Archive for Norma Talmadge

Edward Brophy – yes or no?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2022 by dcairns

Prime Brophy

Edward Brophy — young! svelte! with hair! That’s the main attraction of YES AND NO? (1920), screened for unknown reasons at Le Giornate de Cinema Muto — Pordenone Festival of Silent Film. The story of Brophy’s rise — a rag’s-to-better-rags tale of being discovered as production manager on THE CAMERAMAN and given as small part as the irate swimpool customer Buster Keaton shares a changing room with — needs revising. Brophy’s early career as AD and location manager ran in parallel with his acting career, with the tubby supporting player changing hats and going where the work was.

In THE CAMERAMAN he’s fully himself, the scowling schlub familiar to us from THE THIN MAN, YOU CAN’T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN, the voice of Timothy Q. Mouse in DUMBO. Here, he’s momentarily unrecognizable. What we see is, at first, a reasonable facsimile of a human, until we notice the tiny ears, mere pasta shells, and the huge mouth. Edward Brophy’s mouth, somehow crammed into a vaguely normal, plus-sized head, and apparently trying to chew its way to freedom.

Even without words, Brophy’s sour aggressive manner comes seeping from the celluloid (or streaming pixels). Lowell Sherman, also appearing, seems to lose everything without his dulcet tones, though I’ve seen him in other silents where his suavity carried the day. The problem is, this Norma Talmadge vehicle (personally signed by the actor) is completely uninteresting on a dramatic level.

Norma plays two women, one rich, one poor. Both have hardworking husbands who neglect them. The rich wife says “yes” to an affair, and her life is destroyed. The poor wife says “no” to an affair (really, more like a rape attempt) and her husband invents the washing machine and they go to live in the Long Island suburbs. That’s it — the first movie based not on a scenario but a diagram. Of course, with any tale, what matters is the telling. The movie tells this tale at far greater length than I’ve just done.

Of the cast, only Brophy’s obnoxious brother-in-law and Natalie Talmadge (soon to marry Buster Keaton) as an acerbic, pre-code type sister, have any character. Nat is much cuter and spikier than in OUR HOSPITALITY, though the intertitles are doing a lot of the work for her. Beautiful titles, I wish I could framegrab them.

All the story’s discoveries and implications are predecided on obtuse moral lines, and intercutting two versions of the same story just makes everything take twice as long to happen. The variations are uninteresting (only Keaton’s extreme inventiveness and the greater variety of the settings allows him to pull off a comparable stunt in THE THREE AGES). There are some nice, if strange, gowns. At one point wealthy Talmadge wears paniers.

I kept thinking I knew Rockliffe Fellowes, the name and the face. He plays the inventor of the washing machine. And – of course! – the “good” bootlegger in the Marx Bros. MONKEY BUSINESS, where he’s pretty dreadful. And I saw him in last year’s Pordenone offering, PENROD AND SAM, where he was OK.

Tempting to blame Norma for this one. Certainly, someone who doesn’t know anything about stories was sold a pup — a high-concept, low-yield pictograph masquerading as a screenplay. “And you get to play two roles!”

As in THE GREAT DICTATOR, nobody notices that the unrelated Talmadges resemble one another. Nat, sister to one, maid to the other, is supposed to be smart, but she’s notably unobservant.

The director is Roy William Neill, who we like here at Shadowplay. The Sherlock Holmes series, BLACK ANGEL, etc. I’ve seen an earlier one of his, VIVE LA FRANCE! (1918), in which I felt his punchy compositional style was evident. This one looks just like any well-made Hollywood product of the period. I can’t blame him for feeling uninspired by the material, though.

As part of a Talmadge season, this would be somewhat useful, I suppose. Plucked from that context and fired at unsuspecting subscribers, it’s rather a waste of time, a narrative dead-end that wouldn’t be uselessly explored again until Fox made CRACK IN THE MIRROR in 1960. That Hollywood trap, the False Good Idea.

Secrets and Les

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on October 3, 2018 by dcairns

SECRETS (1933), is Mary Pickford’s final film, and a remake by writer Frances Marion and director Frank Borzage of their 1924 drama of the same year, which I only realised after twenty minutes as I felt the deja vu lapping around my ankles.

Leslie Howard is male lead this time, replacing Eugene O’Brien, which helps Act 1 play as a romantic comedy (Norma Talmadge was the star of the original, which I caught in Bologna). Act 2 is a western, Act 3 is a kind of political/society drama, and then there’s a romantic comedy coda with the stars in old age make-up.

I don’t know what drove FB & FM to remake this film, since it never hung together the first time. With rapid course corrections as to tone and genre and location, and the characters aging from young (Pickford plays a teenager at forty-one without straining one’s credulity) to old (the make-up is kept shadowy but holds up well, as do the perfs), the only thing to stop this disintegrating into a bag of bits would be a thematic link, as suggested by the title. But the various story units don’t keep the idea of secrecy in play — it gets produced from nowhere right at the end to con us into thinking we’ve been watching something with connective tissue, cohesion, a reason to be one long film rather than three or four short ones.

That said, the chapters all have merit, and our protags make a sweet couple. Borzage ha become a lot more experimental since the early twenties, though he was always likely to reach for an unconventional touch from time to time, from the early days up until at least MOONRISE. Pickford talks well, and acquires, as Fiona observed, a bit of Howard’s technique — if it IS a technique — of stumbling over words and repeating them, adding naturalism to the theatrical situations. But her best moments are visual, and a tragic sequence where her baby is killed in the midst of a wild west gunfight leads to a masterclass in wordless performance, played out as bullets smash the window panes behind her, unnoticed by the grieving mother,

 

The Sunday Intertitle: I’m Your Secretary

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on August 31, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-08-31-11h44m28s182

THE SOCIAL SECRETARY, from the husband-and-wife team of John Emerson and Anita Loos. Emerson is remembered almost solely for being Mr. Loos, which isn’t quite fair but is nearly fair. As director, he does a drunke scene wobblycam shot here that’s pretty damn inventive for 1916. But it’s his sole flourish.

You can’t quite make a feminist hero out of Anita. Because I say so. While the fact that she had a glittering career and was such a sharp observer of the Hollywood scene makes her a poster girl for the cause, what she wrote is informed by all sorts of prejudices of the day — she’s not trying to strike a blow for the girls, just trying to amuse herself and her audience.

In THE SOCIAL SECRETARY, Norma Talmadge can’t keep a job because her bosses are always flirting with her. Cue shots of dowdy secretaries at the secretarial rooming house she stays at, complaining that they’ve never had any problems. Meanwhile, a rich society dame is complaining her secretaries always leave to get married. Her ne’er-do-well son suggests advertising for one with the proviso “Must be extremely unattractive to men.” Norma sees this ad and sees in it the answer to her problem. Donning glasses and putting her hair in a bun and assuming a sniffy expression, she snaps up the position in a jiffy, even though none of this disguise conceals the fact that her figure is… well, “unattractive” wouldn’t be the first word I’d think of.

vlcsnap-2014-08-31-11h34m53s42

This being 1916, on her days off, Norma throws off her frumpy dress to reveal, beneath it, another frumpy dress.

Should have been a nice romcom but is more straight drama. Most welcome surprise is a sleazy journalist, played by —

vlcsnap-2014-08-31-11h42m49s225

Erich Von Stroheim. Trading monocle for pince-nez. Playing it for laughs, which consists of a sour expression to match Norma’s when she’s in frumpface.

Intertitles keep harping on about what a scavenger, what a vulture he is, kind of unnecessary when Loos has named him Mr. Buzzard. Intertitles generally a bit lacking in wit. “Was Anita on strike?” asked Fiona after one which read, simply, “Midnight.” “It’s no MATRIMANIAC,” I agreed. “Nothing is.”

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes -and- But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady