Hollywood’s Silent Sister Act: A Tearjerking Tragedienne, a Sparkling Comedienne

These films exist as the merging of two mighty forces: Mother Talmadge and Joseph M. Schenk. Apparently abandoned by a drunken husband to raise three kids on her own, Mrs. Talmadge was a stage mother who drove her daughters into stardom for the sake of financial security, and that stardom really took off when they met entrepreneur Schenk.

As an amusement park owner in Fort Lee, New Jersey, while that town was the center of American film production, Schenk and his brother Nicholas became associated with the Loew’s organization (later MGM’s parent company), for which Nicholas eventually became chairman of the board. Joseph became an independent film producer and managed the careers of Norma Talmadge (whom he married) and her sisters Constance and Natalie. He also produced the films of Natalie’s husband, Buster Keaton. He became the president of United Artists. In 1933, he co-founded 20th Century, which merged with Fox two years later and made him the first president of that new studio, 20th Century Fox. By then, the Talmadge sisters had retired from pictures.

Mary Pickford was the biggest female star at the beginning of the ’20s and Greta Garbo was the biggest at the finish, but in between there were none bigger than Norma and Constance Talmadge. Norma has a reputation as the tearjerking tragedienne of melodrama, while Constance specialized in sparkling comedies, and all were lavishly produced. Three of the films on Kino’s discs have monumental sets by William Cameron Menzies, with the walls disappearing into the stratosphere.

The Constance double feature is Her Night of Romance (1924) and Her Sister from Paris (1925). Both star a dashing Ronald Colman, just as good as he’d be in the talkies, and both are produced by Schenk, directed by Sidney Franklin, and written by Hans Kräly. These films evoke the world of sophisticated ’20s humor, a world dominated by the novels of P.G. Wodehouse (characters in wacky mix-ups), Thorne Smith (the naughty implication that people are having sex when they’re not), and Anita Loos (saucy flappers not above exploiting their sex appeal). Loos wrote a biography of the Talmadge sisters, incidentally.

Kräly was a primary writer for Ernst Lubitsch, who was making a name in the cinema with sophisticated comedies that made implied much with a gossamer wink. Cecil B. DeMille, Malcolm St. Clair, and Harry D’Abbadie D’Arrast also toiled these fields, and it’s clear that Franklin did too. He’s remembered for directing or producing lush women’s dramas, but here he’s making saucy almost-sex comedies just a nod or two away from Lubitsch. Get a load of the visual gags in Romance about shoes and discarded clothing.

In that film, Constance is an American millionairess traveling to England with her indulgent daddy, who “hates publicity like a bird hates wings”. He’s played by Jean Hersholt, before a humanitarian award was named after him. Through a series of absurd coincidences and misunderstandings, she falls for an impoverished young lord (Colman) who pretends to be a doctor while her father is purchasing his family estate.

That’s two things he’s keeping from her, and the third thing is a bet with his business manager, a fellow with a faint aroma of Jewish stereotype. All of this is nothing to the fact that when they both unwittingly spend the night in the same manor and people start drawing conclusions, our hero tries to save the situation by announcing that they’re already married. So you see, her euphemistic “night of romance” is something that doesn’t exist except in public perception, and that’s a common enough motif in such movies, which sell image over reality.

Paris is allowed to be spicier and more apparently transgressive, exactly because Constance and Colman are already married in this Vienna-set bauble. After a year of marriage, she thinks he takes for granted, and she must be right because he’s never been aware that she has an identical twin sister who’s a famous dancer. On the day wifey quits hubby, her sister arrives in town amid much publicity. This cues a full-blown dance number. It may seem odd to think of a silent film having a musical number, but they had ’em, only without singing.

Both the hubby and his silly-ass chum want to meet the sister. The chum sends a note backstage that reads: “I’m a friend of the family and rather a gay dog. Could you gnaw a bone with me after the show? Will bark at stage door!” This twit is also involved in a surprising gag about a button popping off his vest. Another swoon-worthy title card says “Woman’s crowning glory may be her hair, but it’s her legs that get her there!”

Anyway, the sophisticated sis gives her frumpy sibling a makeover and instructs her to pretend to be her own sister and string her husband along. Of course, the film achieves the twin effect sometimes through a split-screen and sometimes with the back of a double’s head, but the whole thing is just as seamless as any later film. There’s one startling moment where they follow each other into a room so rapidly that you really don’t see the edit, and there’s another moment where they play with our understanding of the trick by implying that one of the sisters is a double with head carefully concealed, only to have her raise her head and confound our assumption.

The thrill of the charade is in witnessing a wife lead her own husband toward adultery, and registering both concern and delight at the situation. She can go as far as she likes, because they’re married! Depending on your tolerance for symbolism, there’s a mind-blowing scene where she makes him break his pencil. As a battle of the sexes, this is saucy and satisfying, and it ends with a sophisticated moment of breaking “the fourth wall”. Lost classic rediscovered.

The Norma disc consists of two films produced by Norma through her own company. It right away starts by confusing us into thinking we’re seeing another Constance picture, because Clarence Brown’s Kiki (1926) also co-stars Colman, is also written by Kraly, and is also a saucy comedy, not one of her melodramas. Clearly her range goes beyond her reputation, and here she’s a little spitfire, not a grand dame suffering with dignity. Kiki is a newsgirl who loves impresario Colman and wants to sing and dance in one of his shows. Cue another dance number, this time a comical one that ends in Kiki’s fight with diva Gertrude Astor. Now we’re cooking with gas.

For no credible reason, Kiki shacks up with Colman simply by refusing to leave his house and generally making herself a pest. Of course others assume the worst, or best, but again it’s the false assumption of the crowd. Kiki’s a combination of brash and bashful, which has something to do with her low-class origins. She proudly declares herself a Corsican on a vendetta before rushing at Astor with a knife. As a character, Kiki seems partly a parody and partly a riff on Mary Pickford and Clara Bow. (Indeed, Pickford remade this film.) She’s one of the innocent vamps, and some fun is had over her attempts at sophistication.

Norma Talmadge

The earliest film of the four, Frank Lloyd’s Within the Law (1923), is last and least. Norma’s character arc runs from downtrodden salesgirl, sent to prison for a theft she didn’t commit but simmering with vengeance for the fatcat employer who sent her to prison, to cynical doyenne with a vulnerable streak. She has some rueful poses, with head down and brow furrowed, that anticipate Garbo.

After paying her debt to society and being unable to find work, she reads an editorial about how the law is manipulated by the well-paid lawyers of the rich, and she vows to rise in society by staying strictly “within the law”. One year later, she and her jail chum are living in a ritzy townhouse paid for by rich old fools who settled breach-of-promise lawsuits. “You make love like the sheik” says the chum to one doddering chump. (That’s a Valentino reference, don’tcha know.) When Norma spots the son of her old boss, the chum says “Some pickings, kiddo. If money was feathers, he’d look like the bird of paradise.” Oh you kid!

The veneer of social criticism is very common in melodrama (also called hokum in the trade), and it really means nothing. Such truisms and clichés (one law for the rich, another for the poor) are stock devices for providing motive, and nothing in the movie’s story suggests any crusade for social reform. Only the cynical individual is redeemed by love and rewarded with the respectability of joining the enemy classes, whose putative transgressions and unfairnesses are forgiven or forgotten. The last ten minutes of this thing are pure banana oil, and even involve a kind of redemption for the sinister commissioner who springs an elaborate trap for the breach-of-promise racket. Stories like this are really about joining them rather than beating them. After all, Hollywood wasn’t as bolshy as all that. Twenty-three skidoo.

These prints, restored by the Library of Congress, are generally very good with a few moments of decay. All have new original scores.