Beauty and the Bean
Norma Talmadge is one of the six best smilers, and she offers food for thought as well. Here is the evidence.
By Malcolm H. Oettinger
If Marjorie Rambeau had decided upon the screen when she was fifteen, she would have been very much what Norma Talmadge is to-day. In a roundabout way that describes the most popular of our emotional stars. Norma has been suffering, in a celluloid way, for so long, from early Vitagraphics on up through Selznicked sobbings and independent trials and triumphs, that now it has become a habit. There's nothing to it, if you ask her about it.
Offscreen she is lovelier than on. Less inclined toward the fatal embonpoint, possessed, indeed, of a sylphlike slenderness, an ethereal slimness that seems to be all but lost on the silver sheet, Norma would do well, I think, to increase her personal appearances. And for other reasons. Her sense of humor, eliminated for the purposes of nine out of ten scenarios, is the one bright feature illuminating many a drab studio wait. It is a gamin humor, a rough-and-ready quirk to her make-up, the humor of Dot Gish rather than that of Betty Blythe or Olga Petrova.
Womanly on, she struck me as being girlish off the two-dimension stage. After considering her decade of service that includes kittenish ingenues and quavering mother parts, stage-struck suburbanites and sinister sirens, I am tempted to call Norma Talmadge the emotional Peter Pan of the picture play, the gelatin version of Modjeska in miniature. At a flash, you might take her to be twenty. I know that she is considerably older, simply by counting the years on my fingers. But her work has left no marks, her eyes have nothing of that lusterless pall that comes from too much tragedy, her laugh is happily unaffected.
She is a cameo in candor. Perhaps she is not, therefore, a mosaic in tact, but under the circumstances, what could be more interesting? Another feature that distinguishes her from the common run of star stuff is the fact that she does not bore with the bromidic, she does not inoculate you with the inane. There are no sputtered apologies for being late; no plea that you forgive her costume; no expressed hope that she is saying the right thing. Crowning glory, Norma doesn't take herself seriously!
Arrayed in a flimsy, flouncy creation sporting frills and furbelows, the senior member of the Talmadge sisters' film firm was portraying the Spirit of '61 or something like that, for the dream episode of "Smilin' Through" while a dubious orchestra throbbed behind the shirt-sleeved camera man. The hoopskirt, the kerchief, the beribboned wrists reminded me of Elsie Ferguson's sartorial scenery when I came upon her dreaming true with Wally Reid, in "Forever."
As I watched Norma cry real tears, while Harrison Ford knelt at her feet, I could not refrain from comparing her with Marjorie Rambeau: the two women are strangely alike in so many respects. Their reactions to scenes of stress are similar, too. Last winter I watched Miss Rambeau from the wings. When she came off after her hysteria in the murder episode of "The Sign on the Door" the tears were coursing down her face. But her expression was placid.
The camera man was calling for extra lights, so a delay was imminent, and Norma tripped daintily over to my chair. The tears were gone - evaporated I suppose. Apparently she turns on the flood at will, and as easily stems it.
"It'll be weeks before this thing is over I'm afraid," said the emotional little girl. "By the time we've wrapped it all up, the camera man will have a long white bear, and I'll have to buy me a new set of costumes. Don't you like 'em?"
She pirouetted, manikin fashion.
"I always tire of a part after it's taken more than six weeks. And this - the end isn't in sight!"
Two weeks before I had spoken of emotional strain and that sort of thing with Lillian Gish. To her a part meant all in all. She lost weight worrying over the role with which she was engaged; she brought home her schemes and plans of how each new characterization should be done, and kept them constantly uppermost in her mind.
"Did Norma Talmadge do this?" I wondered. And asked.
She looked at me helplessly, humorously.
"I'm going to be awfully disappointing, I guess. You see the truth is that what I'm playing doesn't' affect me at all. I leave the lady in distress at the studio every night, and take her up the next morning, or noon, wherever I left off. When I work, of course, I try to put myself into the character I'm portraying. Everything is useless unless you do that. I try to feel her emotions, as she feels them, and react accordingly. If she is unhappy, she would cry, and so I cry."
"How do you manage to cry at will?"
She smiled frankly. Shrugged her white shoulders.
"I don't know. But the tears do not affect me temperamentally. I feel no subconscious desire to cry at home. At work I'm an actress and at home I'm me. And the two ladies don't mix. When we hold over a heavy scene, something, I worry about how I should do it, but except in such rare instances, I forget the studio when I say 'Good night' to the doorman."
Incidentally, this star is on speaking terms with her studio fellows. I heard spoken evidence of this on all sides while she was acting. The spotlight men were as interested in her work as were the 'grippers' lounging about the outskirts of the set. Dispositions may readily be gauged by the barometer of studio feeling!
Making pictures is a business affair with Miss Talmadge. She spoke candidly, openly, unsparingly of her work, not in the terms of art and atmosphere and technique, but in terms of success.
"I enjoyed doing 'The Passion Flower" but like so many of the things I have enjoyed it was not a money-maker. It was unnatural in theme, you remember, and drab in its details - sordid stuff for the great fan public. On the other hand my last picture to be released, 'The Sign on the Door,' has made heaps of money, but really offered little to my taste in the way of screen fare. Of course it was a good story - but I don't like melodrama. My ideal of story and plot combined with acting chances would be a dramatic play with plenty of good wholesome comedy."
Doesn't that savor of a box-office viewpoint? Norma admitted that it did.
"Lots of people sneer at the idea of suiting the box office," she said. "Foolishness! Don't you realize that the box office is the public? I'm making pictures to please the public, and please the public completely. The critics are not even considered, composing as they do, the slightest sort of minority."
The directorial megaphone was waved toward her, and she returned to the Klieg-lit garden, to weep some more. The studio forces claim that during the filming of the tragic graveyard scene in "The Passion Flower" so potent was her acting that the hardened camera man broke down and wept sympathetically. Whether this is true or not may be open to conjecture, but Norma's virtuosity at playing on the tremolo stops coupled with the fact that he may have been a very sentimental Bell Howell expert makes the story plausible in the extreme.
The Talmadge outlook on the cinema world is a complete one, encompassing as it does, all of its branches. For instance, I asked her what she thought of German films.
"Let them bring them over if they're all as good as 'Gypsy Blood' and 'The Golem.' Pola Negri is marvelous, absolutely. She brings a freshness and a buoyancy to the screen that no one else I can think of possesses. She ranks with my favorites, Mary Pickford, Nazimova the incomparable, and Elsie Ferguson.
"Why shouldn't we have German films? Competition never hurt any one!"
Then the little girl in her naively added, "Anyway, they aren't sending many over here!"
Norma thinks that talking pictures have as little chance of becoming fixtures in popular favor as have colored pictures or titleless films. And her greatest ambition is to play Du Barry. Her conception, she assured me, is altogether different from any one else's. And one day, she promises, she will do it. From now on, you know, she will make only two pictures a year. This decrease in output will demand higher standards than ever. What greater pains could be taken than are being taken now, I cannot conceive; at least fifteen minutes were consumed in getting the electric moonlight to strike the exact angle of the Talmadge shoulder deemed best by the meticulous director, Mr. Franklin. And three different veils were photographed in the tragic scene she was doing while I was there.
When next she returned to me, I had a problem all ready for her.
"You have been a star for some eight years. You have done the same sort of thing dozens of times in eight years. You have staved off the advances of the leering villain, registered terror, exhibited anger - everything in the category. And you are a tremendous favorite. Your every expression is watched by millions.
"Tell me, arent' you afraid of repeating yourself? Aren't you afraid of using the same gestures over and over, afraid of using the same facial play every time some one dies, for example?
The Talmadge brow wrinkled in a puzzled frown.
"No, that's no problem," she replied slowly. "When I cry over my lover or shriek at the villain, or argue with my screen husband, I do it as I feel at the moment, without thinking of how I have done it before. If I do it the same way, I don't worry, because I am a believer in the personality idea."
"What is the personality idea?"
"Well, it's the notion that people come to a Chaplin picture to see Charlie do the things he does best. And people come to see me do the things they think I do best. Some folks love to see me shipwrecked on desert isles, consequently I've done pictures with that theme no less than five times since I have been in a position to choose my own stories. I have been saved five times, and I have registered extreme joy at the thought each time. And yet there has been no fear of repetition. The costumes vary each time, just as the settings vary, and my position is, of course, different. What remains is me, and my personality - my individual method of interpretation. And if I repeat that over and over, all is well, because people come just to see me repeat the sort of situations they have seen me in - and for some strange reason, have enjoyed my work in before. And there you are."
As she stated it, there was no trace of the ego. Rather it seemed a detached discussion of personalities, and Norma Talmadge's in particular. She appreciates her ability and her worth, but there is nothing of the upstage or the aloof in her manner, nothing of the assumed glacial mien affected by so many of our stellar aristocracy.
The mention of Chaplin in her conversation interested me, because to me he is by far the most fascinating figure in the fluttering photos to-day.
"Yes, I love his work," said Norma. "I should like nothing better than to play opposite him in a big drama. He wants to put Art on the screen. I hope he will."
"Will the box office ever team up with Art?" I asked.
"It has in the past," she flashed. "'The Birth of a Nation' and the more recent 'Miracle Man' are examples. Was anything ever more artistic than either of those? 'The Miracle Man' made two million dollars for its sponsors, and is still making money. Of course," she added practically, "there is always a risk in attempting to make money on an artistic production. I can be reasonably sure that a 'Sign on the Door' sort of play will make a financially big movie, and I'm not taking any chances to speak of when I produce it. But who can be sure that the public will get excited over a faith picture like the Tucker masterpiece?
"I try to make my stories as artistically as possible, but so far I am too interested in being happy and well and free from worry to take any great chances with Art. I'll take whatever credit you'll give me for doing 'The Passion Flower.' That was no Pollyanna story. I think the fans will like 'Smilin' Through.' We're working hard enough to please them! But don't tie me up too definitely with this Art for Art's sake idea. At least not until there a drop in the notoriously high cost of living!"
After which, if you will not agree with me that Norma is a beauty with brains, I'll vote for De Mille for secretary of the interior.
To meet a supremely attractive personality never works a hardship, but when the possessor of the personality talks, rather than chatters, the duty of transcribing her sentiments and views to the printed page becomes nothing less than a linotypical holiday.
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