Looking for something light and entertaining to watch on a quiet evening? Something in the realm of the “chick flick,” perhaps, but not too chick flicky? Allow me to suggest the charming Constance Talmadge comedy Her Sister From Paris (1925).
Constance is one of those silent era actresses whose name was once known from sea to shining sea but is–you guessed it–mostly forgotten today.
Nowadays there’s two kinds of people who’ll talk about Connie: A) hardcore silent film buffs who’ve forgotten more about Marguerite Clark and Reginald Denny than you’ll ever know, and B) Buster Keaton fans who know Constance as his sister-in-law (and often taint her with Don’t-Like-Natalie-Talmadge syndrome–perhaps unfairly, hmmmm?). But in the pre-talkie part of film history she was much-loved for her comedy skills and bubbly, spirited personality. She and her equally-loved sister Norma were practically princesses of US cinema.
Her Sister From Paris is a perfect vehicle to introduce people to the talented Constance (well, so is Intolerance but that’s purty ambitious). She’s not only funny, but she gets to show off her acting skills, too–because what better way than with a dual role?
Connie plays both housewife Helen Weyringer and her twin sister, a famous stage performer with the va-va-voom name of Lola “La Perry.” Lola is, of course, beautiful and very fashionable. Helen is dowdy and having problems with her husband Joseph (the equally va-va-voom Ronald Colman, if you ask me). They live in Vienna, although something about the sets still seem very American (err, this seems to happen with a lot of American silents that are supposedly set in Europe). The couple has a big blowup that results in Helen leaving to “go home to mother,” as was the era’s custom.
At the train station she reunites with her sister Lola, emerging from the building amid a cloud of photographers and eager swains. After Helen pours out her woes back at the star’s dressing room, sympathetic Lola hatches a plan and gives her sister a glamorous makeover, resulting in Helen looking like her carbon copy. Now to win back her husband through the fine art of “vamping”…!
It’s almost a screwball comedy. Silents managed to do this very well, I think–take a fairly silly plot and make us take it juuust seriously enough. I almost wonder if the rise of the actual 1930s screwball comedy was partly due to certain stories and lines sounding really goofy in sound. Some exaggeration and zaniness may have been in order to make it all work.
Of all the tough acting roles, one of the hardest to pull off is the coveted showcase known as the “dual role.” No less than Mary Pickford, Conrad Veidt, Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino all took their tuns, and the sparkling Constance proves herself very much in their league (which she literally was at the time, of course). She’s relatable as the plain, easily frazzled Helen and stunning as the poised, elegant La Perry. In the split screen scenes where both of Constance’s characters appear at once her timing with, well, herself is flawless. Some dual roles never let you forget that this great actress is playing both parts, see, but in this case I find myself forgetting about it. Connie would be delighted by that, I’m sure.
I always have fun trying to spot the little tricks filmmakers and makeup people will use to create the illusion of an actor being two separate people. In Her Sister From Paris high collars play up Constance’s natural hint of a double chin so Helen seems more “dowdy,” while La Perry tends to have lower necklines as well as more flattering lighting.
Dashing Ronald Colman (who would conquer a dual role himself in 1937’s The Prisoner of Zenda) was one of the finest dark, small-mustachioed leading men of the 1920s. They work beautifully together, and unlike some “fed up husband” characters he doesn’t come across as just some jerk. He adds some touching moments to the ending, too.
Her Sister From Paris is available via Kino’s Constance Talmadge Collection, and can also be viewed on YouTube. I heartily recommend pairing it with a glass of zinfandel and some chocolate cake (with frosting). A double feature with DeMille’s Why Change Your Wife? would also make an exceptionally entertaining evening. Enjoy!
I am happy to be a part of the Dual Roles Blogathon, a fine event hosted by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings! Many thanks to everyone who’s stopped by–if you’re new to Silent-ology, feel free to take a look around!