Ethnic and Social Mobility in the Melodramas
of Norma Talmadge
Greg M. Smith
Journal of Film and Video 48.3 (Fall 1996)
Talmadge, the New Woman
The Accessible/Aloof Heart: Talmadge and Melodrama
The Other Talmadge
The Talking Talmadge
The silent film star whose voice prevented him/her from making the transition to the talkies is a well known figure in Hollywood lore. Some stars' voices supposedly did not match the personas they established in the silent era, and, according to the legend, technological progress consigned these stars to the footnotes of film history.
John Gilbert's(1) highly publicized case is the male touchstone of this legend, but perhaps the most prominent female star whose voice allegedly ruined her silent era popularity is Norma Talmadge. In 1924 a Photoplay contest named Talmadge as America's most popular female movie star. In 1930 she made two critically and commercially unsuccessful talkies (New York Nights and Dubarry -- Woman of Passion) and never again appeared onscreen, supposedly because her voice did not match her star image.(Cook 250)
What does it mean for a voice not to match a persona? In this paper I am less concerned with why Talmadge the actual woman retired from Hollywood(2) than I am with exploring Talmadge's star persona in the 1920's. The lasting power of the silent-star-killed-by-sound myth makes the legend just as interesting as the question of why Talmadge left the cinema, and this paper will focus on the public discourses that provide the background for Talmadge's departure. I concentrate on promotional and publicity materials and the films themselves from the 1920's, the peak years of Talmadge's popularity.
I argue that the mechanism of the silent
cinema allowed Talmadge's star persona to maintain a remarkably fluid position
at the intersection of race, class, and gender lines, a position that became
untenable in the sound cinema. The silent cinema made it possible for this
white actress to move across ethnic and class boundaries in ways that became
impossible when sound emerged.
Talmadge, the New Woman
Norma Talmadge repeatedly played "modern" women who moved upward in socio-economic status from humble beginnings, enacting a feminine version of the American fantasy of being able to transcend one's own class origins. In The Lady (1925) Polly Pearl (Talmadge) rises from a second-rate singer to the owner of a cafe, though her advances comes at considerable emotional cost. In one of her most famous films of the 1910's, The Social Secretary (1916), Talmadge's character proves herself worthy of belonging to the upper class family she works for, and she marries the son. The Sign on the Door (1921) shows another social rise through marriage, but Within the Law (1923) presents perhaps the most extreme upward movement (from an ex-convict to the wife of a rich gentleman).
While these women as a group may not seem particularly "modern" in light of today's mores (since their advances come primarily through marriage), in the 20's they presented examples of the New Woman. The New Woman was able to pursue her ambitions in the business world and could succeed with hard work and intelligence. But these ambitions were subservient to a "higher" calling: marriage, family, and domestic submission. The New Woman discourse recognized and validated the growing ranks of women who "chose" to work outside the home to satisfy the economic need for a larger workforce. However it also attempted to circumscribe any potential gains in women's power by positing the workplace as simply a transitional step toward home and family. (Ryan 508-509)
The New Woman was much discussed in popular magazines. The Ladies' Home Journal defined the New Woman as someone who knew the rewards of both the workplace and the home and who made the "right" choice of her own free will:
We have eaten the apple and never again shall we be good in a pre-Adamite, pre-woman-movement sense. Now, our conduct shall be the result of intelligent choice, and when we elect to live according to the older doctrines it shall be because we recognize truth. . . , not merely obeying [old doctrines] with the unquestioning unintelligence of the mediaeval or Victorian woman. In the full flood-light of understanding and free will we shall choose the better way.(3)The "better way" clearly was the home and family chosen by the protagonists of The Social Secretary and The Sign on the Door. Such women had seen the more active sexuality and power of Twenties' flappers and vamps and had resolved the contradictions of femininity by freely choosing the more passive sexuality of the traditional wife and mother. These characters would be read as a particular type of the "modern" working women, successful examples of the New Woman.(4)
Not only did Talmadge's characters epitomize the New Woman, but Talmadge herself was acknowledged in the fan discourse as a successful New Woman, one with the perfect combination of business assertiveness and domestic submission to her successful husband. In 1916, Talmadge, then a Vitagraph actress from a working class background, had married Joseph Schenck, a film exhibitor. He turned producer and formed the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, releasing their films through First National and later through United Artists, the studio Schenck was to head. This powerful, financially advantageous partnership remained in place throughout the 20's when Talmadge's career was at its apex of popularity.(5)
Talmadge the businesswoman maintained almost as high a profile as Talmadge the actress. In a Ladies' Home Journal article on "Women in Business," Talmadge is the only figure named from the motion picture industry. (Fleischman 24) A fan magazine described "Norma Talmadge, Inc." as "one of our busiest little American institutions." (NTF)(6) One article boasts that Talmadge earned five million dollars in an eight year period during the 20's. "Where most people invest in one house and lot, Norma Talmadge goes in for apartment houses and office buildings." (NTF)
The popular discourse on Talmadge alludes to the difficulties of maintaining the contradiction between powerful businesswoman and subordinate wife: "The most famous woman in Hollywood is Norma Talmadge. The least known woman in Hollywood is Mrs. Joseph Schenck." (NTF) Talmadge's image calls into question the seeming ease with which the New Woman balances her contradictory roles, though the difficulties of maintaining this position are not explored.
Norma Talmadge's characters and her offscreen
biography create a composite portrait of a woman who can move from poverty
to riches without being hindered by class boundaries. The difficulties
of adapting oneself to higher class mores are barely acknowledged. In this
version of the American myth, individual courage and ability override the
class restrictions of one's origins.
The Accessible/Aloof Heart: Talmadge and Melodrama
Talmadge's stories of social mobility figured prominently in 1920's women's popular culture, particularly because of her position as one of the foremost practitioners of the melodrama. The melodrama is a critical category which long predates the 20's, having its roots in 18th and 19th century spectacular theater, the sentimental novel, and other forms, as Peter Brooks has examined. Thomas Elsaesser suggests that a notoriously slippery term like melodrama can best be defined in terms of a set of characteristic devices, elements, and motifs. Thus melodrama is a narrative mode dependent on misrecognitions, narrative paralysis, rapid shifts in tone, and, perhaps most importantly, an emphasis on concealing emotion from other characters while simultaneously seeming to offer the audience access to a character's interior states.
In melodramas such as the ones Talmadge specialized in,(7) the audience must be given access to the female protagonist's internal states in order for the film to be readable. The melodrama promises us a glimpse of the "real" woman underneath the exterior, the spectacle of raw, conflicted, excessive, feminine emotions. These women are frequently caught between the contradictory demands society makes on femininity, between the passivity of the "lady" and a more active, passionate sexuality, as Laura Mulvey argues. In trying to resolve these contradictory emotions into a smooth narrative progression, the Hollywood melodrama characteristically swings from one emotional extreme to another, revealing what Elsasser terms an "inherent dialectic" (182) that cannot be resolved. Because the melodrama cannot fully resolve the problem of femininity, it presents the contradictions of femininity as a series of rapid emotional ups-and-downs.
Film has developed a set of narrative devices to reveal the protagonist's emotions and thoughts (principally the closeup, but also more invasive strategies such as hypnosis and psychoanalysis). Norma Talmadge's melodramas use several particular narrative and mise-en-scene patterns to provide the audience with privileged access to Talmadge's emotions in flux. These devices are important to understand how Norma Talmadge gained her popular reputation as "the greatest emotional actress of the screen." (NTF)
Many of her films feature Talmadge's characters intricately preparing to lie, showing the character getting ready to perform just as Talmadge the actress prepares to act in a scene (further linking her onscreen characters and her offscreen persona as an actress). For instance in The Lady, Polly Pearl (Talmadge) must sing a song onstage to stall the men who have come to take her baby. Backstage she is distraught at the prospect of losing her child; then we see her steel herself, readying herself to make a calm entrance to chat with the men. Directors often foreground Talmadge making these rapid emotional changes to prepare for an entrance, and this becomes a kind of set piece in Talmadge films.
Frequently these films depend on Talmadge's
character making a crucial decision, and she silently enacts a multi-stage
The Song of Love's plot depends on whether
Noorma-hal (Talmadge) will betray Ramlika's hiding place to arresting officers,
even if it means letting her uncle be taken instead. She walks toward his
hiding place, she manages a brave smile, she considers, and she sits on
the hiding place, bravely keeping the secret from the officers while simultaneously
exposing her decision-making process to the audience. Talmadge glances
at people and at narratively significant objects, revealing a different
emotional expression at each stage. In this way she telegraphs a conventionally
coded sequence of emotions, silently giving us access to rapid changes
in her inner thought processes.(8)
It is not surprising that an actress offering such apparent access to inner states is described in popular discourse as"the emotional queen of the screen." (NTF) "She does not act as much from the mind as from the heart," (NTF) according to the magazines, and the discourses assure us that we can trust the heart we see onscreen because of Talmadge's emotional honesty. Over and over the fan magazines use such phrases as "natural," "personal," and "total lack of conscious mannerism." "She is real. She does not pose. She has no affectations," (NTF) we are told. Reviews tells us that Talmadge's emotional truth transcends the conventions of the genre; she "puts real pathos in when it could be melodrama if not played sincerely." (NTF)
Through the films one can discover Talmadge's "personality," just as Richard deCordova describes earlier audiences piecing together "picture personalities" over a range of film performances. Each new Norma Talmadge film gives her audience an opportunity to gain more insight into the "real" Norma Talmadge whose "personality [is] so compelling you like her no matter how poor the picture." (NTF) And with each picture the Talmadge persona gains more and more detail, making her "an ever changing and broadening personality." (NTF)
Popular discourse also portrayed another part of this picture personality, a facet that contradicts Talmadge's purported emotional honesty. Much of the publicity portrayed her as "aloof," "regal," "stately," even "snobbish," emphasizing the difficulty of penetrating to the core of the real Talmadge. She is "always reserved, always immaculately groomed, rather aloof save to her friends, yet the idol of the film colony." (NTF)
The films also show Talmadge's capacity to conceal her real feelings.(9) Over and over Talmadge is placed in the mise-en-scene in such a way that she hides her facial expressions from other characters in the scene (as in the scenes mentioned above). Though this technique lets us the audience freely read her emotions, it also acknowledges that Talmadge is more than capable of concealing those inner states.
This hauteur reported in the popular press seemingly might interfere with her position as an accessible idol of film audiences. However, this aloofness becomes part of a fairly common Hollywood publicity strategy to create a sense of mystery about a star (Garbo, for instance). This distanciation strategy in extrafilmic discourse balances the supposedly easy access to Talmadge's inner feelings that melodrama promises to audiences.
The resulting combination is an enigma:
"Even her friends can't decide which Norma they prefer. . . . Norma. .
. a woman. . . a paradox. . . a riddle!" (NTF) The combination of aloofness
and emotional accessibility in the films and the popular press epitomizes
the ideological contradictions of femininity. Talmadge's melodramatic technique
promises us a glimpse of the spectacle of feminine emotions, but those
same techniques and the extrafilmic discourse simultaneously acknowledge
The Other Talmadge
When Talmadge was not playing a white woman relatively unbound by the American class system, she portrayed a large range of racial Others. Some of Talmadge's roles are Othered because they are set in the remote past, following the popular trend of the historical melodrama.(10) But in a larger number of her roles, Talmadge portrays the exoticized ethnic in romanticized narratives. In Smilin' Through (1922) she plays Moonyeen, an Irish beauty. The Dove (1927) is set in a mythical semitropical land, where she plays Dolores, a dancehall girl known as "The Dove." In The Passion Flower (1921) she plays another exotic woman with both a given name and a romantic title: Acacia, the Passion Flower. In Heart of Wetona Talmadge portrays an American Indian; in Kiki (1926) she's a Parisian gamine; in Forbidden City (1918) she's an Asian named Sansan. The Song of Love (1923) presents Talmadge in perhaps her most explicitly erotic and exotic role. She plays the Arabian charmer Noorma-hal (the name obviously linking the star with the role) who dances seductively for men.
In Werner Sollors's terms, Norma Talmadge positions ethnicity as a matter of consent (emphasizing the individual as a free agent choosing his/her destiny), while many other discourses identify race as a matter of descent (hereditary blood lines). (6) Just as Talmadge's characters are able to cross class lines within an individual film, Talmadge the actress across her films of the Twenties can transform from Asian to Native American. Talmadge the racial masquerader embodies what Mark Winokur calls the American "fantasy about the ability to create not only one's persona, but also one's origins," (13-14) eluding entrapment within racial categories.
The American cinema has had many racial masqueraders, such as Al Jolson's blackfaced minstel singing in The Jazz Singer and Eddie Cantor's Jewish "Indian" in Whoopee! Notably, only white people are given the ability to cross the cinema's racial lines, creating another area of privilege over those whose identities (cinematic or otherwise) are bound to their skin color. Whiteness is not read as a particularizing quality. It is both everything and nothing, Richard Dyer says, allowing white identities to become invisible and be subsumed into other racial identities. ("White," 45) As Michael Rogin notes, "[u]nlike other racially stigmatized groups, white immigrants can put on and take off their mark of difference." (1057)
Such racial masquerade not only gives whites the potential to try on Other subjectivities, but it also opens up possibilities of expression which are generally repressed in mainstream white America. Blackface allows the minstrel to engage in an intensity and range of emotional expressiveness that would not be allowed in mainstream white society. Many ethnic immigrants like Jolson were pressured to repress the broad expressiveness of their originating culture to fit into more controlled middle class norm. Extremes of emotion are thus displaced onto the Other (whose behavior is seen as being less proscribed by civilizing forces).
Note the significance of makeup in transforming these white men into expressive racial Others. Obviously blackface is a highly visible and theatrical strategy for masquerade, but other white ethnics use more naturalistic makeup techniques to transform themselves. Warner Oland, for instance, used false beards and eyebrows to make the transition from the old Jewish cantor of The Jazz Singer to the Asian villain of Old San Francisco.
Norma Talmadge as a white person was given the privileged status to put on the Other, to enact a culturally mediated fiction of changing one's origins by crossing racial lines. However, unlike Jolson and Oland, she did not depend on makeup to transform herself from one melodramatically expressive ethnic type to another. Instead, she used costume to signify racial Otherness.
At several points in the popular discourse, Talmadge asserts that a change in dramatic role is equivalent to a change in feminine costume: "I simply dress the part and feel the part and that seems to be all that is necessary." (NTF) To change from Arabian to Native American costume is to change from Noorma-hal to Wetona. The emotions of a melodramatic actress are similarly malleable: "[e]very emotion has its color tone equivalent, and in the making of a photoplay one must dress one's emotions in corresponding hues." (NTF) In advice to the New Woman, Talmadge suggests the importance of the masquerade as the key to feminine advancement in the everyday world: "If your mind is awake to the possibilities that lie in proper dressing, it will also be awake to other things of interest. And therein lies the secret of a charming personality." (NTF)
One would assume that a very pale-skinned woman like Norma Talmadge would also require strong makeup to embody racial Others. Unlike white men, however, Talmadge did not require culturally coded makeup, as if Talmadge's personality were malleable enough to cross racial lines without having to use obvious makeup props, as if changing ethnicities for her were as easy as changing clothing.
This instructive difference between white
man's and white woman's racial masquerades recalls Mary Ann Doane's discussion
of femininity as masquerade. ("Masquerade") Femininity as constituted by
our society is a position of inadequacy, and woman attempts to occupy more
socially viable positions by a kind of transvestitism, by pretending that
she is an Other. The woman can do this because femininity itself is constituted
as a masquerade hiding the woman's nonidentity. Norma Talmadge need not
use clearly marked makeup to transform herself into an Other, because she
as a woman is already constitued as a masquerader.(11)
Norma Talmadge onscreen could operate within
the fairly broad range of expression accorded to a woman in a woman's genre.
By playing many different ethnic roles, she could exploit the even broader
range of emotional expressivity accorded to racial Others. Using the melodramatic
techniques described earlier, Talmadge offered the spectacle of exotic
emotions. Taking advantage of the racial mobility given to her whiteness
and the "natural" masquerade abilities of the feminine, she portrayed an
unprecedented variety of ethnicities and promised emotional access into
these Other subjectivities.
Unlike other film melodrama actresses of the 20's, Talmadge did not build a core character which could be simply followed from film to film (Mary Pickford's "Little Mary," for example).(12) Reading Talmadge's performances across a variety of film texts emphasizes Talmadge the actress and her capability to transcend racial, ethnic, and class boundaries. In 1926 Adela Rogers St. Johns called Talmadge "our one and only great actress," citing her versatility as the distinctive factor that favored Talmadge over Pickford, Gish, and others:
With Norma Talmadge every part is a separate and distinct creation. And when you see her on the screen, you never see Norma Talmadge. You, as an audience, know absolutely nothing of the woman Norma Talmadge. . . . Probably 90% of her audiences do not realize there is any art or study or technique behind her performances. (NTF)St. Johns tersely states the problem posed by a versatile melodramatic actress. Since melodrama promises us access into a person's internal emotions, one expects to see the "real" person when she appears onscreen. Yet when one tries to piece together a versatile actress's "personality" from intertextual readings, the range of characterizations thwarts the attempt to create a unified personality. The only way to resolve Moonyeen, Sansan, Yolanda de Breux, Acacia, Noorma-hal, Polly Pearl, the Duchesse de Langeais, and The Social Secretary is to posit Talmadge as a "great actress," as a masquerader par excellence, which St. Johns does. The "real" Talmadge is the actress gifted enough to portray different ethnicities and classes simply by showing us her extreme emotions, not by using makeup.
Talmadge's versatility is emphasized not only across film texts but also within single films. In her roles as a social mover we can see her transform Galatea-like from the lower classes into aristocratic circles (from ex-convict to socialite wife in Within the Law, for instance). Also she plays stage performers in several films (Kiki, New York Nights, The Dove), allowing us to see both onstage and backstage versions of the same character.
But significantly, several of her most popular films show Talmadge portraying multiple roles. In Yes or No (1920) she played two women who took different stances toward marital temptation with predictably moral results. In Smilin' Through she portrayed Moonyeen who is killed on the day of her wedding; she also played Kathleen, who falls in love with the groom's son twenty years later. In Secrets she played a woman in her youth and in her old age ("I changed my age with every change of costume."). (NTF) These films overtly inscribe Talmadge's versatility, her ability to occupy multiple positions in the text. The films encourage the fantasy that one can effortlessly move from one subject position to another by shaping one's inner being.
If anything can be said to be unique about
Norma Talmadge in the Twenties, it is this foregrounded discourse on versatility.
Certainly the silent era had many melodramatic actresses (like Pickford
and Gish),(13) and other actors portrayed
ethnic and racial types (e.g., Valentino) or played resourceful New Women
rising through the social strata. But Talmadge foregrounded her versatility
more than any other leading actress of comparable popularity in the Twenties.(14)
This emphasis further highlighted the contradictions
of gender, class, and ethnicity which Talmadge embodied. Talmadge, like
many stars, was situated at the crossing of several key contradictory discourses,
maintaining a necessarily tenuous balance. This balancing act was further
endangered by Talmadge's range of impersonations, by her foregrounded versatility
which makes it difficult to construct a unified personality. Regardless
of how well Talmadge spoke, it would be difficult for
to match the discursive position she occupied in the silent cinema.(15)
The Talking Talmadge
Western metaphysics has fostered the illusion that speech is able to express the speaker's inner essence, that it is 'part' of him or her. It locates the subject of speech in the same ontological space as the speaking subject, so that the former seems a natural outgrowth of the latter. (Silverman, 43)When Western audiences lined up to see and hear Norma Talmadge in New York Nights or DuBarry -- Woman of Passion, they reasonably could expect to gain an access they'd never gotten before into the "inner truth" of Talmadge, the "real" Talmadge, the person at the juncture of the several discourses outlined in this paper. The human voice promised audiences insight into Talmadge's interior, a promise that was compounded by the melodrama's similar drive to penetrate the woman's exterior.
How was Norma Talmadge's voice perceived by her contemporaries? The myth of the silent-star-destroyed-by-sound emphasizes the harsher judgments, like Time magazine's:
Norma Talmadge plays less pompously than might be expected, but people who liked her program pictures in the old days may hope that this will be the last attempt to establish her as a great figure in sound pictures. However, her diction is improving; in her first dialog effort she talked like an elocution pupil; this time she talks like an elocution teacher. ("DuBarry")Listening closely to a Talmadge talkie, however, one does not notice any extraordinarily marked vocal qualities which are not characteristic of early sound films in general. Her speech is somewhat overly precise, but so is the speech in many sound transition films. In fact, several contemporary reviewers did not even make note of her voice, and some praised her performance. The Chicago Daily Tribune, for example, panned New York Nights but praised its star:
[The film] demonstrates that Norma Talmadge has a charming voice, retains the charm of her silent picture days, and, properly cast and supported, should be a definite asset to the all-talkers.("New York," 19)The fact that some reviewers praised Talmadge's performance (Reid, 61; Truebridge, 8; Kelly, 21; Johaneson, 19) while others panned her, ("Asbestos" 6; "DuBarry," Variety 15; "DuBarry," Indianapolis 2; Watts, "DuBarry" 8; Watts, "New York" 10) a historical fact overshadowed by cinematic folklore, indicates that Talmadge's voice was generally perceived to be within the acceptable range of vocal performances of that era (unlike the mythic Lina Lamont's strong accent in Singin' in the Rain).
The most frequent complaint reviewers noted about Talmadge's voice was its unevenness. The Atlanta Constitution said, "[a]t times her voice rings clear, true, convincing; at times it seems to lack co-ordination with the action of the plot." (Moran 19) Even in positive reviews, Talmadge's voice sometimes warrants comment: "[t]here are times when the star's voice does not ring quite right, but her consummate acting would register without a line of dialogue." (Truebridge 8) Though her vocal performance is generally unremarkable, Talmadge occasionally slips at times into an overly enunciated, high class, theatrical pronunciation (dropped r's such as "haht" for "heart", swallowed throaty vowels such as "ohfully" for "awfully") and at other times into a flatter, faster, less noticeably high class diction (a nasal a in "brass").(16)
Talmadge appears not to be able to control these occasional slips into overly coached or too colloquial diction. If she had switched from lower class to higher class enunciation when her character (DuBarry, for instance) moves from humble beginnings to noble surroundings, this shift would have reinforced Talmadge's claim to versatile acting ability. She once again might have been able to cross class boundaries in true New Woman fashion. Instead, these erratic slips of pronunciation create the unsettling sense of an unstable, disunified identity who almost randomly switches vocal class connotations.
This uneven voice not only creates the potential for displeasure within the audience of a particular film; it also calls for revision of her persona. Obviously the "real" Talmadge revealed in the sound cinema is not even capable of impersonating a single cohesive character. If she had difficulty in maintaining the basic fiction of a cohesive subject position in the sound cinema, the "real" Talmadge was certainly incapable of reenacting her versatile range of silent cinema types. In the talkies Talmadge the masquerader was bound by the limitations of her body.
Silverman says that "within classic cinema, woman's psyche is only a further extension of her body -- its other side, or, to be more precise, its inside." (64) The cinematic apparatus works hard to maintain this fiction, invisibly synchronizing the image of the performer's body and "a voice to match." Silverman would explain Talmadge's failure in the sound cinema as a moment of rupture in the seamless suturing of the female voice to the female body. According to Silverman's reasoning, Talmadge's voice did not fulfill the expectations created by her body, therefore exposing the constructed nature of the apparatus.
Silverman's assertions regarding the classic cinema's pressure to match the female voice and body are convincing, but her claim does not fully explain the disjuncture DuBarry -- Woman of Passion represents. To explain this moment purely in terms of gender is to miss much historical specificity. Certainly the fact that she is a woman is a significant factor, but other discourses are important in the construction of Talmadge's persona. Melodrama and sound promised privileged interior access to Talmadge's exotic Other, but when "the French accents are variable in every character," the interior of Talmadge's French paramour becomes inconsistent. ("DuBarry," Variety 15)
Speech in the cinema not only is used to reveal the supposed continuity between a character's exterior and interior but also it "guarantees immediacy and presence in the system of absence that is cinema." (Silverman 43) The cinematic image necessarily implies the absence of the depicted object, and the apparatus works hard to imbue the cinema with a sense of "presence," to disguise and disavow the replacement of signified with signifier. The spoken voice is often seen as a way of giving the image presence that would otherwise be lacking. Mary Ann Doane notes that "[t]he addition of sound to the cinema introduces the possibility of re-presenting a fuller (and organically unified) body. . . ." (Doane, "Voice" 567)
Such a conception of the cinema by Doane and Silverman is based too much on ex post facto knowledge of the dominant direction the cinema would take after the introduction of sound technology. The absence of the signified has always existed in the cinema and was masked by piano, organ, and orchestra accompaniment. It is too easy to assume that the sound cinema (i.e., synchronized sound, particularly synchronized voices) is part of a natural progression of technological advances to overcome the threatening absence of the signified, as if the sound cinema were waiting to be discovered as the best solution to a preexisting problem. It is easy to posit filmmakers as struggling to overcome the "liabilities" of the silent cinema.(17)
Unless proven otherwise, we should assume
that the silent cinema found its silence to be as much an asset as a liability.(18)
Suggesting that synchronous speech gives a sense of "presence" to the performer's
body would indicate that silent film performers were perceived as having
less "presence." Though this may seem to be true to audiences raised on
the sound cinema, we must question whether this would've been true for
audiences in the sound transition period. In fact, this absence of sound
may have freed silent filmmakers to create effects that would not be possible
with the greater "presence" of sound.(19)
Silent film allowed Talmadge to occupy a variety of positions without calling specific attention to possible contradictions among them. Audiences hearing her voice for the first time did not get a sense of the "fuller and more unified body" Doane and Silverman suggest a voice should provide. Instead the voice emphasized lack, the paucity of a Talmadge tied to a single voice in comparison to the richness of a Talmadge with many imagined voices.
No longer could the audience maintain the fiction that Talmadge had the versatility to portray Noorma-hal and Polly Pearl. The silent cinema was able to maintain the fiction that Talmadge's various roles were expressions from an authentic psychological interior.(20) Sound added new information which made it extraordinarily difficult to maintain such a fluid persona. The sound cinema therefore abandoned such versatility just as it eventually abandoned blackface. Such techniques foregrounded the artifice behind the persona, which is difficult to recouperate within the conventions of realistic cinema.(21) (Rogin, "Blackface" 451)
The arrival of sound changed the conditions of representation for all film stars as they struggled to give voice to their established personas. Talmadge was not unique in having to deal with this crisis. Certainly others embodied the aggressive and submissive qualities New Woman. Some white actors portrayed a range of ethnic Others, though few took as much advantage as Talmadge did of the white female potential for ethnic masquerade without makeup.
Norma Talmadge's foregrounded versatility, however, accentuates and complicates this general crisis. Her star image in her films and in popular discourse simultaneously straddles melodramatic access and aloofness, the contradictions of New Womanhood, and a range of exotic Others. More than any other 20's actress of comparable popularity, Talmadge exploited the silent cinema's capacity to maintain this level of fluidity. Her star image depended on maintaining these multiple positions, thus making her persona particuarly dependent on the silent cinema's potential. Had Talmadge the individual persisted in making films, perhaps she might have created a new image. However, the star image she created in the 20's could not be maintained in the sound era. Her fluid persona was made possible by the silent cinema and its unique capability for a persona to transcend an individual voice.
The studios seemed to have learned a lesson
from the commercial and critical failure of Talmadge's talkies. Not until
after the decline of the Hollywood studio was another actor allowed to
create a star persona straddling so many different class and ethnic positions.(22)
Actresses were closely tied to a core persona, particularly those with
distinctively marked voices like Garbo.(23)
Not until much later would another set of discourses allow another female
star (Meryl Streep) to foreground versatility across ethnic lines, and
this versatility only became possible through the discipline and control
of the female voice. Talmadge was silenced (at least in part) by the power
of the versatile, melodramatic persona she created using the unique potential
of the silent cinema.
I wish to thank the staffs of the Wisconsin
Center for Film and Theater Research, the Library of Congress, and the
Museum of Modern Art for their invaluable research assistance.
1. 1. For instance, Adolph Zukor said, "the one great tragedy of sound was John Gilbert, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's sensational romantic star. His voice was too high -- not effeminate, but with a piping note which all the efforts of the voice instructors could not bring into line with his screen appearance. His failure upset him emotionally and doubtless had much to do with his early death." (173)
Perhaps the most famous myth of a silent star being displaced by sound cinema, however, does not involve a real actor at all but a fictional one: Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain.
2. 2. Anita Loos tells the following anecdote: after DuBarry -- Woman of Passion received unfavorable reviews, Talmadge's sister Constance sent her a telegram saying, "Quit pressing your luck, baby. The critics can't knock those trust funds Mom set up for us." According to Loos, "Norma took that sisterly advice and gave up acting forever." (2)
It is always difficult to know with any degree of certainty why a single historical individual performs an action, but there are several potential factors explaining why Talmadge quit after two talkies. Talmadge had separated from her husband-producer, and any attempt at transacting business between them must have been very awkward. She was a savvy investor who had enough money from her successes to retire comfortably. Talmadge was 33 in 1930, and surely the traditional Hollywood pressures on "aging" actresses must have been applied.
In addition, Talmadge, a screen actress from Brooklyn with no stage training, had a strong Brooklyn accent. This alone cannot explain Talmadge's failure in the talkies, however, since there is virtually no trace of this accent in her sound films. Talmadge had to work very hard with a voice teacher to rework her voice. (Biery 80) Sound film acting added another level of difficulty to this Brooklyn actress's job. One must also remember the climate of fear in Hollywood's acting community in the late 1920's. Rumors abounded concerning whether or not stars would be able to make the transition to sound. Certainly these are enough factors to provide a satisfactory causal explanation of why Talmadge the historical individual did not continue to make sound films into the 1930's.
3. 3. This article summarizes
the philosophy of the New Woman in a extraordinary credo of contradictions:
I believe in woman's rights; but I believe in woman's sacrifices also.
I believe in woman's freedom; but I believe it should be within the restrictions of the Ten Commandments.
I believe in woman suffrage; but I believe many other things are vastly more important.
I believe in woman's brains; but I believe still more in her emotions.
I believe in woman's assertion of self; but I believe also in her obligation of service to her family, her neighbors, her nation and her God.
Following that faith we have the most modern expression of feminism. The newest new woman deifies not herself, but through her new freedom elects to serve others. (Abbott 154)
The signifier "New Woman" keeps reappearing in American popular usage every few decades or so (in the '40's and the '70's). Remarkably, these "new" New Women bear much resemblance to their predecessors, emphasizing a contradictory combination of business ambition and domestic fulfillment.
4. 4. Stanley Cavell suggests that screen actors do not create characters as much as they create social types. (25-29) The New Woman of the 20's is one of the precursors of what Richard Dyer calls the "independent woman" type of the 30's and 40's. (Stars, 53-68)
5. 5. This story of how Talmadge rose to leading player status in the 1910's is not addressed in this article. The focus here is on the 20's when Talmadge's star image is popular, well-established, and relatively stable across the period.
6. 6. NTF throughout this text refers to the Norma Talmadge clipping file at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.
The clipping files at the WCFTR are based primarily on the donations of a single collector, who unfortunately was a fan and not an archivist. Therefore few of the clippings have appropriate bibliographic citations. I hope that the enormous value of these primary materials will outweigh the necessary lack of specificity of citation. Whenever possible I will note the type of publication in which the quotation appeared (fan magazine, publicity release, etc.).
7. 7. This paper acknowledges the differences between the melodrama and the woman's film. Here the woman's film is taken to be a historically specific term applied to an industrial Hollywood cycle of Hollywood films targeted specifically for a women's audience. Such films featured female protagonists and female points of view and often adapted material from other women's pop culture sources such as magazines and pulp novels.
Melodrama is defined as a narrative mode which can be seen in many different media and is itself a term which has undergone significant historical change. The woman's film is not a subset of the melodrama. For instance, the woman's film can also be realistic instead of melodramatic, as Maria LaPlace argues concerning Now, Voyager. However, many woman's films (including Talmadge's) communicate primarily in the melodramatic mode.
Some Talmadge films are best understood as melodramas but not as examples of the woman's film. Such historical melodramas as The Eternal Flame (adapted from Balzac) and DuBarry -- Woman of Passion (adapted from a Belasco stage play) have little bearing on the primarily domestic concerns of the woman's film in its heyday (the '30's and '40's).
There can be no absolute line drawn between the melodrama and the woman's film. This paper examines Talmadge's films (some woman's films, some not) as films which communicate using the melodramatic mode.
For further discussion of the relationship between the melodrama and the woman's film, see Christine Gledhill's Home Is Where the Heart Is.
8. 8. Roberta Pearson argues that such a series of performance signs linked with realistic props and glances differentiates a "verisimilar" code of acting from a "histrionic" code. A histrionic soliloquy would depend on a sequence of Delsartean stock gestures alone. The verisimilar code rooted performance in realistic props, mise-en-scene details, and glance-object-glance editing to convey a character's chain of thoughts. (38-51)
For more on performance and melodrama, see Susan Roberts, "Melodramatic Performance Signs."
9. 9. Mae Marsh cited Talmadge as the actress who makes the best use of emotional "repression," the ability to keep emotions in check until the right dramatic moment: "She seems invariably to hold much in reserve with the result that when she does let go in a big emotional scene the effect is brought home to the audience with telling force. . . . her repression seems ever illuminated by the fires of potential emotion." (84)
10. 10. The Eternal Flame (1922) is set in the period of Louis XVIII; Ashes of Vengeance (1923) in earlier 16th century France. Secrets (1924) covers a range of times and settings including the pioneer West.
11. 11. Just as the melodrama excessively questions the contradictory nature of female sexuality, the exotic narrative foregrounds the contradictions and ambivalences of racial difference. Both the exotic and the feminine construct positions simultaneously involving innocence and unbridled sensuality. As Homi Bhabha notes, the exotic Other becomes "an object of desire and derision," (19) both a threatening and an enchanting novelty. "It is, on the one hand, a topic of learning, discovery, practice; on the other, it is the site of dreams, images, fantasies, myths, obsessions, and requirements." (24) The contradictions of exotic stereotypes compound the contradictions of femininity emphasized in melodrama.
12. 12. Pickford, an actress who later adapted former Talmadge vehicles (Secrets, Kiki) for herself, tried to vary her roles during the 20's, but her audience begged for her to return to her tried and true persona. (Balio 165-167)
13. 13. James Naremore argues for Lillian Gish's versatility, suggesting that, although Gish tended to play a series of similar child-women, her performances-within-performances open up many possible "selves." (99-113) Norma Talmadge defined her versatility differently. She emphasized her the differences between roles (from film to film, or in multiple roles in the same film), not the different "possible selves" within a single role. This foregrounded her versatility both in publicity and in the films themselves.
14. 14. This may be partially explained by certain economic factors. Using versatile actors in multiple roles within the same film was more characteristic of production in the 1910's, when ensembles of actors portrayed different characters as a time and money saving device (which also incidentally emphasized actor versatility). As capital expenditures rose at the major studios in the 1920's to increase production values, film productions moved away from this old-fashioned and highly noticeable cost saving measure. Talmadge worked in her own independent production company (releasing her films in the late 20s through United Artists), which permitted some variation from the production norms at major studios. In an independent production environment, she could continue the emphasis on versatility she had learned at Vitagraph long after the rest of the industry had settled on consistent star personas like Pickford's Little Mary.
15. 15. More star image research needs to be done on combinations of ethnicity, gender, and acting versatility in the sound transition era. Lon Chaney also similarly emphasized his versatility, though his performances were ghettoized by the horror genre. Myrna Loy made the transition to sound by changing from a minor actress who played a range of exotic temptresses to a major star with a unified, more upscale persona. Warner Oland portrayed a range of ethnic others as a supporting character actor in both the silent and sound cinemas. Anna Mae Wong continued to play ethnic roles into the sound era, though she did so silently.
Brigitte Helm may be the only other major female melodrama star to trade as heavily on her versatility. Investigating her star image and the function of femininity, versatility, and melodrama in Weimar Germany would provide an interesting comparison case.
16. 16. In DuBarry -- Woman of Passion, for instance, her accent occasionally slips into a lower class delivery. For instance, the line "Aw, surely you know how it is. A great, big, handsome man like you," is delivered in a drawn out manner, almost verging on a faux Southern accent. She can speak one line in a throaty dramatic manner and the next line in a lighter, almost flippant way: "The king is dead. I'm just one of the people now."
She sometimes emphasizes a word by cascading through it with a haughty tone, as in "Let us be ga-a-a-y in this glorious fete. Let us have wi-i-i-ne and music and dazzling displays." Upon occasion she puts dramatic emphasis on a line by using an unexpected pause, followed by a shift to a lower register: "Have them sold for -- bread." Talmadge occasionally emphasizes the syllables word or line in a somewhat stilted, upper class fashion: "I'd do an-y-thing in the world for you."
Again I must emphasize that such lines are the exception, not the rule in the Talmadge talkies. Her speaking and singing voice is generally well within the range of acceptable practice in early sound films.
17. 17. For example, Elsasser says that silent "directors had to develop an extremely subtle and yet precise formal language. . . because they were deliberately looking for ways to compensate for the expressiveness. . . present in the spoken word. . . ." (172-3)
18. 18. Certainly the
film industry made several early attempts to synchronize sound and picture,
discussed by Douglas Gomery. However, the innovation of sound did not simply
add new potential to the cinema. It also brought about a lessening of the
expressive possibilities of the film medium (for instance, the loss of
control over negative developing when automatic processing superseded the
rack-and-tank method). (Bordwell, Thompson, and Staiger 284-285)
19. 19. Rudolf Arnheim argued that "it was precisely the absence of speech that made the silent film develop a style of its own." (199-230)
20. 20. Peter Brooks argues that muteness occupies a privileged position in melodrama, and therefore silent cinema could be considered to be much more suited to melodrama expression than the talkies. The system of gestures comprise a "text of muteness" which is better able to express the ineffable than words can. (56-80)
21. 21. Also, Dyer suggests that"independent women" stars have the potential to emphasize their own artifice, to stress that their roles are merely roles. (Stars 66-8)
22. 22. For a discussion of how studios used cohesive star personas as an economic strategy for product differentiation, see Cathy Klaprat, "The Star as Market Strategy."
23. 23. Coincidentally,
Garbo's much anticipated Hollywood talkie debut, Anna Christie,
played side by side with Talmadge's talkies in many markets. The famous
"Garbo Talks!" advertisements ran side by side with Talmadge's ads, ironically
juxtaposing two different fates of two ethnically Othered actresses (one
who emphasized her foreign accent and her distance, the other who disciplined
her accent and foregrounded her accessibility).
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