She was arguably the leading female star of the 1920s, but Norma Talmadge is barely remembered today — partly because her films were kept out of circulation by the inscrutable Raymond Rohauer (who apparently acquired them along with the work of her brother-in-law, Buster Keaton), and partly because her genre, the unbridled melodrama of the woman betrayed, has seldom attracted the critical interest accorded silent comedies and action films. But her restrained, naturalistic performance style marked a significant step away from the pantomimic excess of early fiction filmmaking: just by turning her dark, depthless gaze toward the camera (nicely captured in the portrait above), she seemed to evoke centuries of female suffering and sacrifice.
A new set from Kino, “The Norma Talmadge Collection,” goes some way toward rectifying that situation, though neither of the two films in the box — Clarence Brown’s 1926 “Kiki” and Frank Lloyd’s 1923 “Within the Law” — are particularly representative of Talmadge’s skills: the former is a a broad comedy with Talmadge as a Parisian street urchin, the latter a crime drama with an action finale. But perhaps the disc will do well enough to encourage Kino to release a second volume with her two films for Frank Borzage, “Secrets” (1924) and “The Lady” (1925), which the Talmadge scholar Greta de Groat places among her best work.
My New York Times review is here.