The long take: Norma Talmadge

The great silent film star is finally getting her place in the spotlight.

Norma Talmadge

If there are cardinal sins of film criticism, then the deadliest of them all must be writing about a film you haven’t seen. Yet many of our band are surely facing a season in hell. Whether critiquing a trailer or previewing a festival, critics regularly jump the gun. Not to mention those writers contributing to the online discourse around hot-topic films such as Don’t Worry Darling, which gathered as many column inches from its Venice press conference as its premiere screening.

For the film historian, this vice is not slothfulness, but a necessary evil. Estimates of the survival rate of silent films vary at between 10 and 20 per cent of productions. Of those that are extant, even fewer are in a healthy, viewable condition or accessible to researchers. Then there is the default canon of those widely available on Blu-ray and DCP – mostly films by directors who are still well-regarded and featuring stars whose faces are familiar. This cream has risen partly by happenstance. There are many silent films beloved by the critics and audiences of their day that are not on this list. Ignoring their existence because we can’t see them is a distortion of history, but these blind spots are a perennial frustration.

Norma Talmadge

A few weeks ago I could have happily told you that New Jersey-born Norma Talmadge (sister of comic actresses Constance and Natalie, who married Buster Keaton) was a huge star in American cinema in the early 1920s. That her career benefited greatly from the exertions of her determined mother Peg and her studio executive husband Joseph M. Schenck. That Anita Loos described her as having “a natural poker face and no acting technique, so she never ran the risk of overacting and appeared to be mistress of the art of understatement”. That her most popular film was Smilin’ Through from 1922.

I would also have had to admit that I had seen just three Norma Talmadge features. However, at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival this year, I was able to watch a welcome retrospective of her work, curated by Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs, which included some of the 89 films she made between 1910 and 1915 and went on to celebrate her 1920s heyday.

Now, watching these films in a run, and in such quantity, I can see why Loos was commended her for understatement, and how she balanced her interest in ‘characterisations’ with the public clamour to see her playing glamorous ladies in fashionable gowns. I appreciate her fondness for playing dual roles, and I became especially intrigued by the British screenwriter Mary Murillo, who wrote so many of her early star vehicles.

I found her compelling in the matrimonial melodrama Yes or No? (R. William Neill, 1920), in which she plays both a society lady and a tenement housewife faced with an opportunity for adultery, although the film struck a grimly judgemental tone. She was terribly poignant in Frank Borzage’s luscious drama The Lady (1925) as a music-hall girl who marries up but loses everything, including her child, after a divorce. She was impressively cool as a shop girl taking revenge on the male capitalist establishment in Within the Law (Frank Lloyd, 1923) and as a woman trying to save her stepdaughter from a lecherous cad in The Sign on the Door (Herbert Brenon, 1921).

Norma Talmadge

Even in the most lavish ensembles, her appearance is disarmingly natural, her performance style restrained, and she stands in front of the camera largely without pose or affectation. Audiences loved Talmadge for all the right reasons, but she has latterly been overlooked in favour of more charismatic characters from the Hollywood pantheon, those who achieved more lasting fame or enduring notoriety.

Most of Talmadge’s films cannot be found on streaming sites or on disc. In fact, some of the most intriguing performances of hers I have seen come from films that are almost, if not quite entirely, lost. This year it was a single reel, from a work print of Camille, a modern-dress adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s La Dame aux camélias (1848), about a courtesan who succumbs to consumption after falling in love. The film, from 1926, is directed by Fred Niblo and co-stars Gilbert Roland. The contemporary fashions were a sop to Talmadge’s public, who loved to see her in the latest designs, and in real life Roland and Talmadge channelled the passion they evoked on screen into an indiscreet affair.

I cannot tell you much about the film in the way of a review, but I can tell you the set decor and costumes are utterly ravishing. And it is enough to see the first scene of Talmadge and Roland making eye contact to know that their chemistry translates powerfully to film. Coming so soon after this electric encounter, a shot of Talmadge coughing into a handkerchief condenses the tragedy of the whole story into mere seconds. I was gripped, and I may never see a moment more. When you cannot see the whole film, a fragment can provide the most tantalising kind of consolation, but it’s worth the agony of remembering what has been lost to cherish what has been saved. I am grateful to festivals such as Pordenone that screen such remnants to satisfy a curiosity that is not entirely academic.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

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