The Primitive Lover (1922) A Silent Film Review

Constance Talmadge plays a young wife who can’t get over her late ex, a romance novelist and wilderness survival expert, much to the annoyance of her new husband, Harrison Ford. Things take a turn when the ex turns out to be very much alive and Talmadge must choose between them.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Next time, maybe just advertise like a normal person

I have slightly mixed feelings about Constance Talmadge romantic comedies. They had high production values and cute stories but as her career progressed, Connie began to embrace mugging over a more subtle comedic approach and my enjoyment of her later films decreases exponentially as a result. Basically, I find that with Constance Talmadge, the earlier the better.

Prime era Connie.

The Primitive Lover was made smack-dab in the middle of her career and forces her to choose between Harrison Ford (not that one) and Kenneth Harlan. It was directed by Talmadge sisters favorite Sidney Franklin and written by Frances Marion, adapted from an original story by Edgar Selwyn. (Whose “-wyn” replaced the “-fish” in Sam Goldwyn but that’s another story for another time.)

Talmadge plays Phyllis, who is married to Hector (Harrison Ford) but dreams of Donald (Kenneth Harlan), her writing fiancé who died in South America. Hector managed to publish a book before his untimely demise and it’s a torrid tale of forbidden love and wilderness survival called The Divine Sacrifice.

Gone but not forgotten.

After re-reading the book, Phyllis becomes more and more disappointed in her passive husband and daydreams about what might have been. In fact, the opening scene of the movie is a hilariously and intentionally corny rendition of the climax of The Divine Sacrifice itself. Donald nobly sacrifices himself by throwing himself in the ocean, thus leaving enough food and water for Phyllis, Hector and their goat. Swoon!

But what Phyllis doesn’t know if that the real Donald is alive and well. His “death” was a publicity stunt and Hector knew about it. So, obviously, Phyllis is in for a shock when he shows up very much alive and ready to continue their romance. Hector claims that he thought Donald really was dead after it was confirmed in the newspapers but wasn’t that kind of the point of the publicity stunt.

Hector has some ‘splaining to do.

This feels like a letter to an advice column:

Dear Abby,

My fiancé was a writer and I cherish the book he was able to publish before his death but my current husband scoffed at it and described it as “trashy.” Our marriage is cold and he refuses to make any romantic gestures like slapping me around or diving to a salty death in the ocean.

At a dinner party last night, my fiancé showed up. It turned out he had faked his own death for publicity and my current husband knew, though he claimed that he actually believed my fiancé was dead after reading news reports confirming same. (But why didn’t he come clean if that was the case?)

I decided to test his love by asking for a divorce and he agreed. The problem is that I love both these men even though one wanted to milk my grief for publicity and the other deceptively married me on the rebound. Help.


Sad Bookworm


Dear Bookworm,

Run. Run away.


Phyllis does not run away. Instead, she kind of still likes Hector but he wants to be noble and give her a quickie Reno divorce. In the meantime, he is being pursued by a designing widow on the hunt for fresh divorcés.

Now, so far, so good. Hector isn’t particularly sympathetic but we have a nice little conflict simmering and enough humor to keep us in good spirits. And so then the movie decides to fly entirely off the rails and not in a good way.

Hector tries to be the tough guy to middling success.

Hector runs into a Native American man (Chief John Big Tree) who tells him that in order to make a woman really happy, he has to subject her to some mental and physical abuse once in a while. The idea of “caveman” romancing was a hot topic in the 1910s and 1920s and other films featured plots like this. (The entire point of 1924’s Open All Night is that Viola Dana wants Adolphe Menjou to give her a few bruises.) I mean, needless to say, this particular aspect has not aged well.

The widow is just kind of forgotten and Hector comes up with a new plan: teach Donald and Phyllis a lesson by kidnapping them both, spiriting them away to a cabin in the Nevada hills and forcing Donald to prove that he really is a he-man who can make a fire without matches. He is spurred on by the fact that Phyllis told him that she never wanted a divorce at all.

I was hoping that we would have more scenes from the book acted out for a kind of “Expectations vs. Reality” thing but Hector just quotes a few passages and that’s about it. The rest of the film involves Phyllis trying to decide which emotionally abusive guy she’ll end up with and the audience shouting “You can do better, Connie, you can do better!”

Instead of Harrison Ford telling us that lighting a fire by rubbing two sticks together is found in Donald’s novel, show Kenneth Harlan in a scene from the book, valiantly building a fire to warm the sighing Constance Talmadge. I repeat, show, don’t tell!

Hector shows off his fire-building skills, helped along with matches.

So, yeah, this is the worst kind of disappointing movie: the one that has a really strong start but steadily loses its appeal and kind of ends with a whimper. I so enjoyed the opening scenes and was settling in for a proper good time with a fun rom-com and instead, I get stupid motivation with bonus racist stereotypes. Goody gumdrops.

The film’s finale is really where the wheels come off and, as is unfortunately common in silent era films, sexual assault is involved. (Spoilers, obviously.) You see, with Donald off getting help and Hector being Hector, Phyllis is left alone inside her cabin when some cattlemen arrive and demand to be fed a hot meal. Her cooking isn’t much but one of the cattlemen considers her to be on the menu.

Connie has been well and truly rescued.

He tries to force himself on her but Hector arrives in the ta-da! nick of time and saves her. This, of course, shows Phyllis that Hector really is a manly man and when Donald shows up with the posse, she spurns him for her new-old husband. (The divorce was denied in any case.)

Look, there’s a lot going on with this film, I think we all see that, but is it too much to ask that romantic woes be resolved without the introduction of a rapist ex machina? Seriously.

Ah, romance.

I do blame the screenplay 100% because the actors are certainly doing good work. Ford, Talmadge and Harlan swing between faux melodramatic posing and more natural romantic ribbing with ease and they all deserve applause for that. Talmadge is cute without mugging too much, Ford charms as a would-be tough guy who panics at the drop of a hat and Harlan is suitably overbearing as the pretentious ex-fiancé.

Director Sidney Franklin holds the picture together without anything too flashy. He includes some nice little details too. For example, Phyllis decides to cook flapjacks for Hector and sets about vigorously mixing the batter until it’s beaten to a silky texture. Anyone who has made pancakes knows that overbeating is the worst thing you can do and sure enough, the flapjacks are more akin to roofing shingles than breakfast food. It’s not much but I appreciate these tiny moments of authenticity. I wish there had been more of them.

Connie’s flapjacks could be used to repair tires.

The talent was there. It’s a shame the story let them all down.

(If you want to see Ford and Talmadge together in a better picture, A Pair of Silk Stockings is also available on home media.)

In the end, this picture is not the worst rom-com I’ve seen but it’s nowhere near the best either. It has some strong elements but nothing ever comes of them. Meh.

Where can I see it?

I have the out-of-print Unknown Video edition. I have not seen the Alpha version.


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One Comment

  1. Shari Polikoff

    Agree on everything. But what ‘makes’ the picture for me is Connie’s adorable belted-cape outfit. A Twenties classic, timelessly stylish.

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