Good References, a 1920 “lost” film recently discovered in a Prague archive and restored by UCLA, is a classic example of the type of movie the silent film business learned was a sure-fire way to make money. Directed by R. William Neill, with a scenario by Dorothy Farnum from an E.J. Rath novel, cinematography by Oliver Marsh, and titles by Burns Mantle, Good References relies on one solid gold asset: Constance Talmadge, its radiant and utterly delicious star. Although the script lacks the wit and sass of some of her other movies and is missing a full showcase of her comic skills, it nevertheless moves along at a brisk running time, with plenty of twists and turns that amuse and prove that Good References knows its job—let Constance Talmadge carry the ball. She was what audiences were paying to see. Variety wrote that “Miss Talmadge’s” admirers turned out in large numbers and an “overflowing audience” proved “the drawing powers of the young comedienne.” Good References is thus an important film, offering a clear opportunity for modern audiences to observe silent star power. Constance Talmadge drives the movie through sheer personality, reminding us it was stars like her who made Hollywood a legendary world of gods and goddesses.
Good References is only one of several films Talmadge made in 1920. Paired with the somewhat lackluster leading actor Vincent Coleman (and supported by the more interesting Ned Sparks), she plays a young woman who, never having held a paying job, has no references and can’t get hired when it becomes necessary. She solves her problem by pretending to be someone else, taking the place of a sick friend who’s just been hired as secretary for a young man who’s returning home from college “without diploma.” With the typical good cheer found in the era’s lighthearted movies, she figures it’ll all sort out later, and of course it does. Plot shenanigans abound: scandal, misunderstanding, night court and jail, confusion, deception and confession—all boldly mixed up with a grand party, some mothers, Mrs. Vanderbilt, a boxing champion, a Bishop, and, finally, a proposal and The End. Talmadge sparkles along from event to event, shining out of the frame every time she appears.
At the time she made Good References, Talmadge was in her first full star emergence. She was born in 1899 (some sources say 1900) and nicknamed “Dutch” because she was a blonde in a family of brunettes. Her life was in many ways the definitive silent-era show business story. Her mother, the formidable Peg Talmadge, had been deserted by her husband who left her penniless with three little girls to support (Norma, Constance, and Natalie). Facing a grim future, Peg cut her daughters no slack, making it clear to them that they’d need to use their looks and brains to make her a good living. She gave them two suggestions on how to do it: marry rich or become movie stars. Probably scared witless by Peg, the stage mother of all stage mothers, both Norma and Constance got busy and, just to be safe, did both. They married rich (more than once) and became top-ranked stars. Norma was one of the three or four most successful dramatic actresses of the era, and Constance a vibrant and sophisticated comedienne. (The hapless Natalie accomplished only one of Peg’s ideas, and her family had to maneuver her through it: they married her off to Buster Keaton.) Peg became satisfied—and rich herself—and later told an interviewer she’d had to spend years “driving those wild horses to trough.”
Constance Talmadge’s career happened as a result of Norma’s. She accompanied her older sister to work when Norma became a Vitagraph player in 1910. While her sister worked, Constance made friends, clowned around, displayed high spirits and playful charm, and soon captured enough attention to be cast in small parts on a steady basis. She is said to have made as many as twenty-nine movies over the 1914–1915 period, but her official film debut is defined as a featured role she played in 1914’s Buddy’s First Call. As the pert young romantic lead, she’s inexperienced, but utterly casual about it and, as a result, charmingly natural and at ease. (She’s so nonchalant that it appears as if she just stopped by to visit the set and decided to jump in and help out the cast. This clearly observable quality of carefree confidence became her movie signature.)
Audiences fell in love with Constance Talmadge. By 1916, she was prominent enough for D.W. Griffith to cast her as his “mountain girl” in the epic Intolerance, and she became established on her own—separate from Norma—as a full-fledged movie star. Producer Joseph Schenck (husband of Norma) hired Anita Loos to write material specifically adapted to Constance’s personality, which, being so different from Norma’s, provided no competition. Loos wrote the characters that Constance was born to play: fun-loving, witty women who appeared in contemporary settings, wearing fashionable gowns and romping through some hotsy-totsy (but essentially safe) escapades with titles such as A Temperamental Wife, A Virtuous Vamp, In Search of a Sinner, The Love Expert, The Perfect Woman, and so on.
In the silent era, Norma was a bigger star than Constance, but Constance, unlike her sister, developed her own movie persona. Norma worked toward being taken seriously as an actress, playing characters of different types, everything from a rich wife to a poor wife, a pioneer woman, an Asian maiden, an Arab dancing girl, a Native American princess—a sort of Meryl Streep. Constance did the opposite. She pinned down a role she owned and that defined her for her public: a female who didn’t fear society’s disapproval. She would flirt if she wanted to, work if she wanted to, and run away if she wanted to but always have a sense of humor about it.
Offscreen, Constance was not unlike these characters, jaunting off to Europe on vacation and returning triumphantly with her first husband, a handsome Greek tobacco importer whose chief asset was identified by a fan magazine as “expert ballroom dancer.” (Dorothy Gish commented that Constance was “always getting engaged—but never to less than two men at a time.”) Her boyfriends included Irving Berlin, Richard Barthelmess, Jack Pickford, Michael Arlen, and one of her most serious ones, the MGM Wonder Boy Irving Thalberg, who had his own domineering mother, the scary Henrietta, who didn’t approve of Constance.
As she aged, her characters sometimes became married women, and she grew more sophisticated, better dressed, and socially connected on screen, but she never lost that quality of a slightly tomboyish, gee-whiz kind of gal with a will of her own. F. Scott Fitzgerald labeled her “the flapper de luxe,” an iconic 1920s type, but her saucy and confident women out in the world on their own also predate the working heroines of the 1930s. She’s somewhat of an earlier version of Carole Lombard—blonde (although looking darker-haired in this film), and possessing both glamour and a slightly screwball personality.
Within five years after Good References, Constance Talmadge was rich, famous, adored, and living her life as she wished. She was only twenty-six years old and seemed to have an unlimited movie future. Instead she made only five more films. Sound came in and she quit cold in 1929, never looking back. She had no regrets. She’d been at the top of the heap, had a barrel of fun, and had done what her mother told her to do: she’d earned her bread. It’s a real treat to be able to see one of Constance Talmadge’s rescued films, and those who want more of her charismatic personality should look at three of my personal favorites: Venus of Venice, The Duchess of Buffalo, and Breakfast at Sunrise. In the meantime, Good References serves Constance Talmadge well.
Presented at SFSFF 2018 with live music by Donald Sosin