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The Heart of Wetona

A review by Greta de Groat

The Heart of Wetona, Norma Talmadge's only Western feature, was released in early 1919. It was filmed during the Spanish Influenza epidemic. Because of the remoteness of their location shooting, they were one of the few companies that did not shut down.

Like her preceding film Forbidden City, The Heart of Wetona is another White Man's Burden fantasy where kindly Caucasians minister to violent people of color. Without the ethnic setting, though, it would not be much different from her society romances, though it seems to allow the film to take a fairly lenient view on premarital sex, underscoring American attitudes on the sexual availability of nonwhite women. At least this film has a white villain, and her father the Chief is smart enough to investigate and eventually figure the situation out for himself, but the Indians are awfully prone to going on the warpath first and asking questions later. Norma's character seems mixed up from the beginning. She is identified as half white for no particular reason that is apparent in the plot, and she is supposedly the product of a fancy Eastern boarding school, yet she speaks in the most clichéd broken English and generally doesn't seem very bright.

Wetona has been having an affair with the white man Tony (Gladden James), who has been assigned against his will to the local government office in Indian country. His boss, Hardin (Thomas Meighan) loves her silently. During the corn ceremony where she has been assigned the role of vestal virgin, she confesses that she no longer qualifies. Her enraged father, backed up by the tribe, for some reason assumes the culprit is Hardin, and tries for a shotgun wedding. Hardin doesn't mind, and proposes she marry him and he'll give her a divorce when her lover shows up. Wetona is dubious, but Tony, who's terrified of being found out, urges her to go through with it. Things proceed predictably from there.

I viewed this film in a 16mm transfer to video at the UCLA film archives, as well as on the Sprague video, and the two seem quite different. The UCLA print seems to have a leisurely pace, though it is only five minutes longer than the Sprague video and the archive transferred it at 24 fps. Norma's spends a great amount of time thinking in medium close up, making the character seem even more dim-witted. Thomas Meighan as a strong, silent, but gentle man is attractive and impressive. By contrast, the Sprague video seems hurried and choppy, and seemingly lacking the ends of shots and scenes. The faster pace makes Wetona seem less dim, but Thomas Meighan is reduced to a cipher. Fortunately Gladden James as the sleazy and cowardly Tony is vivid in both versions.

The video transfer is very fuzzy, with the outdoors scenes almost illegible. The score is classical piano music which, however attractive, doesn't follow the action. However, given the few Talmadge films available on video, we'll take what we can get.

The Heart of Wetona (Norma Talmadge Film Corporation/Select Pictures, 1919). Produced by Joseph Schenck. Directed by Sidney A. Franklin. Scenario by Mary Murillo. Camera by David Abel. Cast: Norma Talmadge, Fred Huntley, Thomas Meighan, Gladden James, Fred Turner, Princess Uwane Yea, Charles Edler, White Eagle, Black Wolf, Black Lizard. B & W. The tape runs approximately 52 minutes has piano accompaniment. The Heart of Wetona is available on video from Video Classic (Bill Sprague)

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Last revised, November 28, 2008