Norma Talmadge married in haste to Eugene Pallette and now she repents in leisure while he spends his nights with a showgirl and contemplates becoming a bank robber. So, maybe marriage counseling won’t be enough here…
This post is part of CMBA’s Outlaws Blogathon. Be sure to read the other contributions!
Norma Talmadge was one of the top actresses of the silent era and a relatively generous selection of her films survive and are available on home video (when I say “relative” remember that all of Theda Bara’s 1910s vamp films but one are lost). Despite this, she does not enjoy the fame of contemporary superstars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and she certainly is less recognized than later talents like Louise Brooks or Clara Bow. This leaves us with a question: What happened?
Well, from my own personal experience, I find her to be a difficult star to “get” as many of her vehicles just don’t work for me. The Forbidden City was incestuous and creepy, The Heart of Wetona was unintentionally hilarious. I didn’t really understand her appeal until I saw her in the excellent drug melodrama The Devil’s Needle. She plays a drug addict model who persuades an artist to just say yes. Norma Talmadge shone when she was allowed to be at least a little bad, as was the case in John Rance Gentlemen, or from the wrong side of the tracks, as in Sawdust and Salome.
What I am trying to get at here is that The Children in the House is not the best showcase for Norma and you might be a little disappointed and confused about her appeal. However, the main reason to watch this picture is that it is completely, utterly, unspeakably bonkers.
The story is about Cora (Norma Talmadge), whose marriage to Arthur (Eugene Pallette, yes, that Eugene Pallette) is in shambles and he spends most of his time with the vampish Jane Courtenay (Jewel Carmen). Left alone, Cora usually packs up her two kids and visits her sister, Alice (Alice Rae), and her three children.
Alice’s husband, Fred Brown (W.E. Lawrence), is a police detective and his brother rooms with the family. Charles (William Hinckley) works for Arthur’s family’s bank and used to date Cora back in the good old days. Has he gotten over it? No. No, he so has not and that leads to some issues. (One would think it would have been easier to find other lodgings but nooooo.)
Okay, so this is where the story goes loony. Uncle Charles gathers up the children and proceeds to tell them a bedtime story. He is the main character called “Poor” and he’s in love with a fairy from the forest of Dreams called “Sweetheart” and wouldn’t you know it, she looks just like Cora. And so Poor asked to make Sweetheart mortal, which strikes me as a pretty nervy thing to demand without her permission but lo and behold, she is mortaled lickety-split.
But then another suitor named “Selfish” arrives and he looks just like Arthur a.k.a. the father of two of the kids Charles is telling this story to and the uncle of the other three. Selfish is able to win over Sweetheart with lies and jealousy and Poor is left all alone.
Um… This is, like, the kind of thing that would be a punchline in one of those meet the parents comedies. “Weird Uncle Charlie is at it again,” the rest of the family groans. “He’s had a bit too much eggnog and is now telling a toddler about the time Aunt Cora broke his heart.”
“Yesh, kidsh, lemme tell ya ‘bout how your dad is a liar and a cheat and a fink,” slurred Uncle Charlie as he fell face first into the cranberry sauce.
I mean, on what planet would this ever be considered appropriate? If anything, it was even less suitable in the 1910s when there was a stricter separation between grownup stuff and kid stuff. (I mention this because the “you need to look at context” argument often crops up and I am very curious to know about a period in modern American history when it was proper to discuss these matters with small children.)
But seriously, films of this period did love their short fantasy sequences to drive home to point and also provide an excuse for the heroine to wear resplendent and/or diaphanous costumes. They can work but the setup to this sequence is so bizarre that it kind of distracts from the point the filmmakers had hoped to make.
Cora overhears everything and instead of telling Charles to, you know, stop pretending his resentful tale is a children’s story, she gets all teary-eyed over him. I certainly hope the children got their father’s brains.
Oh, never mind, Arthur is under the spell of Jane and she convinces him to rob his father’s bank in order to keep her in posh frocks. He just needs to provide the safe’s combination. Friendly neighborhood bank robber Al (Walter Long) will do the dirty work. What could possibly go wrong?
The bank well and truly robbed, suspicion quickly falls on Charles, who had access to the safe. You see, while the robbery was going on, he was off begging Cora to elope with him. He has an alibi but refuses to use it or even come up with a plausible lie, so he is hauled off to jail. What nobody seems to factor into this noble idiot behavior is that the real perpetrators can make good their escape while he plays Button, Button Whose Got the Button for no apparent reason.
But the bank robbers don’t make good their escape. Instead, they hole up in a shack that is apparently ten feet from the Brown home. No run for the border for these criminals, thank you very much.
Spoiler: The grand finale features all the kiddie cousins stumbling onto the bank robbers’ hideout and getting snatched. The lone kid to escape (Brown division) runs home to tell his parents… and they don’t believe him. Fred Brown follows the kid to the hideout and he gets snatched too, so the kid has to run for help again. This hardly seems fair as he surely would have received immediate assistance if he had been a sentient collie. The bank robbers play for keeps, which in this case means tying up Fred and the kids, gagging them and setting the shack on fire. If you’re thinking that the danger to his children would factor into Arthur’s behavior in the finale, you are 100% wrong. He gets plugged by a cop and dies without knowing what had happened to his kids. Don’t you just love it when a setup pays off? Oh, and Fred and the children are rescued from the burning shack, in case you were worried.
(Still spoilerish) So Cora gets her man and gets to explain to her almost-murdered children that daddy was behind the whole thing. And, no doubt, Charles will sit the kids down to tell them a fairy tale about how he proved to mommy he was right all along.
Brother Sidney and Chester Franklin were the directing team behind this odd film and have fairly Talmadge-heavy resumes. Fan magazines of the period credited them with making the “Fine Arts Kiddies” famous. The child troupe was featured in marketing for new Triangle films but the Franklin brothers soon jumped ship for Fox and formed the Fox Kiddies, whom the studio starred in spectacularly inappropriate stories. I mean, you think Uncle Charles and his tales are bad? You ain’t seen nothing until you see the Fox Kiddies in Aladdin. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you and I am not responsible for you landing on any watch lists as a result.)
Norma Talmadge isn’t given much to do here other than contemplate adultery and prance around in a toga. Eugene Pallette should have, in theory, had the juicier part but he is so unambiguously nasty throughout the picture that there isn’t much depth and he doesn’t gnaw enough scenery to give pleasure as a ham. His turn from rich kid to bank robber is too abrupt to offer any real insight into his character. In short, if he had a mustache, he would be twirling it. (The novelty of seeing him in non-character roles has long since worn off for me.)
William Hinckley’s character looks and acts like someone who has been required by a court of law to stay more than 500 yards away from someone else. The kids are cute but so generic that I couldn’t really be bothered to keep track of which one was which. Jewel Carmen at least seems to be having fun as the resident vamp and Walter Long could play tough hooligans backwards with his eyes closed but they are the exception rather than the rule. In short, this was a bit of a washout for the performers.
That being said, the plot by Roy Sommerville (who also wrote The Devil’s Needle) is so wrongheaded and bizarre that it is enormously amusing in itself. The best part of the film is marveling at the bizarre antics of the cast and wondering what madcap activity they will engage in next. The direction by Chester and Sidney Franklin gets the job done and there are some nice moments of moody lighting. (1910s films did love their moody lighting. Frank B. Good was the cinematographer here.)
All in all, this is a screwball of a picture that never seems to quite figure out what it wants to say. If you marry badly, wait for your hubby to turn to a life of crime? If that’s the case, The Golden Chance did the story earlier and better. Listen to small children in distress because some villains may be trying to burn up their siblings? Well, I suppose they’re not wrong there. Tell creepy tales to your nieces and nephews to make their mother/aunt sorry for not marrying you and you’ll show them, you’ll show them all. (Hysterical laughter.) Um, yeah, seek help.
Reviews of the time were mixed. Moving Picture World declared it “a good three-reel situation, worked out with considerable ingenuity and amplified to five reels by such outworn methods as the burning shack, the automobile chase of thieves by policemen, too near the Keystone style to have dramatic effect, and that last resort to picture-play manufacturer, the automobile run off a cliff. We had enough of that years ago to last us for a long time to come.” Yes, even in the silent era, audiences demanded new material and weren’t satisfied with the same tropes over and over again. And it’s interesting to see Keystone used as a negative comparison in a film review less than five years after its founding.
Motography offered muted praise. “The Children in the House has a variety that undoubtedly will cause each picturegoer who sees it to speak favorably of some portion of the offering even if the picture as a whole fails to create a pleasant and lasting impression.” On the other hand, Motion Picture News was enthusiastic, declaring that “it is admirably produced, from a technical standpoint, and the acting is unusually good.” The New York Clipper played it safe, stating that the film “will unquestioningly appeal to the average fan.”
The Children in the House isn’t a lost masterpiece of silent crime drama but it does showcase the wonderful strangeness that films of the 1910s could exhibit. You’ve probably never seen anything like it. Whether or not you want to see anything like it depends very much on your tolerance for so bad it’s good. There are many better films of the 1910s in general and 1916 in particular available but it’s sometimes valuable to think outside the comedy/art box and take a look at a typical star vehicle of the period.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Grapevine along with Going Straight, another Norma Talmadge crime film.
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