Wetona is the daughter of a chief. Her problem is that she has been no better than she ought (if you take my meaning) and now papa is out to find her partner in hanky-panky. Poor Thomas Meighan stumbles into the situation and before you can say “It wasn’t me, sir, honest!” he finds himself a participant in a shotgun wedding. Oh my!
Oh. My. Gravy.
Before I start the review, I want to have a little disclaimer:
If you have never seen a silent movie, please, please, please do not make Heart of Wetona your first experience. Fans of silent films often find themselves defending the era against ignorance (“All silent movies have women tied to the tracks!” “It was all pie fights and slapstick”) and clichés but, like any other era, there were some turkeys. Hokey, hokey turkeys.
Never seen a silent movie? I’ll tell you what, go and see The Kid, or Show People, or Go West, or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or Carmen, or Tempest and then come back to see Heart of Wetona. As an added bonus, you will find this movie even more unintentionally hilarious if you have seen some good silent comedies and dramas.
I usually try to present all sides of the film, good and bad, when I review but this time, I have to be a little bit bloodthirsty. You see, Heart of Wetona is a gem of unintentional comedy.
The film tells the story of Wetona (Norma Talmadge), the beautiful daughter of the chief of a Blackfoot tribe. Her mother was a white woman and Wetona was educated in the finest schools on the east coast. Well, supposedly the finest. I do not believe it. You see, the film has Wetona talking in the most ridiculous “How, white man, me buy heap big box of nectarines” sort of lingo. (Need I add that this film is not for the easily offended?) Boy, do I ever hate it when movies do that insulting “American Indian” dialect. In Heart of Wetona, it is not only insulting, it is downright weird. More on that in a bit.
Anyway, the local government representative, John Hardin (Thomas Meighan), has an awful crush on Wetona but she only has eyes for his assistant, Anthony (Gladden James). Why this is, I have no idea. Ladies, if you were Wetona, who would you rather have?
I thought so.
Well, Wetona is not exactly the brightest bulb on the tree and she prefers Anthony. In fact, it seems that Wetona and Anthony have been Very Naughty Indeed. Naughty enough for Wetona to quit her position as Vestal Virgin at the traditional corn festival.
I find this detail odd as the Blackfoot, shockingly, were not Romans. Romans worshipped Vesta, goddess of the hearth, and therefore had Vestal Virgins. Did the Blackfoot worship other Roman gods? Like Bubona, goddess of cattle, or Devera, goddess of brooms or perhaps even Laverna, patroness of con men? Or did they, perhaps, mix and match from assorted mythology and also worshiped, say, Yeomra, Korean king of the underworld, or Mamlambo, Zulu goddess of rivers. How did this get started?
You know what? If I didn’t know any better, I would say that whoever wrote this script did no research at all and just made stuff up. But that could never happen in a Hollywood movie.
Anyway, Wetona’s papa, Chief Quannah (Fred Huntley), is horrified and vows to blast the skunk who despoiled his dear daughter. Wetona refuses to name her lover and immediately escapes under cover of afternoon to warn Anthony. (By this time, she has taken to doing her hair in a manner better suited to a galaxy far, far away.) Quannah has all the brains in his family and he figures that following Wetona will help him track down her lover.
Anthony is not in his office but John is. He has heard of the doings at the harvest festival and is worried about Wetona. What should John do? Let’s take a quiz!
You are a man and find yourself alone with a young lady whose father has vowed to fill her lover’s guts with lead. Do you:
a) Speak to her from a safe and reasonable distance, keeping your hands clasped at your sides at all times.
b) Slip out the back door.
c) Try to talk to her father and to calm him down.
d) Hug her to make her feel better. Make it a long and lingering hug and make sure the door to your office is unlocked.
If you chose A, B or C, you just do not have what it takes to be the leading man. John takes option D. You’ll never guess what happens next.
Because he likes him, Wetona’s dad gives John a choice. He can either make an honest woman of Wetona or he can get shot. So, if you were John what would you do?
a) Agree and then sneak away
b) Refuse and run like heck
c) Put two and two together, realize Wetona was looking for Anthony and try to get him to do the honors
d) Go along with the plan because Wetona is cute!
Yep, John takes D again.
See, the marriage will be in name only and that way she will be safe until her lover returns. I would have thought it would make more sense for her to just marry her lover. Well, Anthony has decided that Wetona is too hot to handle and he means to beat feet. He asks Wetona to keep covering for him and to marry John because he (Anthony) will totally come back for her later. If you were Wetona, what would you do?
a) Slug the creep.
b) Tell your daddy what he did.
c) Sue him for breach of promise.
d) Go along with his plan and marry a different guy because that’s exactly what a man in love would ask his girl to do.
Hey, Wetona likes D too!
Maybe she and John are made for one another! Anyway, Anthony sticks around for the ceremony and even provides his pinkie ring as the wedding band. (The same pinkie ring business happens in Moonstruck nearly seventy years later. Lesson? Never share your pinkie ring.)
We also learn at the ceremony that John’s middle name is Spencer. Why this is essential, I do not know. Wetona almost faints at the “man and wife” bit. Quannah tells Wetona that she has been kicked out of the tribe and that she and John need to get out of town immediately or be hunted down. Anthony thinks this is awesome and takes his leave, presumably to try his luck with the ladies of the Navajo or Pueblo.
Naturally, John and Wetona set up housekeeping instead of escaping to safety. Wetona waits for Anthony to return (um, he just left, couldn’t she follow?) and John brings her a fluffy kitten. Of course. Meanwhile, the men of Wetona’s tribe lurk invisibly. And by lurk invisibly, I mean they crawl back and forth in front of the house in full view of anyone who bothers to look.
Then John catches Anthony trying to skip town. John quickly figures out why and invites Anthony back to the house. Wetona still thinks Anthony is the man for her. I mean, look at the difference!
John: Helps when there is trouble, handsome, noble, brings her fluffy kittens
Anthony: Skips out at the first sign of danger, subscribes to the “why buy the cow” philosophy
I mean, who can blame her for preferring Anthony? Don’t let him get away, honey! Because he will try.
John makes an excuse to leave and Anthony thinks this means he will be the recipient of muchas smooches. Nope. Wetona thinks it’s unsuitable in John’s house while she is still legally his wife. Anthony takes this about as well as you might expect. He still doesn’t want to marry her but demands that she leave her door open for him that night. Wetona starts to suspect that maybe he is not a nice guy. You think?
Meanwhile, Wetona’s tribe has had it up to here with her and decide to have a good old-fashioned housewarming party. (Because they’re going to burn down the house… You know.) So, will Anthony do the right thing? Will our heroes burn? Will Wetona learn what personal pronouns are for?
Part of what makes Heart of Wetona so wonderfully bad is its clueless intertitles. Allow me to share my favorites.
Leopard chaps, bless his heart! I want a movie made just about him!
The men acquit themselves quite well in this picture. I have to admit, I kinda liked Anthony. He was just so shamelessly horrible that he was a great deal of fun to watch. I also enjoyed Quannah. He is the only character in the film with two brain cells to run together. As for our romantic lead, Thomas Meighan possessed the rare ability to float above any silliness with great dignity. He starred in many a ridiculous film and yet he emerged unscathed. Maybe it’s the pipe. What do you think? (He also had his share of good films, I should note.)
Our female lead, on the other hand, does not come off so well. Of all the silent era superstars, no actress has sunk further into obscurity than Norma Talmadge. She dominated the box office for over a decade. Her marriage to producer Joseph Schenck ensured that she was one half of a super-power couple. She was mentioned in the same breath as Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson.
Nowadays, though, Norma Talmadge is often a footnote. She made her last film in 1930 and, while she made some personal appearances, she showed very little interest in maintaining the trappings of stardom. She passed away in 1957, years before scholarly interest in the silent era reached the mainstream.
However, shying from publicity does not explain everything. After all, Greta Garbo’s isolation made her even more famous. What was the missing ingredient for Miss Talmadge? Well, that’s a highly debatable issue, but I think that a lot of it has to do with the quantity and quality of her films that became available after the silent era.
My problem with some of Talmadge’s performances (and I must emphasize that I have not yet seen the films generally regarded as her best, Secrets and Smilin’ Through) is that they are terribly generic. Anyone could have played Wetona or Talmadge’s characters in The Forbidden City or A Social Secretary. The problem is that these films have been the main Talmadge titles available for viewing. No wonder her livelier works are hard to come by! The Devil’s Needle and Kiki, both relative newcomers to the home video market, are wilder entertainments.
As Wetona, Talmadge comes off as weird and just a little dim. Okay, not just dim, she is as thick as a brick. Of course, the incredible offensive title cards do not help matters but the scenario also fails its star. Wetona is made to do preposterous things in order to keep the plot going. Because she makes so many idiotic mistakes, Wetona is a difficult heroine to root for.
Heart of Wetona is probably not going to win Talmadge many new fans but I have newfound respect for Thomas Meighan. I have always liked him as an actor but coming through this film with his dignity intact is a marked accomplishment and I salute him for it.
One interesting bit of trivia: You may have heard of silent movies that got people killed. You know, the stuntmen of The Trail of ’98 or poor Martha Mansfield’s fatal accident on the set of The Warrens of Virgina. Well, for all its awfulness, Heart of Wetona may have saved the lives and health of its cast and crew.
You see, the movie was shot on location right when the Spanish Influenza epidemic hit. As the picture was being made in the middle of nowhere, filming was not shut down (many companies had to take a break due to illness and fear of transmission) and it seems that the worst of the epidemic was avoided.
And guess what? Heart of Wetona had its own tie-in song. (This was a common practice in the silent era.) There is no ukulele arrangement (boo!) but the lyrics are pretty amazing.
Heart of Wetona is a wonderfully entertaining bit of clueless nonsense. Do yourself a favor. Get a supply of ardent spirits (I recommend the Buck Jones cocktail. Yum! And I don’t normally like sweet drinks) and some like-minded friends and watch the heck out of this movie. If you are feeling particularly witty, you can make Joan Crawford’s French Banana Salad as an appetizer. Now this is what I call a party!
Movies Silently’s Score: ★½
Where can I see it?
Heart of Wetona was released on DVD by Alpha, a budget disc company. You can snag a copy for as little as $3.00, as of this writing. All this entertainment for the price of a latte? (Yes, I do couch all my economic information in coffee shop terms, what of it?) The film is too fast and it has a cobbled-together canned score. I recommend using my Silent Film First-aid Kit for best results.