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The Wonderful Thing (1921)

The Wonderful Thing (1921) Norma Talmadge Productions/ First National. Produced by Joseph M. Schenck. Directed by Herbert Brenon. Scenario by Clara Beranger and Herbert Brenon. Photography by J. Roy Hunt. Set design by Ben Carré. Cast: Norma Talmadge, Harrison Ford, Julia Hoyte, Howard Truesdale, Robert Agnew, Ethel Fleming, Mabel Bert, Fanny Burke, Walter McEwen, Charles Craig. 7 reels. A copy of this film is located at the Library of Congress (35 mm., some deterioration)

Part of the film was shot in Appanoose County, Iowa. A local historian has posted an article about it here

Review from Variety
Review from The New York Times
Review from Moving Picture World
Viewing comments

Review from Variety, November 11, 1921


Jacqueline Norma Talmadge
Donald Mannerby Harrison Ford
Catherine Mannerby Truesdale Julia Hoyt
James Sheridan Boggs Howard Truesdale
Laurence Mannerby Robert Agnew
Dulcie Mannerby Fosdick Ethel Fleming
Lady Sophia Mabel Bert
Angelica Mannerby Fanny Burke
"Smooth Bill" Carser Walter McEwen
General Lancaster Charles Craig

The Wonderful Thing" is a screen adaptation of the play of the same name, written by Lillian Trimble Bradley and Forrest Halsey. It was scenarized by Clara Beranger and directed by Herbert Brenon as a vehicle for Norma Talmadge, a First National release. On the stage it was far from a success, but serves as a breezy "society play" for the screen star. The role is a relatively light one for Miss Talmadge, being mostly comedy, with a smattering of emotional display.

She plays the daughter of an American hog raiser who has amassed millions in the middle West, falls in love with a titled young Englishman, learns from his sister that he hesitates to propose because he is poor; she impulsively pops the question to him and they are married.

The young bride hears her husband married her for her money and is heartbroken, but cannot understand why he won't use any of her wealth. It develops he did marry her for her money in order to save a younger brother from jail for forgery, but even then would not make use of his wife's fortune. In the end it all comes out right and the titled family which had sneered at her is humiliated by her generous impulses and anonymous financial assistance.

The production is high class in every respect--the technical details, direction, lighting and uniformly excellent acting by the entire company. There is but one glaring error of direction--a scene showing the familiarity with which an English serving maid conducts herself in conversation with a member of the titled English family. Director Brenon knows, or should know, enough about England not to permit such a faux pas. It is the one wrong note in an otherwise acceptable photoplay feature.


Review from The New York Times, November 7, 1921

Of course, there's no denying that Norma Talmadge is one of the American screen actresses who can really act and that Herbert Brenon is a director who can make vividly expressive moving pictures so it is readily admitted that any production to which they jointly devote their efforts can hardly be without something to recommend it, but--

How do such competent persons come as close to concealing their talents as they do in "The Wonderful Thing," the photoplay at the Strand this week? Except for a few scenes, and, perhaps, its consistently good photographic quality, it might be the work of almost any of the many mediocre actresses and directors in the numerous studios between the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.

For instance, the picture is excessively talky. There is almost no scene in it which means anything without its accompanying, and interruptive, subtitles. In fact, the story is told in words. If all of the pictures were taken out of it, it would still be fairly complete and intelligible. Yet Mr. Brenon has shown in other productions that he can make expressive moving pictures that do not need the verbal crutch. Why hasn't he done so here? When it is reported that his scenes are well composed, except those in which the frame is allowed to clip off the tops of the players' heads, and that the photograph, as a rule, is soft yet clear, the most that may be said by way of recommendation for his work has been put down. Of expressive kinetic photography there is practically nothing in the picture.

Miss Talmadge is a pantomimist. In other pictures she has shown that she can make her thoughts and feelings known by silent acting, by facial expressions, gestures, postures and movements of her body. Yet, in this picture she does little besides talk. In a few scenes there are flashes of pantomime, but most of the time she just moves her lips as if, when she was making the photoplay, she thought the motion picture camera was a phonograph. And she's no better at moving her lips on the screen than hundreds of other actresses. But she's a far better pantomimist when she chooses to be.

Nor do the others in the cast do anything special. Most conspicuous among them, because of her social prominence and the publicity that attended her entrance into motion picture work is Mrs. Lydig Hoyt, who is programmed as Julia Hoyt and has a minor role in the photoplay. Whether Mrs. Hoyt is a screen actress of the first rank remains to be seen. She hasn't much chance in "The Wonderful Thing," and, with the others, does little besides talk.

The story of the production can be accepted only as a fairy tale. It is billed as an adaptation of the play by the same name by Lillian Trimble Bradley, but how closely it follows its original the present writer cannot say. In its screen form it makes free use of the "Peg o' My Heart" idea, with the Frenchified daughter of a wealthy American hog raiser playing the role of despised benefactor in a snobbish English home. The story is kept going by all sorts of complications, any one of which would have been straightened out in two minutes by the exercise of a little common sense by any of the persons involved; but, then, the story would not have been kept going.

The Strand commemorates Armistice Week and the opening of the Washington conference with a Kineto picture of the victory pageants held in the various allied countries and a prologue on "Peace." "The Love Egg," a Punch comedy, is also on the bill.

N 7, 1921, 20:1

Review from Moving Picture World, November 26, 1921

"The Wonderful Thing"

Norma Talmadge Gives Charm and Interest to Rather Slight Story on Familiar Lines. Released by First National
Reviewed by Edward Weitzel.

The story of the American heiress who marries into an aristocratic but impoverished English family has been told on the screen in many forms, but is worth the retelling when capitally produced and acted in by Norma Talmadge. "The Wonderful Thing" is a slight story on familiar lines but the star gives it charm and interest. There are characters enough for an English three-volume, and they occasionally get in one another's way, but expert work by all the members of the cast and a well-handled production save the day. Harrison Ford is the young Englishman who offers his hand to the Paris raised American heiress to save his brother and ends by giving his wife his heart. Mr. Ford is admirable in the part. Julia Hoyt and Howard Truesdale are thoroughly capable.

The Cast.

Jacqueline Laurentine Boggs Norma Talmadge
Donald Mannerby Harrison Ford
Catherine Mannerby Truesdale Julia Hart [i.e. Julia Hoyt]
James Sherman Boggs Howard Truesdale
Laurence Mannerby Robert Agnew
Dulcie Mannerby Fosdick Ethel Fleming
Lady Sophia Alexandra Mannerby Mabel Bert
Angelica Mannerby Fanny Burke
"Smooth Bill" Carser Walter McEwen
General Lancaster Charles Craig

Play by Lilian Trimble Bradley and Forrest Halsey. Scenario by Clara Beranger and Herbert Brenon. Length, 6,880 feet

The Story
The Mannerbys, of Mannerby Hall, were in bad enough financial straits already, when the younger son, Laurence, got drunk one night and paid a gambling debt to "Smooth Bill" Carser by signing his mother's name to a check for fifty pounds. Carser tried to extort two thousand pounds for the check and his silence and Donald, the older brother, found every effort to get money vain.

Jacqueline Boggs, and American girl, visiting Donald's sister, was strongly attracted to Donald. Her friend told her that only her wealth prevented Donald proposing, so she took matters into her own hands and proposed to him herself. Donald had been too much worried to give much thought to his sister's guest, but he could not help realizing that Jac's wealth would solve all his problems. Hating himself for a cad, he married her, only to find himself very little better off: for Jac's sense of honor and complete unselfishness shamed him into feeling that he could not touch a cent of her money. He gave Carser his note with a clause inserted to the effect that Laurence would not leave the country and the jurisdiction of the English Courts.

One night, Jac discovered Laurence much the worse for drink. Wishing to make a man of him, she persuaded him to go to her father's ranch in America. When Carser discovered that the terms of Donald's note had been violated, he went to Jac, convinced that Donald had married her for her money, and obtained from her a check for the two thousand pounds. Donald came on the scene in time to throw Carser out of the house, but he could not deny the truth of what had been told Jac. She could think no worse of Donald than he did of himself, for he had come to love her dearly. Finding that her deepest distress was for her father's grief when he learned how she had been tricked, he felt that the one decent thing he could do was to go to that ranch in the west and make a clean breast of the whole affair.

In America, Donald found himself as deeply impressed with the character of his wife's father as with the splendid change in his brother, Laurence. When the whole-souled Mr. Boggs learned the exact state of the case through Donald's recital and the earnest confession of Laurence, he determined to bring Jac and her husband together. He persuaded Donald to remain with him a little longer and quietly cabled Jac to come home. The day she reached the ranch, Donald had just left it to begin his homeward way to England but fate, in the person of Mr. Boggs, arranged that he miss the train and be forced to return to the ranch. As he drove up, he heard Mr. Boggs informing Jac that she was well rid of the scoundrel this English husband had turned out to be. As Mr. Boggs believed it would, his abuse of Donald roused Jac to her husband's defense; and just as she broke down sobbing that she still loved Donald, she found that instead of her father it was her husband himself who was holding her in his arms.

Viewing comments

Well, the Wonderful Thing wasn't so wonderful. For some bizarre reason, Norma's character is supposed to be an American, but raised at a French convent, so all her intertitles have extremely annoying French "accents," which grow increasingly wearysome as the film goes on. There seems to be no particular story point to her having a French accent, unless she thinks her manic behavior is supposed to be French (she acts similarly as the "bad" French woman of Ghosts of Yesterday). Even her clothes are grossly over-decorated (appropriate for the daughter of an American industrialist, but not wealthy French woman!). Not only is she annoying, the rest of the characters are such snobs that one has no sympathy for them either. Norma does have at last one amusing scene, and does calm down and act like her usual self when she learns the truth about her marriage, but by that time the audience has long since lost interest. Harrison Ford has one comic scene, but is serious for the rest of the film, having no other opportunity to shine. This is the first Norma Talmadge film I have been able to see on a big screen before an audience. While a few people found the film entertaining, most that I spoke to did not like either the film or Talmadge's performance. Overall, it was a great disappointment.
Print viewed: 35mm print from the Library of Congress screened at Cinecon 41 (2005), Egyptian Theater, Los Angeles.

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Last revised, February 5, 2014