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I saw this film at a rare showing two years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of
Music in New York. This was my first silent Talmadge film and I was taken
aback by her! I had only seen her two talkies, but this film demonstrated
to me what she was all about in the silent era. She was absolutely
to watch, an extremely good actress, and projected a presence as
and beguiling as Garbo. A STAR every inch of the way! It seemed to me
Garbo was probably influenced by her silent acting techniques. She even
gets unbelievable close-ups, like those done with Garbo and Dietrich in
Gilbert Roland and Norma were having a real life romance at the time, much to the sorrow of her husband producer Joseph Schenck. This is their third time together as a team and the sparks fly here in this film. Gilbert absolutely compliments her visually. Their love scenes are romantic and tender without ever being maudlin.
The film is beautifully photographed and well mounted. It is set in Austria during World War I, and the war torned Austrian villages are expertly recreated on the Hollywood back lots. Over all the film is a treat to watch.
I must say that Talmadge goes from being a sassy and good-hearted prostitute to a repentant savior of her friends at the end, as well as winning Gilbert Roland too. They really ought to put this rare film on video or DVD for all to see.
Final note: This was Norma's last silent film, except that it was released with a musical sound track in 1928.
Norma Talmadge stars as a woman of the streets in her final silent
film. We know she has a heart of gold right off because in her first
scene she hides a man running from the police. She also insults one of
his pursuers by blowing face powder on him as he scolds her for being a
tramp. They will meet again.
After an unfortunate incident in her room, two young military men (Gilbert Roland and Arnold Kent) appear and eventually help believe her story and shield her from the police. Both men are smitten with her and decide to help her go straight and get a job. While the men shower her with attention, she blossoms as a "good woman." But one morning she visits Roland in his apartment just before Kent arrives. He assumes the worst because of his jealousy. Soon thereafter World War I breaks out and the Russian Kent will not be on the same side as the Austrian Roland.
Before he goes off to war, Roland gives Talmadge his mother's wedding ring as a token of their marriage of the hearts. Bells ring in the distance.
Eventually, the cruel man from the street turns up again with a royal couple in tow and there's also a Catholic priest who are all sentenced to be shot for trying to escape the town the Russians (under Kent) have taken. Only if Talmadge willingly gives herself to Kent will he allow the others to live. Talmadge is placed in a moral predicament. Will she forsake Roland's love and symbolic marriage to save herself and the others? An unforeseen plot twist makes up her mind for her.
At age 34, Talmadge is at the height of her talent here, easily making the transition from prostitute to good woman. She's beautifully photographed in her peasant clothes. Gilbert Roland, looking a lot like John Gilbert, is also good as the Austrian as is Arnold Kent as the Russian. Gustav von Seyffertitz is the cruel man, Gladys Brockwell and Nicholas Soussanin are the Count and Countess. Michael Vavitch is the priest.
The film was released in two versions: a straight silent version and a silent version with synchronized music and sound effects. The sound disks are presumed lost. The film spawned a hit tune "Woman Disputed (I Love You)" This was Talmadge's final silent film (she appeared in 160 silents); she would make only two attempts at talkies and then retired from the screen at age 36. Gilbert Roland would make his talkie debut in Talmadge's first talkie NEW YORK NIGHTS in 1930. Arnold Kent was run over and killed in 1928.
That was, believe it or not, the title of the theme song that accompanied this silent romance, back when every A movie had to plug sheet music. (Another unfortunate example: The song for RIchard Dix's "Redskin" was "Redskin, Why Are You Blue?") This is a savory, well-shot melodrama with a star performance by Norma Talmadge. Which is to say, she bats her eyelashes a little excessively and lets the close-ups linger on a bit too long, but you don't take your eyes off her, and you see why she was a star. As a quite frankly portrayed woman of the streets, she gets embroiled in a suicide-scandal and comes between best friends Gilbert Roland and Arnold Kent. (The camera loves the young Roland, too, and Kent is a very interesting actor who didn't have much of a career.) World War I breaks out, which is a surprise because up until then Norma has been wearing some strictly 1928 skirts, and ultimately she's pressed, for complicated reasons, into either sleeping with Kent or allowing the Russian forces to crush the Austrian army. It's an adult storyline, from de Maupassant, no less, and William Cameron Menzies' cinematography is gorgeous enough to inspire one to forgive some of the pat storytelling. Paramount spent a lot on this one because it knew the talkies were coming and there was no way it could provide such visual splendor with a primitive mike. There's some satisfying moral comeuppance for the hypocritical villains, and Norma, without ever actually doing any great acting, shows how she made it to the top.
I'm told that 'The Woman Disputed' is one of those mongrel films made
in two versions -- silent and part-talkie -- for release at a time when
talkies were clearly the coming thing, but most cinemas were not yet
wired for sound. I've viewed the Library of Congress print, which is
silent. With other films from this transition period, it's been my
experience that the silent version is usually superior to the talkie
version, if only because talking pictures were a new and uncertain
experience for all the people involved. Not having seen the talkie
version of 'The Woman Disputed', I assume that this silent version is
the better of the two ... but it's not very good.
'Boule de Suif' ('Ball of Fat') is a famous story by Guy de Maupassant which has been dramatised many times for stage and screen. This version makes some changes in the characters' names, nationalities and politics, but still maintains the basic situation. Much of the action in de Maupassant's story takes place during a long coach journey, which is omitted here. The change is not in any way an improvement, and I assume it was done only because of the difficulties of putting a movie camera (and crew) into a crowded coach for protracted sequences.
The film, which deviates from de Maupassant's original, is as follows: Austria and Russia are at war with each other (what else is new?), and beautiful Mary Ann Wagner is caught in the middle. To be precise, the commanders of rival forces both have a case of the hots for her. The Russian is Nika (Nika?) Turgenov, extremely well-played by an actor I've never heard of. The Austrian is Paul Hartman, who doesn't seem to realise he shares his name with an American tap-dancer. Shouldn't the Austrian version of his name be 'Hartmann'? Another character in this movie who doesn't realise he shares his name with a real-life actor is yclept Otto Kruger.
When Mary Ann prefers Paul to Nika, the latter orders his Cossacks to besiege the Austrian town. Meanwhile, some snooty snobs have sneered at Mary Ann for being (they believe) a woman of loose morals. These include Father Roche and a couple of young bluebloods. They make it clear that they won't deign to associate with Mary Ann until her morals get tightened.
When the count, the countess and the priest try to break the siege, Nika's men capture them and he orders them shot. But then another prisoner is caught: Mary Ann. Aha! Twirling his moustaches, Nika announces that he will spare Mary Ann and the other prisoners, providing Mary Ann gives him one night of passion.
The three snobs, who formerly shunned Mary Ann as a slut, now urge her to give herself to Nika so as to save their skins. If you've read de Maupassant's very well-known story, you know how this movie ends.
The exteriors and long shots in this film are quite good. Much less impressive are the interior sequences. There are many, many, many close-ups in this film, and they emphasise the worst excesses of silent-film acting: arching eyebrows, flaring nostrils. I'll just barely rate 'The Woman Disputed' 2 points out of 10.
This is the first of three talkies made by Norma Talmadge before she retired from the screen. The plot revolves around captive townspeople begging a streetwalker to sleep with the enemy commander to obtain their freedom. Only a silent version of the film is known to exist - at the Library of Congress.
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