From Photoplay, February, 1926, p. 58+
[Three photos omitted: Portraits of Talmadges famous roles. Captions: Princess Yetive in "Graustark," Polly Pearl in "The Lady," Moonyeen in "Smilin' Through"]
It takes courage for any writer of national reputation, especially one living in and part of the Hollywood motion picture colony, to come right out with the statement that any one actress is the only one endowed with greatness. But if there is any one quality in addition to her brilliancy that distinguishes Adela Rogers St. Johns, it is he courage to express her opinions. You may disagree with her but you must acknowledge her sincerity, and you must agree that she has presented a very convincing case.
The screen to date has produced among its stars only one great actress.
That may seem strange, but it is true beyond question, as I am sure I can show you.
Understand that when I say great actress, I mean just that. I do not mean fascinating personalities, or ravishing beauties. I mean such actresses as Duse, Ada Rehan, Mrs. Fiske, Ellen Terry, Maude Adams, Calve, Rejane, Ristori, Emily Stevens, Katherine Cornell and Pauline Lord. Bernhardt, as all sound critics know, was not a great actress. She was a marvelous personality, with a great bag of tricks and a dazzling abundance of vital force, but she was not a great actress.
Norma Talmadge alone can join the illustrious company mentioned above. She is the screen's one and only great actress.
Now, before the adherents of Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri get ready to do battle, let us consider this matter. I ask but a single favor--that they read to the end. I make but one qualification. There is one other great actress in the making among the screen stars--Colleen Moore. But she has not yet reached the strength and polish of her maturity. If she continues as her past promises, she should surpass them all.
Now I stand ready to prove my point.
Great acting must always possess certain qualities. Those of us who have spent a great part of our lives since childhood in study of the stage and screen, know that without any one of them, it becomes merely good acting. Those of us who were fortunate enough to see Duse in her prime, hold that supreme actress of all time as a standard. Power, conviction, sincerity, interpretation, originality, illusion, delicacy, intelligence, and above all, a complete sense of humanity and the ability to become the dramatic instrument without intruding self--these make acting an art.
The great actress must have versatility. She must be able to play anything within the limitations of her sex and color.
Of course we have no comparative performances, such as Bernhardt and Duse, playing Sudermann's "Magda," against each other in London in the same week, or as Farrar and Jeritza following each other at the Metropolitan as Tosca, or as a dozen first class actresses attempting Camille and Carmen in the same season.
But, can anyone question who would come out on top if our ten best screen actresses were asked to play a repertoire of Juliet, Nora Helmer in "A Doll's House," Iris Storm in "The Green Hat," Rosalind, Pollyanna, and the Sadie Thompson of "Rain?" I ask you, honestly, is there any actress on the screen, except Norma Talmadge, who could even begin to give a great performance of all these roles?
Yet that is a perfectly fair test for a great actress.
Personally, I am very fond of the school of fascinating personalities. I delight in watching Mae Murray's exquisite and extravagant posing. I am fond of Constance Talmadge's merry fascination. But that is not what we are talking about, is it? That is a different thing entirely. The same qualities they display also go to make famous hostesses and popular debutantes.
I am a devotee of Mary Pickford's. I have never missed one of her pictures since "The New York Hat." But that is because I love Mary Pickford. Her experience and business-like competence, her infallible ability to time and stroke a part exactly right, her amazing knowledge of all departments of motion picture making, keep her from ever giving a bad performance and enable her to give some very excellent ones. Her mischievousness, her wistfulness, her charming rages and brave little sorrows, all these she presents with a firm, sure talent. It takes a certain measure of acting to display yourself to the best advantage. This Miss Pickford certainly does, and she always gives her best. There is thought and work behind every one of her roles. But, again I say, that is not great acting.
Gloria Swanson I simply cannot take seriously as an actress. Enchanting she certainly is. Like Mrs. Pat Campbell, she has a keen, theatrical instinct. But when I come across the contention that she is a great actress, I am both astonished and amused. Who wants her to act, anyway? Do we ever get enough of just Gloria? Do most people want Gloria covered up, melted, and transformed into something and somebody else? Certainly not--and she never is. She is always Gloria Swanson. Usually, she is clever enough to select only those things which, being eminently suited to Gloria, she can do well, vehicles which give her the appearance of acting when, as a matter of fact, she is still just being herself. But let her attempt something different, something really difficult, with shades and changes over a wide range of real characterization, like "Madame Sans-Gene," and her lacks and limitations at once reveal themselves.
To Pola Negri must be credited one great performance--DuBarry, in "Passion." But one great performance cannot and does not make a great actress. And Pola has been giving us that performance in different guises ever since. Pola has irresistible physical gifts. She has a really fine sense of color, rhythm, form and a positive genius for momentary effects. But at no time does she approach the violent, gorgeous, creative realism of Calve. She never gives you that sense of stripping a curtain from life itself with a ruthless, powerful hand that made Calve an almost fearful artist. Negri's work is marred by self-satisfaction. And it is lazy work. Mentally lazy. Tags from this and ends of that. She knows better. She can do better. And we should insist upon her doing it. But there is no actress on the stage or screen who can give you so much to forgive and still make you forgive her.
Personally, I consider Lillian Gish the most over-rated actress on screen. Hard as I try to be charitable, much as I desire to be just, and anxious as I am to give every shred of credit where it is due, I boil with ungovernable rage when I hear her referred to as the "Duse of the Screen." Duse! Lillian Gish's narrow, strange, immature talent compared to that great, warm, inspired genius that was Duse's. Oh, no--the very thought is unfair to Miss Gish.
Lillian Gish's claim to the name of a great actress is founded, not even upon her playing of one part, but actually of one scene. If you will honestly stop and consider her performance in "Broken Blossoms," "Hearts of the World," "Way Down East" and even in "The Clansman," you will see that this is so. The frenzy of fear and anguish, followed by the apparent loss of all reason and mentality, the daze of imbecility. Miss Gish has exceptional nervous power, combined with a physical appearance of extreme frailty. She drives this nervous force into a frenzy of excessive emotionalism, and as her physical endurance, which is very slight, nears its end, she achieves a creditable appearance of madness. This runs away with her, with the part, with the story. It does not reach out, as Duse's most delicate gesture could do, and touch you on the naked heart. It simply stirs you to the sort of nervous upset and regret that you experience after witnessing a street accident. I admit that to witness a hurricane or a whirlpool in action is an amazing sight and will bring almost any crowd up standing with its mouth open. But I also submit that it is not art, is not great acting. And I further believe that no matter to what heights such a frenzy of dashing about and wringing the hands may go, it can never move the audience as does the comparatively quiet, sincere, intelligent method of such an artist as Norma Talmadge.
I have never seen Miss Gish give but one performance that even approximated characterization, or that had the faintest elements in it of invention, continuity of development and execution, selection, and interpretation. I do not believe she even knows the meaning of such things. Her very physical contour and the construction of her face, beautiful as it undoubtedly is, make it impossible for her to portray the big, generous, soul problems that make great acting possible. And I sincerely believe that when people call her a great actress the are deceived by her gusts of nervous frenzy and over-acting and have not soundly considered her work as a whole.
Miss Gish has much beauty and, as a type for the persecuted and betrayed heroine, she is excellent and has her place upon the screen. But it is doing both her and the public a real, artistic injustice to continue this business about the "Duse of the Screen."
And now let us come to the acting genius of Norma Talmadge, in contrast to other screen actresses.
First of all, with Norma Talmadge every part is a separate and distinct creation. And when you see her upon the screen, you never see Norma Talmadge. You, as an audience, know absolutely nothing of the woman, Norma Talmadge. You have never even seen her. Instead, you know De Luxe Annie, and the Duchess de Langeais, Ann Regan and the Princess of Graustark.
When Norma Talmadge becomes the shop girl heroine of "Within the Law," she doesn't become her for the "big scenes." The very carriage of her head, the very movements of her hands, the whole woman changes. There is nothing in her work more delightful that her unfailing hold upon her characterization. She doesn't stop in the middle to give you a personal aside and wink, like a vaudeville performer. Nor does she wait for the high dramatic points to begin acting. Hers is the inevitable method of genius--the intelligent ability to make those big situations live by careful and consistent preparation beforehand. She knows, as Maude Adams always knew, that the less you have actually to do at big moments the better. They should be acted, unfolded, until they exist of themselves, and thus give the minds and hearts and imaginations of your audience a chance to work with you undistracted by so-called "acting."
It takes reason, hard work, sublime faith, to give the world great acting. There is no intellectual vacuum behind Miss Talmadge's work. She first visions and understands the part, and then she plays it. And her technical skill has reached that high pitch where is is absolutely undiscernible to the naked eye. With every bit of skill in execution that is possible for an actress to have, she still gives an impression of utter spontaneity, and I assure you, is the acme of art. Probably ninety percent of her audiences do not realize that there is any art or study or technique behind her performances.
Miss Talmadge need yield to no one for beauty and charm. But they are her servants, and not her stock in trade. She uses them when they are to be used, but she will sacrifice them just as recklessly. I do not mean by make-up, as she did in "Secrets" and "The Lady," but in the emotion of the moment. And I think she is the only screen actress who has realized that grace on the screen is almost as great an adjunct to find acting as beauty.
The scene in "Smilin' Through," when she came into the garden, was one of those things that looked simple, and easy. Any yet I doubt if any other screen actress could have reached out with it as she did, could have played it so touchingly and beautifully. Yet contrast it with the vivid, vulgar, animal life of the chorus girl scenes in "The Lady," which, to my way of thinking, were much finer in their conception than the scenes as the old lady. Contrast them both with the warm voluptuousness of her Balzac duchess, that intellectual voluptuousness that enjoys itself.
And I shall never forget the way in which she played the great scene in "Secrets"--the scene with her husband after the other woman had been there. The exquisitely delicate touches, the say she looked at him the way you could see her heart beating under her dress, the way her woman's soul fought, not for herself, but for him.
Even in so meagre and unworthy a roles as Princess Yetive, she manages to give something fine, to actually drag the silly, trite story up into a glamour of romance by the sheer power of her acting. And she gave you the feeling, by a glance that lasted only a fraction of a second, that she was a Princess, and that when the young American first touched her it was the opening of a new world, the birth of a woman within the Princess.
There are other actresses upon the screen who cannot be passed without a word, in any honest review of screen acting. Just why Bebe Daniels has failed to show us the full range of her ability, I don't know. Bad stories, bad direction, bad handling. But she has it--she has all of it, I think, if she ever gets a chance. Blanche Sweet is a perfect technician. If there is a part that the producers aren't sure of, the infallible remedy is to send for Blanche Sweet. But she lacks the flame, I think. And Florence Vidor and Marion Davies both have a really splendid genius for real comedy acting--Mrs. Vidor, for the quieter kind, made famous by Grace George and Laura Hope Crews.
But if you will stop and go over Miss Talmadge's work, from "Poppy" and "Panthea," and "The Passion Flower," through "De Luxe Annie," "The Sign of the Door," "Within the Law" and "Smilin' Through," to "The Eternal Flame," "Secrets" and "The Lady," I am sure you will agree with me she is our one great actress.
Last revised, June 28, 2002