The changeover from silent to sound cinema revolutionized the world’s most popular entertainment form. As in most revolutions, some heads got lopped off. The industry saw this upheaval as a chance to clean house, getting rid of pricey or difficult talent by claiming they couldn’t make the transition. The public went along, suddenly hungry for all things talking, singing, dancing, and new, eager to dismiss yesterday’s favorites as old-fashioned.
Certainly stardom’s internationalism was largely over — those with heavy foreign or regional inflections were kaput. But myths persisted for decades about native-born stars like John Gilbert whose nasal, “light,” or otherwise unappealing voices purportedly derailed their careers. Heard today, Gilbert seems just fine — was MGM simply punishing him for being an expensive pain in the ass? If so, it worked: by 1936 he’d drank himself to death.
A similar aroma of failure hovers around Norma Talmadge, one of the biggest stars of the silent era yet largely forgotten now. Critics howled at her supposed vocal uncouthness in 1930’s Du Barry, Woman of Passion. Talmadge took equally famous, already retired sister Constance’s advice, quitting while she was still ahead — at least financially, thanks to mama’s trust fund setup. Yet clips from the era reveal nothing at all wrong with her voice. Was she a victim of simple out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new media frenzy? Perhaps an affair with actor Gilbert Roland ended the career support of her husband, powerful executive Joseph M. Schenck. Was she being punished?
She and Roland star in 1928’s The Woman Disputed, her last silent vehicle and one of many highlights in this weekend’s 15th San Francisco Silent Film Festival. She’s an Austrian prostitute — not exactly named as such, of course — who barely escapes a murder charge after a seeming john instead uses her flat to kill himself in. Two wealthy rescuers then become romantic rivals for this hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, whom they help attain respectability. (The other man is Arnold Kent, an Italian actor fatally struck by a car after playing this final role.)
Directed by Henry King (an A-list Hollywood director through the 1950s), Woman moves from heavy tragedy to disarming romantic comedy and back again — then World War I intervenes. The fervency of its trio’s romantic friendship is very touching. No matter that the concept is typical Hollywood fantasy ignoring class-impasse reality: the film finesses its corn syrup via discreet handling and potent star power. Doing the most emotive heavy-lifting, Talmadge has moments that make her appeal very clear.
Thrust forward by a world-class stage mother, Talmadge was huge throughout the 1920s. According to screenwriter pal Anita Loos’ memoir, her screen retirement was addled by stupefying addiction to arthritis painkillers. It’s said she started the Hollywood Walk of Fame by accidentally stepping into wet cement. It’s also said she inspired the monstrous Norma Desmond in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, as well as Jean Hagen’s Brooklynese-screeching imploding silent star in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. Yet again these may just be derogatory rumors that have had decades to harden into pseudo fact.
SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL
July 15–18, free–$30
429 Castro, SF