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The Films of Norma Talmadge (1911-1916)

A review by Greta de Groat

The Films of Norma Talmadge (1911-1916) consists chiefly of seven short films that she made for the Vitagraph Corporation of America, and offers not only a chance to see Talmadge at the start of her career but an opportunity to sample some of the fine films made by Vitagraph. One of the most popular and sophisticated of the early film companies, Vitagraph was a training ground for many future stars, some of whom are also featured in these films.

The films on this tape range in date from 1911 to 1914, the earliest and most famous being A Tale of Two Cities. This version was cut down from three reels to two for a later re-release (the original survives in several archives). The story goes by quickly, if none too clearly, though as usual Vitagraph shows its mastery of choreographing activity in a restricted space in front of a stationary camera. The charismatic Maurice Costello as Sidney Carton is the definite standout of the large cast, with able support by Leo Delaney as Darnay. Florence Turner, in a blond wig, has little to do but look pretty and faint dramatically into the arms of anyone standing nearby at the end of virtually every scene she's in, which becomes quite comical in this condensed version (they must have kept all of these scenes). Though her role as the young girl sent to the guillotine with Carton was said to be Talmadge's first important break, in this version it lasts but a few seconds. Don't blink!

The rest of the Vitagraph films were made by Van Dyke Brooke's unit at Vitagraph, who was Talmadge's usual director at this point in her career. They are well made and acted, and are excellent examples of Vitagraph's output in the early teens.

The second film, An Old Man's Love Story (1913), is quite a good one. Norma's rather nasty parents want her to marry a rich man and forbid her to see the young man whom she loves. A wealthy older friend of her parents arrives and proposes to Norma. Her distress is evident though she accepts the proposal, and, being a kindly man, he sizes up the situation and arranges an ending to satisfy all concerned. Norma is very sweet and sympathetic ingenue, and looks very fetching in the lovely gowns of the period. As well as directing, Brooke gives a very appealing performance as the old man. There are some interesting lighting effects in some of the indoor sequences.

Father's Hatband (1913) is the only comedy included in this set. Norma and boyfriend Leo Delaney arrange meetings by passing notes back and forth in the band of father Brooke's hat. An accidental switching of hats leads an enraged Flora Finch to think that her unsuspecting husband is meeting Norma, and all parties involved end up at the trysting place of the lovers at the same time. The print is very faded, which is unfortunate since it is a film of considerable charm.

The Helpful Sisterhood (1914) is the best film of this lot, with an affecting performance by Talmadge, at first a carefree and rather silly young girl who joins a fashionable sorority, then increasingly despondent and desperate as the financial demands of keeping up with her friends becomes too much for her. There is a lovely atmospheric close to the film. In addition, sister Constance is clearly visible as one or the sorority girls.

After these fine films, Sawdust and Salome (1914) is a bit of a letdown, being comparatively abrupt and underdeveloped. Norma plays a circus girl married to a young man who's family disapproves ("You have married a woman who has worn tights"!). After the witnessing one of his society friends at a costume party dancing very badly in a belly dance costume (worn over a chemise, of course), she leaves him to return "to the clean circus sawdust."

John Rance-Gentleman (1914) has Norma in an unsympathetic role as Lesbia Vane, a spoiled society girl who flirts with and abandons a very handsome but rather dull young doctor, played by another future star, Antonio Moreno. She even lights up a cigarette when she rejects him, so we know she's bad news. She married his best friend, an avid hunter, and apparently tired of living in a house full of dead animals, throws herself at Moreno. The denouement is rather bizarre. Unfortunately, the print quality of this film is very bad-faded and washed out-and it seems to be slipping off the screen, with most of the intertitles not fully visible.

The Vitagraph shorts are rounded off with His Official Appointment (1912), in which an impoverished Southern gentleman (and his loyal servant in blackface) wait in vain for some sort of government appointment. He stops Norma's runaway carriage amid some interesting location shots of Washington D.C. Charles Kent is tedious as the old southerner, while Norma's performance has a bit of a continuity problem-she is perfectly calm when rescued, but later runs frantically into her father's office to mime the whole terrible story. Perhaps she wanted to give Daddy a good scare.

A bonus on the tape are clips from the Triangle feature The Devil's Needle (1916). Here Norma is a drug-addicted artist's model who cheers up rather comically after giving herself a needle. Tully Marshall is the artist who resists at first, but when we jump a later spot in the film he's become the crazed lunatic which he always played so well. He sees visions of cavorting girls in the fireplace (looking suspiciously like the fairy tale scenes in Children in the House, though the shot doesn't exactly match any in that film). He even chases his wife with the needle! Though very badly deteriorated, these clips are quite fascinating and make one anxious to see the whole film, which is preserved at the Library of Congress.

Though these films aren't physically in the best condition, they are solid, well made, and entertaining pictures. This is an excellent and worthwhile video for devotees of the pre-feature era, and well repays repeated viewing.

The Films of Norma Talmadge (1911-1916). B & W. The tape runs approximately two hours and has an appropriate musical score. The Films of Norma Talmadge is now available on DVD from Grapevine Video, though the films are the same analog transfers as were on the videotape, which Jack Hardy notes on his site. His Official Appointment was also formerly available on Grapevine's tape, The Films of Vitagraph.

Summary of this release:

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Last revised, July 24, 2008