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The Forbidden City (1918)

The Forbidden City (1918) Norma Talmadge Film Corporation/Select Pictures Corporation. Presented by Joseph Schenck. Directed by Sidney A. Franklin. Scenario by Mary Murillo. Camera by Edward Wynard and H. Lyman Broening. Cast: Norma Talmadge, Thomas Meighan, A.E. Warren, Michael Rayle, L. Rogers Lytton, Reid Hamilton. 5 or 6 reels. A copy of this film is located at The Library of Congress (35 mm.). This film is available on video.and was on youTube last time i looked.

Article on Forbidden City. The first couple of pages of an article on this film, entitled Chinese Stuff by Frank V. Bruner, which appeared in an unidentified magazine. Thanks to Derek Boothroyd for this scan. Article on Forbidden City

Links to still photos from this film on Silent Ladies 1 2 3

See also a still photo from the J. Willis Sayre photograph collection at the University of Washington.

Motion Picture review on Silents are Golden

Review from Variety
Review from the New York Times
Reviews from Moving Picture World
Review from Photoplay
Viewing comments
Program notes from the 2022 Pordenone Silent Film Festival (Il Giornate del Cinema Muto) by Lea Jacobs and Ben Brewster

Review from Variety, October 11, 1918


San San Norma Talmadge
Mandarin Michael Rayle
Wong Li A.E. Warren
John Worden Thomas Meighan
The Chinese Emperor L. Rogers Lytton
Toy Norma Talmadge
Lieut. Philip Halbert Reed Hamilton.

Norma Talmadge made her first appearance on the Rivoli's screen Sunday in "The Forbidden City," by George Scarborough, scenario by Mary Murillo, directed by Sidney A. Franklin--a Select release.

The first half of the story is more or less of a replica of "Madame Butterfly," with the second part continuing the tale to the point where the child of the union of the American man with the Chinese girl grows to womanhood. Miss Talmadge plays both roles with a skill and artistry that will enhance her already big reputation as a screen favorite.

An American man connected with the diplomatic service located at China falls in love with the daughter of a Chinese mandarin. They are secretly married, and enjoy infinite and rhapsodic happiness in their love. Husband is ordered to Shanghai, and while he is gone, her father has taken her to the Emperor in the hope she will be chosen as his royal highness' favorite. Unable to locate his wife, and believing her killed by her father for mating with a foreigner, he goes away.

When brought before the Emperor she reveals a child nursing at her breast. The Emperor, incensed, declares "death for the favorite who does not preserve herself for her royal lover." Apparently the Emperor recedes from his decree, and says, "You shall yet be my favorite. The child shall be taken care of." To which she responds, "San San has given her soul to the American. I shall wait for him." Smilingly the Emperor says, "A faithful wife shall be rewarded. You shall go free through the valley of peace."

As San San is escorted through a corridor she is stabbed to death by half a dozen of the Emperor's assassins. "The half-American child shall live to be a warning that East and West can be no twain."

The daughter is reared as a jest to the court ladies. At the age of 18 she escapes to the American embassy, and from there to Manila, where she becomes a nurse at the military base hospitals. There she becomes betrothed to a young lieutenant. He takes her to his guardian, who is her father. For a reason not made clear the father refuses to sanction the engagement, and orders the lieutenant to Mindanao. She is about to kill herself, when called upon to nurse her father, who is stricken with illness. In his delirium he calls for San San, his wife, and the daughter, realizing the relationship, attires herself in her mother's native clothes, and nurses her male parent back to health. It culminates in a happy marriage for the daughter.

The scenic and atmospheric details are elaborately splendid, and the general acting and direction of a very high order. The picture will stand a little cutting, and will then be sure to please everybody


Review from the New York Times, October 7, 1918

"The Forbidden City," with Norma Talmadge in the leading roles, two of them, is the featured offering of the Rivoli this week. When the story of the photoplay begins [s]he is the daughter of a Chinese Mandarin who secretly marries an America, for which she pays the penalty of death. But she leaves a baby daughter who grows up, escapes from the palace-prison, and finds the father as Governor-General of the Philippines. The girl also finds a lover, an American army lieutenant. Miss Talmadge, of course, is the heroine of the latter part of the story as well as the first--and a very attractive heroine she makes in each part, by her acting as well as natural charm.

Sidney A. Franklin, who directed the picture, lost no opportunity for Oriental display in it and succeeded in photographing many rich and beautiful scenes. Apparently he paid close attention, too, to little details, so that no one could charge him with only spotting his picture with the Chinese, but he was unable to make some of his actors seem like natives of the East.

Reviews from Moving Picture World, October 19, 1918

P. 445 "The Forbidden City"

Joseph M. Schenck Presents Norma Talmadge in a Beautiful Production.

Reviewed by Louis Reeves Harrison

The highest value in this beautiful production is a composite and so rare that it is seldom seen on the screen. The rare part is one of successful treatment--the illusion is so admirably preserved that an appearance of reality is given to pure romance--a plausibility so combined with beauty that it held a large Rivoli audience enthralled. This fascinating effect is produced by a logical and consistent development of the story, by distinct characterizations, each one a cameo of type by backgrounds ingenious to the last degree, so far as giving the play atmosphere is concerned, and beautiful in both large effects and small details, and by acting in which Norma Talmadge gives a wonderful exhibition of psychology supported by Thomas Meighan, Rogers Lytton, Michael Rayle and others in masterly style. A composite of these elements produces a whole effect that will remain with the spectator after leaving the theatre.

Norma Talmadge is forging to the foremost rank through her intelligent conception of each role she assumes. In delineating the childish woman her revelations of thought and feeling are a source of constant delight to the spectator. Not by pantomime, not by gesticulation and facial contortion, but by investing her own personality with that of the character she portrays she holds the eye enchanted. She will find her true place in a play of vital and powerful motive such as has not yet been accorded her. "The Forbidden City," poorly named and lacking in any big definite purpose, is made effective by marvelous treatment, splendid interpretation and romantic presentment, so that it will please almost any audience, and it may be regarded as a gem by some of them. It registered a distinct success at the Rivoli, and will count among the best of its kind yet shown.

P. 549 "The Forbidden City"

Joseph M. Schenck Presents Norma Talmadge in a Colorful Story of a Chinese Girl and the Little Daughter That Was Half American.

Mandarin Michael Rayle
Wong Li A.E. Warren
San San, his daughter Norma Talmadge
John Worden Thomas Meighan, U.S. Consulate Secretary
The Chinese Emperor L. Rogers Lytton
Toy, daughter of John Worden and San San Norma Talmadge
Lieut. Philip Halbert, U.S.A. Reed Hamilton.

Directed by Sidney A. Franklin.

The story: A disgraced Mandarin, who earns a bare livelihood by teaching Chinese to foreign students, seeks to regain favor with his Emperor by offering his beautiful daughter, San San, as an addition to his harem. But San San has been secretly wedded to John Worden, an American officer, and Toy, her little daughter, is born in the palace. Her birth discloses the secret, and results in the death of San San and her father. Years later Toy, reared in the palace, escapes and finds her way to Manila. Here she is loved by an army officer. His commander orders him away to break up the affair. Then he himself is nursed back to life by Toy, and discovers her to be his own daughter.

Feature Norma Talmadge in the dual role of San San and Toy, Thomas Meighan as John Worden, and Reid Hamilton as Lieut. Philip Halbert.

Program and Advertising Phrases: Norma Talmadge Favorite Photo-Star. Plays Dual Role in Sensational Oriental Screen Drama.
The Occident and Orient Meet in Gripping Photoplot.
Intermarriage of Parents Brings Chinese-American Girl to Crucial Decision.
Norma Talmadge Plays for the First Time a Chinese Role.
Subjects of the Celestial Empire Screened in Vivid Portrayals.
Norma Talmadge, Screen Favorite, in Her Most Skillful Presentation.

Advertising Angles: Play up Miss Talmadge and the play equally, or rather play her up in the play, since you will not have to trust to her popularity alone to carry the story. Hammer on the Chinese atmosphere of the story and production, and tell that Miss Talmadge plays a dual Chinese role--that of mother and daughter

Review from Photoplay, January 1919

The Forbidden City--Select

Norma Talmadge's large October vehicle might be described as "Madame Butterfly" turned inside out, and then turned outside in. For what happens to Toy's mother is what happened to Cho-Cho-San, only more so; and what happens to Toy is not at all what happened to Cho-Cho-San. The love of the Mandarin's daughter San-San for John Worden, the Consulate secretary, results in her death in the "alley of flashing pears," while her half-breed baby is reared to be a palace plaything and by-word. But Toy, the child, has her own idea of things, and escapes to Manila, where she meets her lieutenant, and the rest is love and difficulty--and love. While for sheer dramatic opportunity "The Forbidden City" does not compare with some of Miss Talmadge's recent plays, as a thing of beauty is beyond all of them, and the star's portrait of a Chinese girl is so perfect that director Franklin throws that perfection fairly in your face on an almond-eyed close-up. Always, Norma Talmadge is an artist. In one or two details the play missed its celestiality by an odd margin--notably the scene in which the Pekin palace guard, to overcome an unwary foe, resorts to a barroom wrestling match, a thing about as unlike the Chinese character as anything that may be imagined. Your Oriental moves more subtly and certainly: an overturned flower pot, the plunge of a knife, strong strangling fingers ... and the outward course of events flows so serenely that even passers-by cannot tell murder has been done. Tom Meighan enacts a man of varied years in Worden, the Consulate secretary who loved Toy's mother, and Reid Hamilton is the young lieutenant.

Viewing comments

Original viewing comments

Though admired by contemporary audiences, this does not now seem to be one of Talmadge's more inspired films. Though she uses her body and gestures effectively as the Chinese girl, the painful-looking makeup seems to hinder her facial expression and inhibit her performance. In her first scene as the half-caste daughter raised in the palace as an object of derision, she is angry, defiant, and suspicious--a very dramatic personality. Just when it looks as if we will be in for a really exciting performance, her character escapes to Manila to begin a new life as a nurse. Her new life evidently agrees with her since she acquires a completely new personality. She is now a sweet and somewhat wistful girl, but much less interesting. She falls in love with an American, but their marriage is opposed by his guardian, whom the audience knows is really her long lost father. His heartbreak at losing her mother is shown as his real reason for the opposition, not the racial prejudice which the Chinese characters in the film exhibit against whites.
Print viewed: DVD from Grapevine Video. Doubtless this is on youTube as well.

Comments re Pordenone screening, 2022

This film certainly does not play well to a contemporary audience, even one of silent film geeks. The yellow-face is hard to get past and it's not even well done. I pretty much agree with my earlier comments, even more so. While it was nice to see a good print and to see the care they took with the setting and photography, it's just too annoying to enjoy.

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Last revised, December 11, 2022