What happens when a rich swell marries a bareback rider from the circus? Well, his mother is none too pleased, let me tell you. Norma Talmadge stars as the young woman who leaves the sawdust of the circus for a ritzier address, which (oddly enough) also includes belly dancers. Can the marriage survive?
Marrying the lady in tights.
And so I continue my saga of trying to figure out what made Norma Talmadge so popular. Talmadge (along with her sister, Constance) was one of the biggest stars of the silent screen. She retired in the early thirties and her fame steadily declined. While the Pickfords and the Garbos remained in the hearts of their dedicated fans, Norma Talmadge has faded away. Most of her films are locked away in vaults. Her 1957 death meant that she was gone before the silent revival began in earnest.
The Talmadge features that I have seen do not unlock the mystery of her popularity for me. Without exception, they are slick and accomplished productions with not very much at the center. Generic “pretty good” movies without much to differentiate them.
I decided that I needed to go further back in time. Norma Talmadge had been making movies since 1910 but most of her available work is from 1916 or later. In my experience, the early short films of stars are often quite revealing. Their screen persona not yet formed, they often would play roles that would be unthinkable later in their careers. The short format also lent itself to experimentation as relatively little money was at risk.
This leads us to Vitagraph, one of the major studios in the early American film industry. By 1914, Talmadge was one of its stars. She would later be launched into the stratosphere at Paramount with the help of her husband, producer Joseph Schenck. So, we find Miss Talmadge at a very interesting point in her career. She is famous but not yet a power player.
The story concerns a family of social climbers in an unnamed city. John Grey (Van Dyke Brook, who also directed) is a good enough fellow but his wife and daughter (Louise Beaudet and Jane Fearnley) are determined to make a social splash by having the son of the house, Walter (Leo Delaney) marry a socialite.
Walter resents this interference in his life and asks his sympathetic father to send him out to work in the family’s desert mine. Not, like, mining or anything. Something in more of an executive capacity. In any case, Walter heads to the boonies and we finally meet our heroine.
Norma Talmadge plays Mary, a circus rider who immediately catches Walter’s eye. After a whirlwind courtship (How fast was it? They didn’t even show it!) the pair marry and Walter takes his new bride home to meet the folks. His father is pleasant but mother and sister are cool. Things get worse when they discover a publicity still of Mary in her tutu. A bride who wore tights? Horrors!
Walter doesn’t really stand up for his wife, leaving her to bear the scorn alone. Things come to a head on the night of a masquerade ball. It is also at this point that the narrative stops even attempting subtlety and instead opts to wallop us over the head.
Mary is dressed as a puritan but Walter’s family continues to treat her like a tramp. She goes back to her room to contemplate. Meanwhile, a guest arrives at the party dressed as Salome, complete with dance moves that leave nothing to the imagination.
Mary packs up her things and prepares to leave her husband but she pauses in the hallway. She sees Salome performing her dance before an approving crowd and this settles matters. She tells Walter she is returning to the clean sawdust. On this abrupt note, the film ends.
While Sawdust and Salome’s heart was in the right place, the writing and pacing are just too crude and choppy. The story of double standards and weak wills could have been a powerful short film but it needed to be more imaginative in its handling. The film would have done well to cut out Walter’s opening scenes in favor of showing more of Mary’s life as the unwelcome new bride. I know this is only a twelve minute film but that’s no excuse for sloppy storytelling. (By way of contrast, D.W. Griffith’s 1912 film The Painted Lady manages to tell a complicated psychological tale of repression and madness in just twelve minutes.)
The ending is similarly disappointing. While Walter is weak, he does not take part in the insults heaped on Mary. It also seems a bit odd that she would blame Walter personally for the appearance of Salome. After all, he was perfectly willing to marry a circus rider. Why would he balk at a dance of the seven veils? In any case, I am not sure that “one of my husband’s party guests danced sensually” was considered grounds for a divorce in 1914.
But now for the big question: How was Norma Talmadge? I am afraid that I remain as baffled as ever. She is fine as Mary, turning in a performance that is properly injured and indignant. However, the generic quality that marks her pictures remains. There is not much about her acting that makes me say, “Ah! That is a Norma Talmadge moment!”
I must emphasize that I have not seen Smilin’ Through or Secrets (which only survives in truncated form) or other titles considered to be Miss Talmadge’s best work. Until I do, I will reserve final judgment.
Sawdust and Salome is not a terribly polished picture, especially compared to what would come later in Talmadge’s career when she had the pull to get high budgets and the best leading men. While Miss Talmadge is interesting to see, especially at this early point in her career, she does not really do much to distinguish herself. I would say that this film is worth seeing for her dedicated fans but it’s not worth tracking down for more casual viewers.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
Grapevine released this film, along with several others, on its disc, Norma Talmadge at Vitagraph.