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DuBarry, Woman of Passion

A review by Greta de Groat

DuBarry, Woman of Passion has become legendary as the film that ended the career of Norma Talmadge, supposedly for portraying the famous French courtesan with a Brooklyn accent--a good story, but untrue. In this film, Talmadge has quite a pleasant voice with no sign of Brooklynese. Yet despite the fact that this film has long been available on video and has been shown on television, the legend persists.

This is not to say that the film is good, in fact it is quite dreadful. Based on a 1901 Belasco play marked by long-winded rants and incoherent character development, it was absolutely the wrong vehicle for Talmadge at this stage of her career. Old veteran stage actors William Farnum (King Louis) and Hobart Bosworth (Captain of the Guard) had their early professional experiences in this sort of barnstormer, and they tear into their lines and chew the scenery with a relish that is both authoritative and stylistically appropriate to the piece. Farnum's gleeful hamminess and Bosworth's stern severity are the best things about the film, and they leave the other principals in the dust. Even Conrad Nagel, an experienced stage and talkie actor trained in a more naturalistic style, flounders with such absurd lines as "you're just unnaturally ... natural."

Since Talmadge has the biggest part, she is burdened with the longest speeches. She tries valiantly, changing her voice coloration and tone and varying the speed of her delivery. Obviously working very hard in the role, she lacks that crucial experience to carry off such a difficult speaking part. She comes off sounding as if she is giving a very affected imitation of stage speech. Her stage laughter is worse, sounding highly self conscious and artificial. Her old charm sometimes peeks through, and, as always, her facial expressions are engaging, but on the whole the performance is a failure. That she was capable of a good sound performance is shown by her first talkie, New York Nights. One wishes that she had stuck with a modern story where she would have felt comfortable speaking in a more relaxed and natural manner, instead of feeling impelled to prove herself in a part which only a veteran stage actress could have handled.

Director Sam Taylor has his own problems as well. Seemingly unable to decide whether to make a silent or a talking film, he does both, making the film look like a silent with voluminous spoken titles. The film moves as though mired in molasses. As it was released in late 1930, it must have already looked antiquated. William Cameron Menzies provides his usual impressive sets, which in this instance just make the overall effect even more ponderous.

The film as originally released ran 88 minutes. This video runs 66 minutes, so a fair amount seems to have been cut, which would help explain why the characters actions have little continuity and make no sense, though the remaining dialog is sufficiently stilted and foolish that it is hard to imagine that even more would have helped, and indeed, contemporary reviews suggest that even with the extra footage the story didn't hang together. The print is rather washed out and fuzzy.

As a piece of filmed entertainment DuBarry, Woman of Passion is a failure. But it is an interesting curio, and is worthwhile if only to debunk the Brooklyn accent story. It's also an interesting illustration of the problems directors had in adjusting to the style and pacing of sound films. For fans of William Farnum and Hobart Bosworth, it's a must.

DuBarry, Woman of Passion (United Artists, 1930). Starring: Norma Talmadge, Conrad Nagel, William Farnum, Hobart Bosworth, Allison Skipworth, Ullrich Haupt. Directed by Sam Taylor. Adapted by Sam Taylor from the play by David Belasco. Camera by Oliver Marsh. Art direction by William Cameron Menzies. B & W. The tape runs approximately 66 minutes. DuBarry, Woman of Passion was available on video from Grapevine Video, but is now out of print.

(Note, this film is also available from Foothill Video in a version that is apparently 10-12 minutes longer than the Grapevine version, and also from Hollywood's Attic (VHS). I haven't seen these and cannot comment as to the print quality)
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Last revised, November 28, 2008