dvd review—Forgotten Stars

The Norma Talmadge Collection (Kino)

The Constance Talmadge Collection (Kino)

Two of the most popular female stars of the 1920s are all but unknown today—sisters Norma and Constance Talmadge. In recent years some of their long-unseen features have been restored by the Library of Congress, using 35mm materials from the Rohauer collection, and now four of those films have been released on DVD by Kino. The Norma Talmadge disc includes Kiki (1926) and Within the Law (1923), while the Constance Talmadge disc features a pair of films costarring Ronald Colman, Her Night of Romance (1924) and Her Sister from Paris (1925).

A student (or novice) who’s learning about silent film and only watches the bona fide classics will never understand what that era was all about. For every Thief of Bagdad or Phantom of the Opera there were scores of bread-and-butter films, and many of them were star vehicles. The four Talmadge films on these DVDs are perfect examples, offering all the production polish money could buy, courtesy of Norma’s husband, producer Joseph M. Schenck. They were directed by Clarence Brown, Sidney Franklin, and Frank Lloyd, solid craftsmen whose careers extended well into the talkie period; three of the four were written by Hans Kraly, the German actor-turned-screenwriter who came to Hollywood with his colleague Ernst Lubitsch in 1923. (The other, Within the Law, was penned by Mary Pickford’s favorite writer, Frances Marion.) The art direction and cinematography was placed in the hands of top-drawer talents like William Cameron Menzies, Stephen Goosson, Victor Milner, and Oliver T. Marsh.

In her book Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger offers clear-eyed, incisive views of the sibling stars and writes, “The films of Norma and Constance Talmadge should be required viewing in women’s studies courses. Taken together, they present the sum total of the woman’s filmed universe. Norma appeared mostly in stories that touched on the typical tragedies of the woman’s life—bad men, bad luck, and bad marriage—while Constance usually played in movies that provided escape and the promise of a better deal: good men, good luck, and good marriage. In many ways, they were filmic opposites: Norma suffered, Constance sparkled.”

On the Norma Talmadge disc, I prefer the second feature, Within the Law, to the featured title, Kiki. Kiki was a change of pace for the drama queen, casting her as a vivacious, Parisian would-be chorus girl who wheedles her way into the life of Follies manager Ronald Colman. She’s good, but I find her character annoying—as I did when Mary Pickford played her in the 1931 remake. I must also confess that I disliked the film’s piano score, which insists on repeating the popular song “Blue (and Broken-Hearted)” over and over again.

Within the Law, based on a play by Bayard Veiller, is a formulaic drama, but a good one, with Talmadge as the quintessential shopgirl. When she’s framed for robbery and sent to prison by a heartless department store owner, she vows revenge, and gets it three years later when she woos the tycoon’s gullible son. (The material was perfect for Joan Crawford, who became the emblematic Hollywood shopgirl of the early 1930s, and remade this story as Paid.)

Constance Talmadge made her reputation as the sprightly mountain girl in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance in 1916, and became a much-loved comedienne. Her Night of Romance and Her Sister from Paris are tailored to suit her talent and innate charm, and young Ronald Colman is an ideal leading man.

Constance Talmadge and Ronald Colman iin Her Night of Romance.

Hanns (later Hans) Kraly provided clever, light-hearted storylines for both films, and they are certainly amusing, but would have benefited from having a director more adept at comedy than Sidney Franklin. In each case, they lose some of their sparkle as they go on; we can see the wheels turning. That never happened in Kraly’s collaborations with Lubitsch, who knew how to keep his champagne from going flat.

From the occasional signs of nitrate deterioration, it’s clear that these films were rescued in the nick of time. The Library of Congress has presented them in recent years at Cinefest, but now, thanks to Kino and the Douris Corporation, they are available to silent-film buffs and students everywhere.

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July 2024