As I lovingly covered in a previous article, one of the best parts of sifting through early movie magazines is getting to see all those priceless letters to the editor. (And of course we have our dearest friend Lantern to thank for getting to see all those magazines in the first place!)
Month after month movie fans would send in their opinions on anything and everything relating to the film industry: which films they enjoyed, which films let them down, which stars they adored, and even, at times, which stars they didn’t adore at all.
Reading through these can be a funny reminder that Times Don’t Always Change That Much. That really hit home recently when I stumbled across the following priceless letters, wherein certain beloved stars were scorned by a fussy fan, a number of fans jumped to defend their beloved stars’ honors, and the instigator of the drama responded with exactly the sort of message you might expect. It’s basically an early 20th century version of a very, very slow message board debate. Behold, a taste of the kind of drama that occasionally lurked inside the pages of fan magazines!
In the January, 1921 issue of Motion Picture Magazine, the following was printed in the Letters to the Editor section:
If you’re not feeling incredulous yet, just know that these careless, fault-ridden Talmadges were two of the most popular and influential actresses in the entire silent era. Norma was renowned for her dramatic talents (referred to in the “Who ever told that girl she was a tragedienne or a sob sister?” sentence) and Constance was a much-loved comedienne (although the letter writer apparently preferred Dorothy G.–Connie’s real life best friend, by the way).
But the letter doesn’t stop there–after talking about the two Talmadges, the writer also critiques their younger sister Natalie. Natalie didn’t quite share her sisters’ acting drive, but had nevertheless played three or four small roles by this point. Her most prominent role so far was probably supporting Norma in her fine drama The Isle of Conquest (1919). Isle of Conquest, Connie’s The Love Expert (1920) and Norma’s Yes or No (1920) must be the films the writer had in mind here:
Thus spoke Ms. Stolz! (You’ve gotta wonder if she wore glasses.)
The jab about Natalie being thrust upon the public, so to speak, seems unfair since she had hardly appeared in any films. C’mon, Jule, let’s give a brand-new actress a break. And oddly enough this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of Natalie being called less pretty than her sisters, which I’ll frankly never understand. I mean, objectively speaking this gal can hardly be called plain:
To me she’s definitely prettier than Connie, and almost equal with Norma. But I digress. (Look how long I’ve managed to talk about Natalie without mentioning the history of her marriage to Buster Keaton! Ain’t that a record, now!)
This being the age of snail mail, it took a few issues before reader responses to Jule Stolz’s letter were printed. But what a flood of indignation it unleashed. In May of 1921 the editors included this message:
And the Talmadge fans spoke their minds:
(Yes, that is the silent era Harrison Ford. Yes, that’s still very funny to read.)
Shirley was kind enough to add a rousing defense of poor Natalie, albeit with more of that “not very pretty” nonsense. Note that the idea of gaining ten to fifteen pounds was encouraged. But hold on, now. Contrary to today’s idea of the supposedly hefty female figures of the “olden days,” being slender was still the Twenties ideal–but being too skinny was not. Your average flapper wanted to be sleek, not angular.
Three more Talmadge fans sent in this strong group response:
Now there’s an example of little-known Twenties slang! Here, “crust” means something along the lines of “impudence” or “cheek.”
And here’s one more response, specifically riding to the rescue of Natalie:
You’ll be interested to see that Ms. Stolz sent in her own indignant response to this kerfuffle–which was printed in the same May issue. No, she wasn’t psychic. Notice how all of these letters include the writers’ addresses. Aside from this clearly being a less paranoid time, it seems that people who wrote into magazines also wanted to correspond with fellow fans. A few would even say: “If you are as ardent a fan of So-and-so as I am, please drop me a line.” So it looks like Talmadge defenders had been sending Stolz a good many pieces of their minds, so much so that she decided to send in this quite calm response:
I get a kick out of how she seized the opportunity to give even more opinions. You see, she was simply not at all ruffled by the angry mail. Oh, not at all. She enjoyed reading them, even. *Wink*
And that seems to be the end of our Talmadge debate–with the exception of one more letter published a few months later in August:
With that, the drama ceased entirely. Evidently, the pro-Talmadge letters had kept trickling into Motion Picture Magazine, but the magazine had to call a halt somehow.
Things like this not only give us fun insights into early film fandom, but a larger outlook on today’s fandoms too. The next time you’re in a Facebook group arguing the finer details of Chaplin vs. Keaton, or trying to prove that a photo of Mary Philbin is not Mary Pickford, or talking about how nice it is to unwind with a bag of cheesy popcorn and Abel Gance’s La Roue (what, only me?), just know that your great-grandparents may have been doing the very same thing in the pages of old fan magazines!