown" is director Clarence Brown.

D Cairns said...


I was going to suggest that the inknown party might be Joseph Schenk, who married a Talmadge. Looks like him. But it certainly looks like Clarence Brown too. And Clarence is such a Christmassy name.

Merry C!

The Siren said...

Rudyfan, thank you very much! I knew it wasn't Schenck from comparing pictures--too round a face. I had to figure it out myself since the Net sources listed it as Constance, then Norma--I knew that wasn't right.

Merry Christmas!

Greg said...

Merry Christmas! That supervisor's okay in my book. Not enough people use good old fashioned common sense these days.

The Siren said...

Jonathan, I swear we had read the rules and thought we were following them, but when you have three kids even the mini-juice boxes add up. I have always found a lot of kindness from people when traveling with my brood.

Merry Christmas to the Lapper clan!

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, your airport story reminds me of the experience of an English acquaintance. Arriving in th U.S. with his extensive and restive brood and unable to cope with the slwoness of Customs he addressed the matter with English indirection: "Excuse me; I have four children..." The reply: "get a vasectomy, pal."

Merry Xmas, New Year to you and yours, Siren, and everyone spare a thought for Lester Noonan, a kindred (and ingenious) soul.

Classic Maiden said...

What a wonderful anecdote and a priceless one too. Merry Christmas to our favorite blogger!

The Siren said...

X Trapnel, HA! the kids were probably being too polite. If they are really acting up it's amazing how agents materialize out of nowhere. :D

Merry Christmas to you and the Maiden! And I would love to know what became of Mr. Noonan.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The Talmadges are lovely, but --

It's Barbara Steele Day!

gmoke said...

Natalie Talmadge co-starred with Buster in "Our Hospitality." The climax of the film is Buster swinging on a vine into the middle of a waterfall to catch Natalie as she is carried over the falls. No doubles. Done in our take. Breathtaking but maybe not the best way to treat your wife.

D Cairns said...

But -- it's a dummy that Buster catches. Then an edit substitutes Nat, and he swings her to safety. So he did dangle her from her wrists by a waterfall, but he didn't have her tossed over the falls and caught in mid-air. So that's alright then.

Keaton had to have water pumped out of his stomach afterwards, he'd swallowed so much.

Vanwall said...

Ah! That explains why it didn't work quite right for me and my gal - they oughta have a "Do Not Try This at Home" disclaimer on those things.

surlyh said...

Happy holidays and a Self-Styled New Year!

mndean said...

BTW, that waterfall in Our Hospitality was a studio creation, and the forced perspective to the "valley" below is absolutely perfect, even down to the haze in the distance. I can really believe it's hundreds of feet down. Keaton and his crew were really into Trompe L'oeil, even on mundane items, and very good at it. The stuff he did in the Truckee River was potentially much more dangerous than that stunt, and they did lose him once on the river.

Keaton of course did the one thing that no sane person should ever do - got himself related to his boss. Even if only by marrying sisters, it's a deadly combination (though it didn't hurt Truffaut badly, I take that as a difference in French culture).

Yojimboen said...

On September 3rd 1949, James Agee published his acclaimed essay, Comedy’s Greatest Era; a comparison of Comedy’s “…four most eminent masters, Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon and [he saved till last] Buster Keaton.”
Perhaps here is a good place to excerpt what he wrote about Keaton:

He was the only major comedian who kept sentiment almost entirely out of his work, and he brought pure physical comedy to its greatest heights. Beneath his lack of emotion he was also uninsistently sardonic; deep below that, giving a disturbing tension and grandeur to the foolishness, for those who sensed it, there was in his comedy a freezing whisper not of pathos but of melancholia. With the humor, the craftsmanship and the action there was often, besides, a fine, still and sometimes dreamlike beauty. Much of his Civil War picture The General is within hailing distance of Mathew Brady. And there is a ghostly, unforgettable moment in The Navigator when, on a deserted, softly rolling ship, all the pale doors along a deck swing open as one behind Keaton and, as one, slam shut, in a hair-raising illusion of noise.
Perhaps because "dry” comedy is so much more rare and odd than "dry" wit, there are people who never much cared for Keaton.
Those who do cannot care mildly.

The Siren said...

M. and y., I am in family holiday land and can't comment at length -- but Loos had enormous respect for Keaton's genius and not much liking for Natalie, who apparently henpecked Buster no end. Loos stopped just short of flat-out saying Natalie drove him to drink. Loos is an unreliable narrator though, if always a witty and engaging one.

mndean said...

Between Loos and Louise Brooks (granting that neither are totally reliable), I'd say there were multiple pressure points on Buster. And the aftereffects of the divorce leads me to believe that Natalie was something of a malignant force in his life, especially financially.

I had the sad "privilege" of watching Sidewalks of New York, and of all the sound Keaton features, from that one rose an aroma nothing could stop. I know he rued the day he accepted going to MGM by then. It was as bad as the worst Warner or RKO comedy full of nobodies I'd ever seen. Formulaic and noisy were its two biggest points. Even if not all the sound Keatons were as bad as that (Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath was occasionally quite funny), sometimes I think he'd have been better off at Tiffany.

From what I've read, for all the good advice given him, nobody actually offered him anyplace else to go. With sound being such an expensive proposition, he had very few choices. It was either poverty row or a major. Going it alone would have cost money, and where would he get it with Nate's expensive habits? I'd love to hear where anyone else think he should have went, as I certainly have an idea or two on that.

Karen said...

I just want to comment on that photo of Norma at the bottom of the post, which has really captivated me. Often, when looking at silent-screen stars, or even Golden Age of Hollywood stars, they look so much of their time that you can't really imagine what they would look like today, much less whether they'd have a career today. But that's a remarkable photo of Norma--if you ignore the era-specific clothing and just look at her from the neck up, that photo could have been taken 40 or 50 years later.

She really looks timeless.

Uncle Gustav said...

Siren, thought you might be interested: TCM will be showing John Boulting's The Magic Box (1951) on Monday (Jan 5) at 2pm EST.

D Cairns said...

mndean, I'm not sure Keaton even CHOSE to go to MGM -- I recall reading that Joseph Schenk sold his contract to MGM or something. When he got out of MGM, there were few other offers, so he went to Europe and to Educational Films, but that's because his reputation had been tarnished by his drinking problem. I think he would have had plenty of offers before then, but he wasn't a free agent.

mndean said...

D. Cairns,
The upshot I got was that Schenck closed the Keaton studio and Keaton went to MGM (of his own accord or not I forget, I think not but I have to get one of my books out to check), but then RENEWED his contract with MGM around 1930. Bad mistake, but he needed the money for obvious reasons (the Italian Villa, for one). By the time he got dumped by MGM in 1933, he was pretty well finished. He was in the same position as other actors and directors who displeased Louis B. Mayer, i.e. no major would hire him to star in a picture. In his little fiefdom called Hollywood, Mayer's word was nearly law. Similar happened to Lee Tracy a couple of years later (although he did some B pictures for RKO afterward).

mndean said...

I should point out I wrote what I meant in whether Keaton went of his free will or not exactly backwards. I do remember it being his choice (albeit strongly influenced by producer, brother-in-law and "good friend" Joe Schenck (his brother Nicholas was who Buster ultimately worked for at MGM - tell me whose interests were being held by Joe). And they sweetened it by appearing to let him have free rein on his first film (though I'll bet they were watching the dailies closely), and which they gradually took away from him by his third. The worst part is that he did nothing wrong in his first film at MGM, but if he could do what he was doing and succeed (The Cameraman was more financially successful than any of his independent productions), others in the studio might question the necessity of MGM's "system". There were creative types who chafed under it as it was, and it was dangerous to let Keaton have any appearance of independence while there. I'll bet it was a coarse joke to Buster to see "A Buster Keaton Production" on the credits of his MGM sound films. There was always a Lawrence Weingarten around who actually had power over the production. That's why I'll never understand why he renewed with MGM. He owed them nothing by then and didn't like the films he was being put in. Money was really the only answer I could arrive at, as he really needed it.

D Cairns said...

What was the date of his renewal? There seems to have been a process of attrition, whereby Keaton lost even the will to do good work. He got it back to some extent when he left MGM, but by then drink was seriously hampering him. But the Educational shorts are at least a step up from those late MGM films.

Money would certainly be an influence, but it couldn't be the only one... or if it was, that'd be a measure of how beaten-down Keaton the artist had become.

Yojimboen said...

mndean – “…And they sweetened it by appearing to let him have free rein on his first film…”

Yes and no. From Keaton’s autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick: “(In 1928) I made the worst mistake of my career. Against my better judgment I let Joe Schenck talk me into giving up my own studio to make pictures at the booming MGM lot in Culver City.”

David Shipman’s pocket bio picks up the story: Both Chaplin and Lloyd advised (Keaton) against it…. Keaton understood that there was an underground conspiracy to get him to MGM, whose boss Nicholas Schenck was Joe’s brother… The first was The Cameraman (28)… He had to fight to make it his way and was not allowed to use his own team or develop his ideas. And since it made a mint, that only proved to MGM how well they could make a Keaton comedy; so the battles with executives intensified on Spite Marriage (29)…
It broke records.

The Siren said...

Oy, still stuck in suburbia and fighting for my turn at the computer. Wishing everyone a happy 2009. I will be back by Monday. Not much time to watch movies here either and no TCM. Am coping by reading (finished Revolutionary Road) and now on to Pickwick Papers. Send me good thoughts, my friends.

mndean said...

The amount he fought for The Cameraman was true enough, but in essence, he won. Look whose got the story credit, who shot it, set decorator, etc. That was as close as he came to producing his own film. If what you say is true (that this wasn't Keaton's film) why did MGM even bother hiring Elgin Lessley or Fred Gabourie? They didn't need any of his old crew. Even his brother and sister are extras. The story came from old Keaton team member Clyde Bruckman. MGM's contribution was surrounding him with supporting actors and giving him a love interest (that may have been one thing Keaton didn't care for, but it worked), they definitely had some input and ultimate control, but their creative input wasn't so great. As for what MGM said, that's the sort of self-serving garbage they fed to both Keaton and the press, using it as leverage to get whatever creative control Keaton had back from him. One reason The Cameraman did better because Loew's was behind any MGM product and had the theaters to book it in, and massive publicity to ballyhoo the film. If you look at his next, Spite Marriage, although good it's a less interesting film (mostly because it's more formulaic and the climax is out of The Navigator and Battling Butler). I may be cynical, but when Cagney talks about ballyhoo and what it can do in Hard to Handle, that's the clear truth.

P.S. Why do they always call him a "pants presser" in Spite Marriage? It's a small, owner-operated dry cleaner from what I can make of it. Buster has the key to the place, feels free to wear his customer's suits and works the till. We never see a boss or another worker, just customers. Pardon me for saying, but my dad was much the same in the cafe he owned when I was a kid. And nobody called him a hash slinger. I suspect it was probably studio publicity to make Keaton's character look more the underdog.

Yojimboen said...

mn “…If what you say is true (that this wasn't Keaton's film)…”
Dear me, when did I say that? Read my comment again; all I did was retype David Shipman’s ironic observation that no matter what shit they put Keaton through, when he - in spite of their interference - managed to make his masterpiece his way, they took credit.
Thus it ever was in the studio system and thus it ever shall be.

mndean said...

Yojimboen, Ah, then we agree. I misinterpreted an ironic quote mostly because I've read enough unironic BS about Buster that's it's hard to spot a particular quote as being ironic.

mndean said...

Oh, and the standard studio answer for why a film did well - The Studio Knew How To Make/Sell That Film! The standard answer for a flop - The Damned Film Was Lousy, Not Our Fault. That's one reason we call it The Golden Era of Hollywood.

Joel Bocko said...

The Siren will be pleased to know she has been linked to in my year-end round-up post; specifically the summer posting "New York City of the Mind" (though it was obviously a difficult decision which quality entry to link to). You can see it here:

By the way "The Un-Sirkness of Revolutionary Road" sounds extremely interesting. Can I read it before seeing the movie, or would that probably be a mistake?

Tonio Kruger said...

Oh, and the standard studio answer for why a film did well - The Studio Knew How To Make/Sell That Film! The standard answer for a flop - The Damned Film Was Lousy, Not Our Fault. That's one reason we call it The Golden Era of Hollywood.

Actually that's what they also say in Hollywood nowadays. The more things change...

Anyway, a belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Campaspe.

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