Poverty, college, sororities, shoplifting… Those last two topics aren’t often associated with silent film but they are the main subject of this Norma Talmadge short film. Norma’s a poor but well-connected student who can’t keep up with the lavish spending of her sisters. Next step: crime.
Co-Ed Crime Wave
I usually start out my review of Norma Talmadge by discussing her difficulty in appealing to modern viewers. Her sister, Constance, has a pretty decent little following with her comedies but Norma remains a kind of historical footnote for many. I firmly believe that part of her problem is marketing. You see, Norma Talmadge specialized in playing dames from the wrong side of the tracks and her best roles were along these lines. Makes her more interesting already, doesn’t it?
The Helpful (?) Sisterhood was made during Talmadge’s time at the Vitagraph company, where she played everything from circus performers to full-blown vamps. In this case, Talmadge plays a sorority sister who turns to shoplifting when it becomes clear that she cannot keep up with the spending habits of the other young ladies in the club.
This short is also interesting because it is a fairly large role for Mary Maurice, who walked away with top honors in a 1915 popularity contest thanks to her appeal in these sorts of mother parts. Second place? That went to Charlie Chaplin, so that should give you some idea of her appeal. Of course, these things were by no means scientific but Maurice dominated the “Old Lady” division while Norman Talmadge won “Character Woman” honors and a 21st place finish overall. The cast is finished out by Van Dyke Brook, the benevolent capitalist who swoops in to save the day at the grand finale.
While I feel that The Devil’s Needle is a better introduction to Talmadge as a leading lady, her performance here is quite good. Her character lives in genteel poverty with social connections that assure her a place in the sorority but not the cash she needs for tickets to dances and suitable frocks to wear. As her wealthy sorority sisters chatter about their plans, Talmadge notices that one has dropped her handbag and there is cash inside. She hesitates, holding the beat just long enough to establish internal conflict and then pockets the cash and tosses the handbag out the window.
Stories of nice girls slowly descending into a life of crime were popular and the crimes ranged from burglary to prostitution to, as we see here, shoplifting. While I appreciate that Talmadge was not forced to fall into misery and despair (that was a bit overdone in the nickelodeon era), I do think that the stakes could have been a bit higher.
The shoplifting scene itself is nicely directed with the store detective watching as Talmadge once again hesitates over stealing what she needs to keep up appearances. Meanwhile, Maurice (as Talmadge’s grandmother) realizes what is happening and that her granddaughter is turning dissatisfied and unhappy due to her rich new friends.
There is a sub-plot involving Talmadge’s poorer, more humble friend (Marie Weirman), who is dumped as soon as the sorority sisters show up. I was hoping that she would play a more significant role in the picture’s finale but the film (spoiler) takes an odd detour and has all of the sorority girls turn themselves around after a stern lecture from the capitalist dad mentioned above. This makes for a more dissatisfying ending as the audience has been waiting around for Chekhov’s BFF to matter to the overall plot but it never happens.
Reviews of the time were not extremely enthusiastic for the picture. Motion Picture News proclaimed that it was “not probable and seems lacking in action.” Considering the context of the time and the recent scandals involving sororities and fraternities, it does seem that the makers of the film pulled their punches.
Condemning rough initiation rituals is not a modern invention. In 1910, multiple high school sororities and fraternities were dissolved because Lorraine Clark, a new pledge, was mistreated to the point of requiring time in a sanitarium to recover. Apparently, she was wrapped in a blanket and force fed soap and kerosene. Another young man developed pneumonia after being tossed into freezing water and this was pre-antibiotics, remember, so it was quite a serious turn of events.
In the case of Miss Clark, her father was a Connecticut state representative and he used his considerable influence to come down on the offending clubs like a ton of bricks. The story made national headlines but, as recent events show, little has actually changed.
Given these facts, it does seem like the film pulls its punches and ends up being considerably more positive toward the sorority and its members than, perhaps, the facts allow. I do find it unconvincing that such a large group of young ladies would be entirely unable to comprehend the fact that some people have more money than others. These are women in their late teens and early twenties, hardly small children. Don’t they ever go to the movies? Read Charles Dickens? Notice that their new sister lives in a humble house and wears the same frocks over and over again? Such naivete makes them remarkably unappealing, especially since the college they are attending clearly has students from various economic backgrounds.
That being said, it is interesting to see Mary Maurice in a sizable role so that we can appreciate the qualities that made her so popular with audiences of her day. It’s easy to see that her idealized grandmother persona made her appealing. And, of course, it’s one more piece in the Norma Talmadge puzzle, one of the films that built up her popularity in the mid-1910s and made her one of the top leading ladies of the 1920s. (Joseph Schenck helped too, of course.)
The Helpful (?) Sisterhood isn’t a masterpiece but it’s an interesting picture that tackles topics that may not be immediately associated with the silent era. Definitely worth checking out.