Three years before he guided Janet Gaynor up to Seventh Heaven and on to the first Best Actress award, director Frank Borzage would have no doubt rendered Norma Talmadge the same kind service for Secrets. This generation-spanning soap opera, after the manner of Edna Ferber, proved the biggest smash hit of the star’s career, securing her rapturous notices. Critics showered the film with even more effusive praise than they had Smilin’ Through, for which Norma, in my opinion, would likely have won the Oscar just two years before. As Jeannine Basinger puts it in Silent Stars, Secrets was “one of those stories that actresses of the time would kill for- the chance to be seen in various episodes that allow her to age from a young girl to a seventy-year-old woman.” In other words, Norma’s dream part might have been made to measure with an Oscar in mind.
Lovingly detailed, this nostalgic period piece unfolds to us in flashback, from the pages of its heroine’s diary, setting itself up to be revelatory. In truth, Secrets divulges nothing that couldn’t be instantly gleaned from a cursory glance at this character’s life. She’s an open book. Secrets isn’t a searching, introspective movie about a woman’s private experiences, but rather like all Borzage’s romanticist work, Seventh Heaven included, the transcendent power of love. The film concerns an enduring marriage held together by Talmadge’s selfless, devoted wife Mary, who’s determined to stand by her man for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, abiding relocation to the American West, the death of their newborn baby, even his roving eye. We keep waiting for the actress to disclose something unexpected about the character, but she never does. There are no insightful Secrets for her to draw upon. It’s a title in name only.
1923-24 was a significant period for several actresses who were, like Talmadge, reaching their professional peak or just coming into their own as independent artists. Lillian Gish, for instance, broke from D.W. Griffith after ten years, branching out with an impressive performance as a novitiate nun who spurns her resurrected lover in order to become a bride of Christ in The White Sister. Meanwhile, Colleen Moore rebelled against her sweet and simple image by straightening her hair into a jet black bob for Flaming Youth, causing a fashion vogue (that would later be credited to Louise Brooks) and launching her new persona as the quintessential Jazz Age flapper. Even Charlie Chaplin’s long time leading lady was testing untried waters. A Woman of Paris presented Edna Purviance with a daring change of pace from slapstick comedy to light drama, and she responded with what I think was the most finely shaded performance by any actress that season.
In the movie, Purviance plays Marie St. Claire, a girl from the French provinces seeking to escape an unhappy home life by eloping with her sweetheart Jean (Carl Miller), over the objections of his father. When Jean postpones their departure, however, she believes he has been talked out of marrying her, and heads for the city of lights alone. A year later, Marie has become mistress to one of the wealthiest bachelors in Paris, Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou), and leads a carefree, frivolous existence. Invited to an artist’s ball one evening, she knocks on the wrong door and chances across Jean, who has been working as a painter since his father died, the very night he was meant to join her. She commissions him to do her portrait, but when he unveils the completed painting, it is of the simple country girl he once knew.
The old flame rekindled, Marie resolves to break it off with Pierre in order to accept Jean’s proposal, but thinks better of the idea after overhearing him yield to his mother’s pleas that he not jeopardize his future by marrying a woman with a past. Repentant, Jean tracks down Marie and Pierre but, following an unpleasant altercation, shoots himself. Blaming Marie for her son’s suicide, Jean’s grief stricken mother seizes his gun, determined to kill her, but when she comes upon Marie praying by her boy’s body, she lays the weapon aside. Time passes. The two women now reside in a quiet country cottage where they look after several children. Running an errand, Marie hitches a ride on a hay wagon which passes Pierre in his luxury sedan, speeding in the opposite direction. Neither sees the other.
Any Chaplin fan familiar with his prolific output of shorts holds a soft spot in his heart for Edna Purviance, the attractive, cool blonde of the Little Tramp’s perpetual fancy. Onscreen, the actress had been Chaplin’s muse for the duration of his most productive period in the teens, teaming with him more consistently than any other leading lady ever would. Her quiet air of serenity offered a respite from the comic chaos swirling about her. Significantly, it was only after Chaplin introduced Purviance that he began slowing the pace of his films to permit for instances of pathos. By 1923, however, believing she had outgrown him, Chaplin felt it impractical to continue limiting her to portraying the little slip of a girl that comprised his ideal. A Woman of Paris, innovative at the time for its handling of a risqué topic with taste, humor, and bubbly sophistication, was intended to be the launching pad for Purviance’s career as a solo artist.
Since none of Chaplin’s previous movies had featured her as anything other than the unattainable object of his desire, or required her to display much depth, this sparkling film was specifically fashioned to showcase the actress’ untapped talents. So she wouldn’t feel on completely unfamiliar new ground, Chaplin balanced the drama with equal measures of frothy comedy, akin to the slapstick Purviance was already adept at. In turn, she delivered a smooth, self assured performance. Whereas the tendency in a venture of this sort might have been to push her star turn, Chaplin, interestingly, chose not to overstress it. Instead, he finesses Purviance, cuing her to rely more on subtle nuance and discreet innuendo than attention grabbing theatrics. Her believable performance is a model of restraint.
While external makeup effects indicate changes in Norma Talmadge’s Mary, the maturation of Purviance’s Marie from the rain swept country girl we first meet, is largely an interior one, and hence a greater challenge to effectively convey in a strictly visual medium. A direct comparison can be drawn between the two actresses, since both Secrets and A Woman of Paris begin with identical set ups. Interestingly, in each, the eloping leading lady, intent on keeping a rendezvous with her lover, climbs from the window of an upper story room where she’s been locked by her father. Talmadge, the drama queen, plays her scene for comedy, comedian Purviance hers for high drama, but from there on out, the two women’s paths diverge widely. Mary becomes the wronged wife, Marie the kept woman.
Without a father or a husband to provide for her, the only venue left open to Marie is to become the mistress of a wealthy man. Indulged with minks, maids, masseurs, nightclubs, pearls, parties, she appears to be living the good life, but it’s an unfulfilling, frivolous existence, that of a pampered pet, one who could, at a whim, be dispossessed of comfort and security. In fact the film stresses women’s lack of control over their own precarious financial states in a world that encourages them to compete with each other for the favors of powerful men. Just as Jean’s manipulative mother, who knows her son is the only thing standing between her and the poorhouse, sees Marie as a threat, Marie herself worries about her own uncertain future.
Purviance is grand in the scene where she learns of Pierre’s engagement to a respectable society lady. Aware that her catty friends secretly relish being the bearers of bad tidings, she feigns unconcern before them, only to immediately fall to fretting and biting her nails the second they depart, feverishly pouring over the story in the newspaper she’d tossed aside with such sang froid just a moment before. Chaplin suggests the absurdity of her situation by echoing Marie’s entrance into a ritzy night spot, on the arm of the much older Menjou, with that of a gigolo who has likewise just arrived, accompanied by his elderly sugar mama. From this, it becomes clearer that Marie has been reduced to the level of glorified escort. It takes the reappearance of her first love back in her life to awaken her dormant sense of self worth. Reminded that there are more important things than money, Marie confides that it would take only the bare essentials- “a real home, babies, and a man’s respect”- to content her. Purviance has many choice moments in the movie. I love her set look of intermingled fear and resolve as she makes the momentous decision to board the Paris bound train alone, its arrival signaled by swirling dust and the stark, stylized shadows cast by its lighted compartments, heightening the emotion. Just the way her expressive eyes drift apprehensively in the direction of her forbidding stepfather as he appears at the door behind her, is striking. She’s radiantly fresh and natural when woken in the early morning by her girlfriend, who she affectionately admonishes for having stayed out all night.
Purviance’s most impressive acting comes at the point where she has it out with Pierre. “I don’t know which one of your moods amuses me more,” he smirks, and within this one scene alone her temperamental Marie ranges from fits of pique, pummeling her mocking meal ticket into a corner, world weary resignation, self effacing grandiloquence, to outright humor. When Marie tosses her pearls out the window to prove how little money means to her, and almost immediately regrets her rash act, rushing down to retrieve them, it’s a slapstick bit, complete with speeded up camera, a dog that comes out of nowhere to nip at her heels, and a not so little tramp, an in-joke for Chaplin fans, who’s happened across the discarded necklace and is making off with it at a high rate of speed.
Just as the role of Marie shrewdly plays up Purviance’s self sufficiency as a performer, one who no longer required a leading man to lean on in order to carry a film, Marie, by movie’s end, needn’t depend on anyone to support her either. Forsaking the glamorous cosmopolitan for the simple life, she is seen to have gotten everything she desired, yet with gentle irony, nothing has come about the way she expected. Marie has a home full of babies, but they’re other people’s children, not her own, and the man whose respect she’s earned is not a husband, but a chaste country parson who admires her charity and thrift. Forced to decide between a life of luxury and the promise of love, and at peace with the path she’s chosen, when Marie unknowingly passes Pierre on that country lane, we’re set up to anticipate a poignant reunion. But, having been driven apart by their differing moral values, the two are now traveling such vastly different roads in life they fail to even recognize each other. Watching Purviance head toward her own cinematic sunset, as The Little Tramp had at the end of so many Chaplin comedies, is a sublimely emotional experience. This is one of the most unforgettable final fade outs in screen history. Unfortunately, the public proved resistant to the new Edna Purviance of A Woman of Paris, and even the many critics who were enthusiastic about the film itself accorded her performance a surprisingly indifferent reception. While the movie established co-star Menjou’s silent persona as a sardonic roué, prompting Ernst Lubitsch, whose career would be much influenced by this Chaplin film, to snap him up, further offers for the services of its leading lady failed to materialize.
In Purviance’s ill-fated follow up film, A Woman of the Sea, directed by Josef von Sternburg but never released theatrically, she was said by those fortunate few who saw it to have definitively proven herself a great actress. It’s a claim impossible to verify for certain, since Chaplin destroyed the negative as a tax write off back in 1930. Luckily for us, A Woman of Paris does still exist, and proves Edna Purviance to have been, if not a ‘great actress,’ certainly the best actress of 1923-24.