Drugs! Norma Talmadge and Tully Marshall star as artistic types who find their best inspiration with a little chemical assistance. This ham-fisted cautionary tale features splendidly over-the-top intertitles and a charming performance from Talmadge.
You, madam, are a dope fiend!
The American film industry went nuts for social pictures in the mid-1910s and if you can name a controversial topic, there was probably a mainstream feature to go with it. Prostitution, immigration, racism, sexual harassment, corruption, the reformation of criminals, the cycle of poverty, birth control, abortion… And, of course, drugs.
Cautionary tales are always a bit of a risk. You don’t want to portray the vice in question as too fun or you’ll defeat the object of the picture but you also can’t verge into after school special territory by being too heavy-handed. We’re going to see if The Devil’s Needle manages to straddle to line between these two extremes.
One of the minor side projects of this site has been to try to figure out the appeal of Norma Talmadge. She was one of the biggest stars of the silent era but time has not been kind to her legacy and relatively few of her pictures are available to the public. I have reviewed five Norma Talmadge pictures (Sawdust and Salome, John Rance Gentleman, Heart of Wetona, The Social Secretary and The Forbidden City) but I never could figure out why she was so beloved in her day. Reportedly, Louis B. Mayer signed Greta Garbo after declaring that she had the same star quality, the same sparkle that Talmadge possessed. What was I missing that Mayer and the audiences of the 1910s and 1920s saw? Let’s see if I can finally find the answer in The Devil’s Needle.
Tully Marshall plays John Minturn, an artist in the middle of a painting. His work is delayed because his model, Renee Duprez (Norma Talmadge), is “ever an ardent worshipper worshipper at the shrine of Morpheus.” In other words, she likes to sleep in. (Get used to the purple title cards, the film is full of them.)
Minturn tries to scold Renee but she doesn’t take him a bit seriously. It’s obvious that there is something going on beneath her teasing. Is the employee in love with her boss?
Minturn’s work is interrupted again by a visit from Patricia Devon (Marguerite Marsh, big sister of Mae), a naïve debutante who is quite taken with the artist herself. (Lordy! What cologne is Tully Marshall wearing? He needs to sell the formula to Axe!) Renee waits for the visit to end but then she slips out into the foyer. Her drug vendor has arrived with her supply. She pays him and slips away to shoot up. And, yes, they show everything, up to just before the needle piercing the skin.
Renee became addicted to drugs in order to calm her nerves. (The title cards state that this is due to her service as a wartime nurse. As the US was not in WWI when this picture was made, I believe this title card was an addition from the picture’s reissue.) She is not a heavy user, though, and manages to maintain appearances. (Track lines notwithstanding.) Stress tends to increase her usage, though, and as she watches Patricia and Minturn flirt, she decides another dose is called for.
Minturn wants to use Patricia as the second model is his painting but her family and fiancé are scandalized at the idea. She is summarily dragged home and as Minturn paces around the room, he catches sight of Renee injecting herself. Too high to care about being discovered, Renee tells Minturn that the drug is ready-made inspiration and he ought to give it a try. Once she leaves, Minturn takes her up on her offer.
Unaware that Minturn has become a drug addict, Patricia sneaks away from home and the pair elope. A sober Renee, meanwhile, makes the discovery that Minturn has taken her drugs and she is horrified. She is not proud of her habit and she didn’t actually mean to spread her addiction.
A year passes and Minturn is in full Reefer Madness mode. He even tries to inject a struggling Patricia at one point. Renee, meanwhile, has quit her job with Minturn and kicked the drug habit. Can the former model save the junkie painter? You’ll have to see The Devil’s Needle to find out!
Okay, that’s pretty over-the-top. While the film does go out of its way to show that some drug addicts get started due to stress and that there are levels of addiction, it also acts as though drug addiction is something that can just be thrown off with no danger of relapse. Hard work and fresh air are all that are needed! It’s a nice thought but addiction is a bit more complex.
While it doesn’t exactly work as a serious drug drama, The Devil’s Needle has a lovely amount of kitsch. The illustrated intertitles feature images of syringes and opium pipes entwined around the drop cap and are a particular treat. The contents of the title cards are equally amusing, with tortured metaphors and tut-tutting at this drug addiction menace.
But what about Norma Talmadge? Well, I am happy to report that she is excellent! Renee is a woman from the wrong side of the tracks and Talmadge embodies her pragmatism and toughness perfectly. She swaggers through the streets of the slum like she owns the joint, dives in to save Minturn from his addiction and manages to save the day at the end of the picture when Patricia is kidnapped by drug dealers. She’s brash, brassy and bratty and I loved it! At last, I’m starting to get an idea of why Norma Talmadge was so popular with silent movie audiences. (I am very excited about this!)
Alas, the rest of the cast is not up to the same level. Marguerite Marsh has her famous younger sister’s sensitive features but not her acting ability. She does well enough in happy scenes but once the picture turns dark, she seems lost and not terribly interested in emoting. When Tully Marshal attempts to inject her with drugs, which should have been a melodramatic highlight, her struggles are half-hearted. I’ve seen people swat away mosquitoes with more vigor. Her lethargy is especially noticeable when contrasted with Talmadge’s spunk.
The biggest flaw of this film, though, is the miscasting of Tully Marshall. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tully but the entire plot hinges on the idea that both Norma Talmadge and Marguerite Marsh find him irresistibly attractive and I just don’t buy it. Marshall does a good job with his deranged addiction scenes but you can see that the part was clearly written for a younger man. With his 1864 birthdate, Marshall is old enough to be the doting daddy of both leading ladies and he looks it. Can you imagine what John or Lionel Barrymore could have done with the role? Or Antonio Moreno?
The film’s focus on Marshall also means that there’s less time devoted to Talmadge and this is another flaw. While we are shown some of Minturn’s recovery, Renee’s efforts to kick the drug habit occur offscreen. Since she is the more likable, relatable character, this is a bit disappointing.
The Devil’s Needle is worth seeing for its purple title cards, oddball performances and a very charming turn from Norma Talmadge. The film oversimplifies addiction and recovery (it’s hardly the only picture to do so) and turns into high camp once Tully Marshall starts his wacky addict routine. However, we also have Talmadge keeping the picture grounded with her considerable screen presence. The film is goofy, sure, but the viewing time flew by and I was thoroughly entertained. Could I ask for more?
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
The Devil’s Needle is available on DVD and Bluray from Kino Lorber. As you can probably see from the screencaps, there is considerable decay in certain sections of the film and we are fortunate that it was saved in time. The release also includes an enjoyable piano score from Rodney Sauer, which uses music from the period.