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The Social Secretary

A review by Greta de Groat

The Social Secretary is probably the best of Norma Talmadge's comedies, and certainly the best of her Triangle films. This clever and amusing farce is a real treat for silent film devotees.

Norma plays a young stenographer with the decided disadvantage of being pretty in a city where sexual harassment laws are many decades in the future. Her spirited defense of her virtue loses her one job after another. Meanwhile, in the wealthy section of town, Mrs. Van Puyster is having her own employment problem. She finds that her pretty secretaries continually quit to get married, and decides that a secretary "extremely unattractive to men" is the answer to her needs. Norma spots the ad and sees the prospect for long term employment at last. Dressed up in glasses, a forbidding expression, and the dowdiest suit she can find, she's hired on the spot. Then the fun begins as Norma moves in with the family, which includes a playboy son and a daughter who is pursued by one of Norma's lecherous former employers. And the whole lot are spied upon by none other than Erich Von Stroheim as an unscrupulous reporter on the lookout for a juicy scandal.

This part was quite a turnaround for Talmadge from the dour parts she had been playing at Triangle, and is a perfect showcase for her natural quickness, vivacity, and good humor. She is both funny and appealing as the pretty young woman struggling to keep in character as the stern secretary. It was her first teaming with writer Anita Loos, who would work with her on Branded Woman (1920) and the lost Isle of Conquest (1919), and who would write many of sister Constance's vehicles, and later write a memoir of the Talmadge family (in which she can't quite remember the plot to this film). It is one of Loos wittiest conceptions, though it plays on her customary cruelty to unattractive women. Aside from Stroheim, the cast also features Kate Lester as Mrs. Van Puyster and Helen Weir as the daughter. Gladden James, who played memorable villains opposite Talmadge in The Safety Curtain, The Heart of Wetona, and Yes or No?, here does a snappy job as the dissipated but good-hearted playboy son.

This film has been available for years and has been shown on television, but always in a rather poor print. Grapevine's print is still only fair, but is an improvement over their earlier print, and is currently the only available version on video. An organ score has been added. Though the print isn't perfect, it is still highly recommended as a delightful comedy that will be enjoyed by all fans of silent films.

The Social Secretary (Triangle, 1916). Starring: Norma Talmadge, Kate Lester, Helen Weir, Gladden James, Herbert French, Eric von Stroheim, Nathaniel Sack. Directed by John Emerson. Scenario by Anita Loos, John Emerson, and Alfred Huger Moses, Jr. B & W. The tape runs approximately 52 minutes and has an appropriate musical score. The Social Secretary is available on DVD from Grapevine Video

Summary of this release:

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Last revised, November 28, 2008