Constance Talmadge is married to Ronald Colman. While some women would kill for that problem, Connie is all set to run home to mother. She changes her mind when she has a chance meeting with her identical twin sister, a famous and famously sexy dancer. The women trade places and poor Ronald has no idea what hit him.
I will also be reviewing the talkie remake, which was also Greta Garbo’s last film, Two-Faced Woman. Click here to skip to the talkie.
One half of a double date.
Constance Talmadge’s reputation has aged better than that of big sister Norma. For one thing, her impudent performance is one of the few things in Intolerance that keeps the audience awake. For another, she made her career in comedy, a silent genre that gets much more respect than drama.
The Talmadges were on a roll in the late ‘teens and throughout the twenties. Norma’s marriage to producer Joseph Schenck had assured that the girls would always have the best of everything in their films. (Youngest Talmadge sister Natalie’s career never really took off but she got to marry Buster Keaton, Schenck’s best comedian. It did not end well.)
So, the best of everything at their command. So why is it that so few Talmadge vehicles make it onto top ten lists? Why are there no Talmadge film festivals? Why is it so darn difficult to get their work released on home media? A little dissection is in order.
Case study: Her Sister from Paris. Gowns by Adrian, production design by William Cameron Menzies, Ronald Colman as the leading man. Wow.
But how does the film hold up? We are about to find out!
It’s the twenties in Vienna and the Wyringers are certainly roaring. Helen (Constance Talmadge) and Joseph Wyringer (Ronald Colman) are having another one of their, ahem, discussions. And by discussion, I mean that they scream at each other and Joseph breaks things.
This time, Helen decides that she has had enough and runs home to mother. Family friend Robert (George K. Arthur) is present for the finale of the matrimonial battle and he advises Joseph to enjoy his new status as grass widower.
Then a package arrives. It contains a very sexy picture of Helen. Helen? Frumpy Helen? Helen, who has yet to bob her hair? The inscription on that back explains all. Helen’s twin sister is the famous dancer, La Perry (also played by Constance Talmadge). Joseph is smitten and decides to accompany Robert to La Perry’s performance.
Wait, we are to believe that Helen has been married long enough to become frumpy (at least a few years, I should think) but she never once mentioned that she had a twin? Sigh. Get used to plot holes like this.
As it turns out, La Perry has just arrived at the train station and Helen spots her. The sisters have an affectionate reunion (thanks to some very polished trick photography) and Helen explains her marital woes. Apparently, Joseph’s rude manner and violent temper are all Helen’s fault for not looking sexy enough.
Really, movie? Really?
Look, I am all in favor of spouses not letting themselves go but I’m pretty sure that wearing one’s hair in a frumpy low bun is not an excuse for one’s husband to start smashing the crockery.
La Perry soon has Helen whipped into shape and the twins are once again completely identical. Then off La Perry goes to show her stuff to Vienna. It’s a Ziegfeld-esque dance extravaganza. Considering how carefully the double exposure shots were handled, I was shocked at how shoddily Talmadge’s dance double is concealed. Connie does a few easy opening steps and then the shot pulls back and it is clearly a different woman. Is this why La Perry is so famous? Her shapeshifting skills?
Joseph and Robert are in the audience drooling over La Perry’s spicy dance numbers. Joseph declares that La Perry is “just like his wife, only beautiful!” Not even Ronald Colman can make that line charming or humorous. Helen spots her husband, realizes what he is doing and gets rather angry. La Perry chides her.
Yeah, knowingly chasing your wife’s identical twin sister is not creepy. Not at all.
At this point, the sisters change places. Helen will be La Perry and teach her husband a lesson. But why would she want him back at all? If I were her, I would just join my sister’s tour and paint Europe red. Yes, I realize that he is played by Ronald Colman but I would rather be single and keep my tea set intact, thank you very much.
Her Sister from Paris was based on The Twin Sister by German playwright Ludwig Fulda. Frankly, some European sophistication would have done wonders for this tale. It’s practically screaming for the Lubitsch touch and director Sidney Franklin ain’t no Lubitsch. What should be charming, sly and ever so slightly naughty comes off as just plain skeezy.
What’s that? I’m being unfair to the Americans? On the contrary, dearest lambs! This sort of plot was pulled off successfully in several American productions. The “I cheated on my wife—with my wife!” plot was charmingly essayed by Charley Chase in Mighty Like a Moose. And the “wives should be lovers too” plot was pulled off with aplomb by Cecil B. DeMille in Why Change Your Wife.
DeMille made a charming duo of films based around the notion of a couple regretting a divorce after the fact. Don’t Change Your Husband had a slovenly and coarse husband in need of cleaning up. Why Change Your Wife put the shoe on the other foot and cast the wife as a bossy prude.
These films, the latter one in particular, both succeed because we believe in the couple. Why Change Your Wife opens up with Gloria Swanson and Thomas Meighan in their bathroom starting their day. She keeps interrupting his shaving by rummaging through cabinets. Then she wants him to button up her dress but will not sit still through the process, she is too busy with her manicure. The message is clear: This marriage is in trouble.
In the case of Gloria Swanson’s character, her frumpiness and dislike of (ugh!) fun is due to her inconsiderate nature. It’s a symptom of the underlying issues in the marriage, not the cause. Yet these early scenes have warmth and humor. It is clear that the couple is very much in love even if they do not quite understand one another. It’s easy to see why they immediately regret their subsequent divorce.
Now contrast this with Helen and Joseph in Her Sister from Paris. We meet them in the middle of an argument. Helen storms out and does not see Joseph again until she emerges as La Perry halfway through the film. The entire time, Joseph makes it very clear that he is well rid of his wife. Why are we invested in them as a couple? We’re not. The movie has done nothing to convince us that they belong together.
Further, Helen’s frumpiness is treated as the root cause of her marital woes. The fact that her husband is ready to immediately maul her identical twin is treated as a quirk. His smashing of inanimate objects is completely overlooked. Um, am I the only one who is disturbed by this?
On the plus side, Her Sister from Paris boasts some excellent work from its technical crew. The scenes with the twins together a very well done and the production even plays a little with its audience. In one scene, La Perry is watching Helen weep with her face buried in the sofa. Ah ha! They are hiding a double! Then Helen’s head pops up revealing Constance Talmadge. Fooled us!
The gowns by Adrian are lovely and he seemed have fun designing the outfits for Talmadge’s big dance number. It’s a darn shame he never dressed Gloria in a film.
So, the behind-the-scenes stuff worked famously. But then we have the acting.
In the years since Intolerance, Constance Talmadge added a few annoying facial quirks to her acting repertoire. Always prone to mugging, her way of expressing distress is to widen out her open mouth until she looks like a samurai mask. It’s grating, it looks fake and it undermines her scenes. Talmadge spends the entire film ensuring that we can see her in the back. It’s cute for short spurts but 72 minutes is no short spurt.
Worse, the characterization of the twins seems superfluous as there is very little difference in personality. Once Helen hears what her problem is, she immediately begins to act like her sexy, lively sister without a hitch.
George K. Arthur also mugs and, frankly, my very long tolerance for funny little men in silent films stretches to the breaking point—oh, look at that, it snapped. I detested that little louse. Between he and Talmadge, nary a scene failed to be overacted. I wanted to smack them both.
Ronald Colman looks uncomfortable playing a jerk (he sounded like a rather nice man in real life) and that discomfort makes an already difficult character impossible. A rogue or cad such as Adolph Menjou or Lowell Sherman might have pulled off the role. Colman was simply miscast.
In the end, though, Her Sister From Paris fails because it has no emotional core. We are not invested in Joseph and Helen as a couple, we barely know them as characters. This is a problem that crops up again and again in the productions of both Norma and Constance Talmadge. We are given situations and stories but no real living, breathing human beings occupy them. This is, I think, the reason why Talmadges are forgotten. Their films are slick, well-made and expensive but they have no heart.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
Her Sister from Paris was released on DVD by Kino-Lorber as a double feature with another Talmadge-Colman title, Her Night of Romance.
Same story. Same lesson. Gowns by Adrian. What could go wrong? Try everything.
First, I must tell you that the Garbo spell has failed to enchant me. I mean, I have seen most of her major work but I remain unenthusiastic. There’s only so much canoodling and slow motion death I can take before I wander off looking for some cartoons. It’s not just Garbo. I’m not really an MGM talkie girl, to be honest. Almost all of my Golden Age favorites are from Warner Brothers, Paramount or Universal.
As a result, I think I am coming into this movie with a different perspective than most people.
By the late 1930s, Garbo was becoming less and less interested in the process of making movies. With the Second World War looming on the horizon, the biggest foreign market for her films, Germany, was cut off. She was in dire need of a makeover if she was to remain on top. The famous Ninotchka had given her a fresh image at the box office (“Garbo Laughs!”) but what could follow it up?
Another comedy, surely. But one that showed how funny Garbo and sexy Garbo could be one and the same. Funny-sexy Garbo! Yes, that was the answer. In a decision that surely must go down as one of the worst in the history of the studio, MGM dusted off Fulda’s The Twin Sister script to showcase their new screwball star.
George Cukor, one of the kings of the romantic comedy, was brought on to direct. Melvyn Douglas, who had romanced Garbo in Ninotchka and As You Desire Me, was once again her leading man. The plot was saucy and surely would win Garbo some new fans, right? Right?
Well, here are two words: Bombs away.
(Mr. Cukor seems to be something of an MGM diva slayer. He also directed the swansong of Norma Shearer, Her Cardboard Lover.)
This film is often called the one that drove Garbo out of the biz. That’s not quite accurate as Garbo’s loss of interest and her well-documented reluctance to age before the cameras meant that even if this movie had been a hit, she might have hung around for one or two more go-rounds but the end was near. Still, Two-Faced Woman has a very bad reputation and is often counted as a stinker among critics, contemporary and modern. Is this accurate? We shall see!
The film opens during the busy season at a ski resort. Melvyn Douglas plays Larry (or, as Garbo says it, Lar-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-ry), a New York magazine mogul with an eye for the ladies. Garbo plays Karin, a brittle ski instructor. He thinks she’s cute, she thinks he’s a jerk. Bicker, bicker, bicker. But then one off-screen night at a lodge and our mismatched couple is married.
Already the movie has problems. The “I hate you, marry me” thing has always been popular in romantic comedies but we in the audience kind of like to see how the battling couple fell in love. In Two-Faced Woman, we are assured that very romantic things occurred but a whirlwind marriage does not a likable couple make.
As it turns out, Larry is a pathological liar. He swears to give it all up and share Karin’s bohemian lifestyle. Then he berates her for assuming that when he said he would stay that meant he was going to stay. At this point, I was ready for Karin to shove Larry into a snowdrift and return to the slopes. Nope. Instead, Larry heads back to New York in order to run his media empire and Karin patiently waits for him to return.
Larry does not return. He has taken up with city girl Griselda (Constance Bennett) and Karin is the furthest thing from his mind. So, our determined heroine decides to head to New York to see what’s what. Assisted by Larry’s secretary (Ruth Gordon) Karin obtains a chic new wardrobe. The game is nearly up when Larry’s business partner (a very droll Roland Young) sees her but Karin claims that she is her own twin sister, Katherine.
Before you can say “But no one would buy that!” Katherine/Karin is on a date with Roland, as well as a puppy-dog admirer or two. Larry spots her in the nightclub and immediately investigates. Katherine/Karin claims that she is a high-priced call girl and that she is in New York seeking a new benefactor. Larry is intrigued but suspicious. Griselda can’t believe her eyes, she is not used to being upstaged.
Then the music starts.
Any spell that may be woven is quickly shattered. You see, we have heard Garbo talk, seen her laugh and now we get a chance to observe her dancing prowess. Uh oh. Garbo awkwardly lopes across the nightclub floor in an extended sequence that is only the second most glaring reminder that our Swedish Sphinx is no dancer. (The first is her thump, thump, thud impression of a ballerina in Grand Hotel.)
After that, it’s all tedious scenes of Miss Garbo getting hammered on champagne, Douglas smirking and possibly the dullest seduction of the forties. It all ends up at the ski lodge where the battling couple finally reconciles over slapstick pratfalls and some “skiing” antics. Why the quotes? Well, the skiing doubles in Two-Faced Woman make Connie’s dance doubles in Her Sister from Paris look moderately convincing.
And there you have it. A humiliating spectacle for all concerned. I am not a Garbo fan but I was wincing in sympathy. Aside from some members of the supporting cast, absolutely nothing works. The humor falls flat, Garbo is clearly uncomfortable, the story is as stupid as ever.
The selection of the Fulda script was an enormous miscalculation on the part of MGM. The film had been made in the comparatively lax silent era and again in the first half of 1934 (as Moulin Rouge), before the Code came out in full force. The Talmadge vehicle had been labeled “for grown-ups” but there were no serious demands for censorship that I can find.
What a difference a few years made. You see, Two-Faced Woman holds the dubious distinction of being one of the few films in post-Code Hollywood to be condemned (with a big “C”) by the Legion of Decency. Nowadays, it’s easy to find this laughable. My dad says that when he was a young sprout, the condemned list was how he chose his movies; all the best ones were rated C.
For executives, this was no laughing matter. A condemned film was sure to flop at the box office as a large number of theater owners had clauses that allowed them to deny screenings of C-rated films. It took another decade for the Legion’s power to be broken by the landmark 1952 Burstyn vs. Wilson case.
So, you can see how scary this threat must have been. Garbo’s comeback picture with a big red C stamped on it. MGM took action, filming new scenes that make it clear that Melvyn Douglas was on to his wife’s tricks all along. (This also serves to make the plot utterly nonsensical and the Douglas character even more unlikable.)
I would argue that Greta Garbo had already suffered damage from the stricter era of film censorship. Her shimmering tales of sin and love and slow death simply didn’t work if one could not show the sin in glorious black and white. And the world had changed. Just as the Great Depression had killed the flapper genre, wartime audiences were ready for a change in their heroines. Midway through Two-Faced Woman, Griselda delivers a line of dialogue that pretty much sums up that change:
“Miss Borg’s stock in trade, mystery. We don’t do that anymore, frankness is our motto. We let the boys see the wheels go round, it seems to interest them.”
Garbo’s character echoes this sentiment later.
“In this harsh new world there is no place for me anymore.”
Ninotchka had worked because the role had been carefully tailored to Garbo’s talents and reputation. It subverted her otherworldly image but not to the point of making her the joke. In the case of Two-Faced Woman, meticulous crafting was not an option. The film’s censorship woes meant that the script was in a constant state of limbo.
What all this meant was that the character of Karin/Katherine was a generic selection of romantic comedy tropes. Anyone could have played her. Anyone, that is, except Garbo. An actress who needed special handling shoehorned into a nothing part? Disaster. To make matters worse, the ridiculous antics she gets up to in the movie make Garbo the target of our mirth. We are not laughing with her but at her.
In spite of the mid-production script tinkering, the movie still had to be pulled back and reworked. Those new scenes were added but to be honest, I find the objections of the Legion of Decency to be bizarre. The film strongly hints that Douglas is stepping out with Griselda for more than just conversation, it more than hints that Katherine makes her living by means of the oldest profession and yet it is Karin’s seduction of her own husband that gets the pearls a-clutching?
Double standard, no one asked for Douglas’ implied adultery with Griselda to be entirely removed, just toned down a bit. Admittedly, chasing the sibling of one’s spouse is a special kind of nasty but it’s not like everything that was allowed to remain in the film was wholesome.
Sure, the movie got a blanket condemnation for naughtiness but which scenes were altered the most? Garbo’s masquerade.
How does the condemnation process work? “After multiple viewings, we have determined that this film is immoral. But we’ll watch it again to make sure.”
People sometimes muse as to whether Two-Faced Woman would have succeeded without the eleventh hour editing. Frankly, I don’t think so. The film has more problems than its censorship woes. Just as Her Sister from Paris collapses when compared to Why Change Your Wife, Two-Faced Woman pales next to The Lady Eve.
The films are similar in subject matter. Both are about women wronged by the man they love and who try to win him back/get revenge by posing as their own identical sister. While Two-Faced Woman is remembered as a disaster, The Lady Eve is hailed as a classic and for good reason.
Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda are the leads and we buy their characters but, more importantly, we buy them as a couple. Believing in the romantic leads as a unit is essential to any romantic film. Stanwyck and Fonda knock this out of the park and as a result, we are willing to accept any wackiness that comes after. The same with Meighan and Swanson. Those bathroom scenes in Why Change Your Wife manage to say more about the marriage than a dozen scenes of Ronald Colman throwing things and Constance Talmadge screaming. They certainly say more than the badly-written drivel that Douglas and Garbo are obliged to spout.
Melvyn Douglas is clearly trying to make the best of the situation (and failing) but poor Garbo… There is nothing worse than watching someone go to their doom when they know it is their doom. Garbo’s brittle smile tells the whole story. She knows she is in a bomb, she hates it, she is just trying to get through it. Of course, Garbo also had the sort of creative control that most other studio system stars could only dream of. She bears some personal responsibility for the mess.
Hidden inside Two-Faced Woman is a delightful comedy. Unfortunately for us, it stars Roland Young and Ruth Gordon and they are underused. Constance Bennett is catty and fun some of the time but then quickly undoes it with flagrant overacting.
The movie is an embarrassment for all concerned and it came at a vulnerable time in Garbo’s career. It deserves all the scorn that has been heaped upon it.
And the winner is…
It was close. Neither film is very good but if you go by the sheer amount of damage done, the silent definitely comes out in a better light. Constance Talmadge suffered no damage to her reputation and continued on her merry way after Her Sister from Paris. For Garbo, Two-Faced Woman is an unsightly black eye that punctuate the end of her film career. It is always disagreeable when one’s worst film is also one’s last.
Still, the general story of The Twin Sister seems to stymie American directors, producers and stars. It would be interesting to see what a German or French cast would have made of it.