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The Passion Flower (1921)

The Passion Flower (also released as Love or Hate) (1921) Norma Talmadge Film Corporation/First National. Produced by Joseph M. Schenck. Directed by Herbert Brenon. Adapted by Herbert Brenon and Mary Murillo. Photography, J. Roy Hunt. Cast: Norma Talmadge, Courtenay Foote, Eulalie Jensen, Harrison Ford, Charles Stevenson, Alice May, H.D. McClellan, Austin Harrison, Herbert Vance, Robert Agnew, Harold Stern, Natalie Talmadge, Jacques Martin, Elsa Fredericks, Augustus Balfour, Walter Wilson, Mildred Adams, Julian Green, Edward Boring. 7 reels. A copy of this film is located at the Library of Congress (35 mm., some deterioration)

Review from Variety
Review from the New York Times
Review from Photoplay
Review and comments from Moving Picture World
Viewing comments
Still Photo from Silent Ladies

Review from Variety, April 8, 1921


Acacia Norma Talmadge
Esteban Courtenay Foote
Raimunda Eulalie Jensen
Norbert Harrison Ford
Tio Eusebio Charles Stevenson
Julia Alice May
Their three sons Herbert Vance
H.D. McClellan
Austin Harrison
Faustino Robert Agnew
Little Carlosa Harold Stern
Milagros Natalie Talmadge
Old Juliana Mrs. Jacques Martin
Francesca Elsa Fredericks
Norbert's father Robert Payton Gibb
The Padre Augustus Balfour
Rubio Walter Wilson
Dona Isabel Mildred Adams
Acacia's father Julian Green
Bernabe Edward Boring

It isn't often an established star, either in the legitimate or pictures, permits a member of the supporting cast to have a role of equal importance. It is comparatively easy to curtail a part that stands out too prominently, even after the picture is completed, through the medium of the cutting room. Norma Talmadge, however, has permitted Courtenay Foote, who has the role of Esteban, the step-father, in "The Passion Flower," to shine effulgently--so strongly in fact as to compete for first honor. The character of Raimunda, the mother, is also permitted to stand out. As a matter of fact there are so many good parts in the filming of the Spanish play, and they are all so excellently cast, one might set the production down as all-star.

"The Passion Flower" is probably the strongest piece Norma Talmadge has ever appeared in--an artistic achievement. Atmospheric, romantic and well directed, it follows closely the stage version shown here, but might have gone a little further by a couple of hundred feet of "Clinch" to remove the taste of tragedy from it. This might not be so artistic but would be a sop to the proletariat and a bid for popular approval. First National can stand back of this release, guaranteeing exhibitors it will give complete satisfaction


Review from the New York Times, April 4, 1921

It does not seem fair to Herbert Brenon's latest production, "The Passion Flower," with Norma Talmadge in the leading role, at the Strand this week, to devote nearly all the available space to "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," but the novelty and significance of the latter work compel extended notice of it, and it is the misfortune of "The Passion Flower" to arrive in the same week. But the photoplay should not therefore be overlooked, for it is, in a number of respects, exceptional

Many people are familiar with the stage version from which the motion picture is derived, in which Nance O'Neil appeared, and although the film may not follow it in every particular, it seems certain that none of the fire of the original has been lost. Mr. Brenon, who has not been represented by any work on Broadway since his striking "Twelve:ten," which was at the Capitol in December, 1919, has again shown himself a cinematician of remarkable ability, and Miss Talmadge, who has been absent from Broadway screens since "The Branded Woman" at the Strand last September, plays a heavily emotional role with more genuineness and accuracy than has been evident in some of her previous pictures.

Many of the scenes in "The Passion Flower" are forceful by the acting of Miss Talmadge and the others in this cast, and Mr. Brenon has given his players the advantage of scenes finished in composition and lighting, settings harmonious and restrained. His direction has added immeasurably to the dramatic strength of the story. Courtenay Foote, Eulalie Jensen, and Harrison Ford are particularly noticeable by their characterizations

Some may not care for the tensity and unconventionality of the plot, which is built around the hatred between a man and his step-daughter that is actually a manifestation of maddening love, but, on the other hand, this will commend the production to those who like their realisim, as well as their fiction, strong.

Ap 4 1921, 18:1

Review from Photoplay, July 1921

The Passion Flower--First National

Much was expected of this new Norma Talmadge film. It disappointed. To begin with, the play by the Spaniard Jacinto Benevente was more of a study of Spanish creeds and customs, morals and manners, than it was good sound drama. It is interesting to the student; it is not so interesting to the casual reader. A play was made of it; and now--a picture. It may be presuming to surmise that Mr. Schenck bought the film rights because of the intriguing title--snappy, isn't it?--but we have a suspicion that it is so. Herbert Brenon, a good director, presided. The result, on the screen, is a tedious, studied, and uninspired vehicle for the emotional Talmadge. If she had had this material to act in three years ago, she might have made it a sensational success. Today, she is too sure of herself, she has all her emotional tricks too nicely catalogued, to be convincingly dramatic. The picture is overburdened with detail. It seemed that Mr. Brenon has exercised too much care, that the scenario writer had overwritten the continuity; that the sets were Manhattan-made, and the players, even the extras, were puppets, and puppet-like, distressingly unreal. Much has been made of this production by metropolitan critics; but if the expressions of the audiences are any criterion, it did not interest. The audience we sat among laughed too long and loudly at a second-rate comedy to have been seriously inspired by the Talmadge interpretation. And it wasn't the fault of the audience.

Review from Moving Picture World, April 16, 1921

"The Passion Flower"

Norma Talmadge Gives Vivid Impersonation in Spanish Story of Lust and Murder.
Reviewed by Edward Weitzel

Any attempt to transplant the Italian and Spanish drama of primitive passion to this country has not met with success. Over here we have never manifested a liking for human nature stripped of all refinement and showing only the animal passion of a dumb brute. "The Passion Flower" belongs to this order of fiction. The main motive in the story is the lust of a stepfather for the young daughter of the woman he has promised to love and protect. There is no question about it being drama. "The Passion Flower" throbs and beats with a conflict of human wills and the struggle of evil desire to overcome purity and faith at all costs. It moves forward at a tension that grips the mind like a vise and employs every trick of the playwright to heighten the effect, by unexpected turns and quick change of incident. It is a revelation of human depravity that is without one edifying moment. The impression it leaves is not equalized, let alone effaced, by the tragic death of the brutal stepfather at the hands of his outraged wife.

The production reflects credit upon Herbert Brenon. Norma Talmadge as Acacia, the young girl whose love for her father's memory first excites the resentment of her stepfather and then his evil nature, gives a vivid impersonation of the simple Spanish girl who is torn between love of her mother and fear of the man she refuses to call father. She responds to the rapidly changing moods of the character with complete success. The supporting company is finely balanced.

The Cast

Acacia, the Passion Flower Norma Talmadge
Esteban, her stepfather Courtenay Foote
Raimunda, her mother Eulalie Jensen
Norbert, the poet Harrison Ford
Tio Eusebio, a grand old man Charles Stevenson
Julia, his blind wife Alice May
Their three sons Herbert Vance
H.D. McClellan
Austin Harrison
Faustino, their youngest son Robert Agnew
Little Carlosa, their grandson Harold Stern
Milagros, a flirt Natalie Talmadge
Old Juliana, the old servant of Raimunda Mrs. Jacques Martin

Stage Play by Jacinto Benacente [sic]
Directed by Herbert Brenon
Length, 6,963 Feet

The Story

When Acacia's mother brings a stepfather into the house, the girl refuses to have anything to do with him, hating him with all the intensity of her Spanish blood. The family are will-to-do farmers, and Acacia is sought by the young poet, Norbert, and also by the youngest son of Tio Eusebio, Faustino by name. Esteban, the stepfather, has an unholy passion for the girl, and when he finds that Acacia loves the poet he manages to separate them by telling the young man that Acacia has accepted Faustino. Cut by Norbert's coldness the girl actually accepts Faustino. Esteban's servant shoots Faustino and the crime is fastened on Norbert. The truth finally comes out and Esteban hides in the woods. Tired of being hunted down and learning that Faustino is not dead, the stepfather returns and tries to patch up matters with his wife by claiming that he only wants Acacia to love him as a father. His wife tells her daughter to embrace her stepfather. With his arms about the girl he betrays the brute passion he has for Acacia. The horrified mother seizes a gun and shoots him dead.

Programs and Exploitation Catchlines:
"Norma Talmadge Has a Powerful Tragic Role in the Celebrated Spanish Drama, "The Passion Flower."
Tense Drama is Found in Every Foot of "The Passion Flower," a Spanish Story Starring Norma Talmadge

Exploitation Angles: You should not have to work very hard to sell Miss Talmadge, but do your work thoroughly. Get plenty of pictorial paper for this and get it widely distributed. Use cutouts and if you get paintings, start these in the lobby a couple of weeks ahead, reserving the playing date the first week to make people ask. Spanish colors will give bright lobby decorations. Use red and yellow lights in place of the usual white and add fabric if you can get it.

Straight from the Shoulder Reports, Moving Picture World, November 26, 1921

THE PASSION FLOWER. Powerful dramatic story, revealing Norma Talmadge as the supreme artist of the screen. Support also fine and Herbert Brenon's direction perfect. Will not please Norma's followers generally, but is a gem of artistic realities. Advertising: usual advertisting. Patronage: high class. Attendance: average. E.W. Collins, Grand Theatre, Jonesboro, Arkansas

Straight from the Shoulder Reports, Moving Picture World, November 19, 1921

PASSION FLOWER. Norma Talmadge, a good drawing card, and got them in, but they did not like it. Some of them told me they did not believe it was Norma Talmadge. When will the producer learn that they don't like this kind of picture? Attendance: fair. J.A. Amery, Star Theatre, Bar Habor, Maine.

Viewing comments

In 1921, Talmadge announced that Herbert Brenon was to be her permanent director. This lasted only three films, but produced excellent results. Their first work was a bold move, a major film which was one of Talmadge's personal favorites.

Passion Flower (also known as Love or Hate) was a dark and shockingly unconventional piece which makes for disturbing viewing. The sets are oppressive, chiefly a large but cluttered room whose outside door opens onto a wall . The actors are continually trapped in doorways or behind stair railings. Talmadge plays Acacia, who shuns her stepfather as he continues to offer her presents and the like. We soon see that his overtures are not as innocent as they first appear. Acacia appears trapped in his gaze. Whenever she looks out of the frame she suddenly freezes in distress as the camera cuts to her stepfather staring at her obsessively. She can't even get away from him in her bedroom. While trying on jewels and a shawl from him which she previously rejected, she is playfully admiring herself in the mirror when he suddenly looms up behind her, his eyes meeting hers in the mirror. He is tormented by his desires, and says to his wife "Pity me, if she had accepted me as a father I would have loved her as a daughter." Surprisingly, she responds "There may yet be happiness for us in this house," and prepares to send Acacia to a convent. A female servant accuses Acacia of really being in love with her stepfather, and shocked and horrified she replies "It's a lie! God grant that it is a lie!" As she leaves, her mother pushes her toward her stepfather, urging her to call him father. All restraint gone, he grabs her and kisses her passionately, saying "to have you, to hold you, like the beasts of the field that know neither father nor mother." After this jaw-dropping title, the mother is finally sufficiently disgusted to reveal his presence to the law, and as he is captured he shoots her. She dies in Acacia's arms, assuring her, rather ineffectually, that he can no longer harm her.

This is the grimmest ending to any Talmadge film--note that it also differs from the ending described in the above reviews. Perhaps two endings were shot. Her tearful prayer at the end implies that she has accepted the blame for her stepfather's abusive behavior, for which the other characters seem to blame her. However, this does not appear to have been the interpretation which most contemporary critics, with the exception of Edward Weizel, gave to the film. Even Talmadge's mother Peg, like the mostly male reviewers, takes the intertitles literally and says of her character "she could no more help falling in love with the man whom her mother loved and whom she thought she, herself, hated all the time, than the snow can help falling, or the sun can help shining." Talmadge's quicksilver emotions are put to particularly good use in this film, Brenon knows how to exploit her strengths. She considered this to be her one fling at an art film, and its unpopularity with audiences dissuaded her from ever attempting anything so downbeat again.
Print viewed: 35 mm from the Library of Congress. The first scene is printed three times, there is some minor deterioration, and at least one scene is missing.

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Last revised, August 19, 2005