Norma Talmadge - Silent Star of November, 1997

by Kally Mavromatis

At her peak she was one of the brightest stars in the firmament, second only to Mary Pickford. She earned $10,000 per week, receiving as many as 3,000 letters a week from fans. Today she is little remembered, or if she is, as the laughable inspiration for the character in Singin´ In The Rain, the countess with the Brooklyn accent. Throughout her career, with one disastrous exception, she continued playing the "brave, tragic, and sacrificing heroine, [with] lavish settings and beautiful clothes, and buckets of tears before the eventual redemption at the fadeout." No one could suffer better than Norma Talmadge.

She was born May 26, 1897 in Jersey City, New Jersey, the daughter of legendary Hollywood mother Peg Talmadge. Her father, a chronic unemployed alcoholic, left Peg and daughters Norma, Natalie, and Constance on Christmas Day. To keep the family solvent Peg took in laundry and taught painting classes.

One day, 14-year-old Norma came home from school talking about one of her classmates, a girl who was a model for illustrated song slides. Peg's mind registered this bit of information, and calling around the next day managed to find the models photographer. A bit of finagling got Norma an interview; when she and Peg appeared at the photographer's studio was told she wouldn't do -- a more appropriate model would be in the next day. As luck would have it, the phone rang with an order for the shots right away. Norma got the job, and when they went to the theatre to see Norma's "debut" Peg resolved to get her into motion pictures.

Travelling to Flatbush and the Vitagraph studios, they managed to get past the studio gates and in to see the casting director, who promptly threw them out. Fate intervened, however, when scenario editor Breta Breuill, attracted by Norma's beauty, got her a small part in The Household Pest -- as a young girl getting kissed under a photographer's cloth. Peg and Norma continued to haunt Vitagraph for calls, and in 1910 Norma got small parts in such films as A Dixie Mother as the young daughter of a patriotic Southern mother (played by Florence Turner) who elopes with a Northerner. Thanks to Breuill's continued patronage, between 1911-12 Norma played bits in over 100 films.

Norma eventually earned a spot in the stock company at $25 per week and got a steady stream of work. Others who got their start at one time or another at Vitagraph included Mabel Normand, Earle Williams, Lillian "Dimples" Walker, Anita Stewart, and Clara Kimball Young. Founded around 1894, Vitagraph was acquired by Warner Brothers in the mid-1920s.

Norma's first role as a contract actress was 1911's In Neighboring Kingdoms, with comedian John Bunny. Her first real success came with 1911's A Tale of Two Cities, a three hour epic released in weekly one-reel segments. With help from the studio's major star, Maurice Costello, her acting improved and throughout 1911 got more roles in Mrs. ´Enry ´Awkins, Her Hero, The Thumb Print, A Broken Spell, The Convict's Child, and Her Sister's Children, continuing in 1912 with The First Violin, as well as the part of a spunky slavey in the Belinda comedies (Plot and Counterplot, Sleuthing, Omens and Oracles, A Lady and Her Maid).

As Norma continued to play a variety of characters -- everything from a colored mammy to a clumsy waitress to a reckless young modern, she began attracting both public and critical notice. In 1913 she was voted Vitagraph's most promising young player in an exhibitors' poll, and was ranked 42nd in Photoplay Magazine's popularity poll.

That same year she was assigned to Van Dyke Brooke's acting unit, and throughout 1913-14 appeared in more films including His Official Appointment, Under the Daisies, Sawdust and Salome, Old Reliable, and The Sacrifices of Kathleen. In 1915 Norma got her big break, starring in the propaganda film The Battle Cry of Peace.

But ambitious Peg saw that Norma's potential could carry them further, and got a two-year contract with National Pictures Company for 8 features and $400 per week. Norma's last film for Vitagraph was The Crown Prince´s Double. In the five years she had been with Vitagraph she made over 250 films.

In August the Talmadges left for California and Norma began filming Captivating Mary Carstairs. The whole enterprise was a fiasco; the sets and costumes were cheap and the studio itself lacked adequate backing. After the release of Mary Carstairs the company shut down.

In the meantime sister Constance had begun working with D.W. Griffith, and in 1916 on the strength of The Battle Cry Norma got a contract with Griffith's Fine Arts Company. For eight months she starred in 7 features, including The Missing Links, Martha´s Vindication, The Children in the House, Going Straight, The Devil´s Needle, The Social Secretary (written by Anita Loos), and Fifty-Fifty.

When the contract ran out the Talmadges returned to New York. At a party Norma met Joe Schenck. Entirely smitten with Norma, Schenck proposed marriage and a production studio, and two months later on October 20, 1916 they were married.

With Schenck's backing, Norma's first film for her studio was the stage hit Panthea, directed by Allan Dwan with assistants Erich von Stroheim and Arthur Rossen. The film was a hit, turning Norma into a sensation. Other films followed, including 1917's The Law of Compensation and Poppy. In Poppy she was paired with handsome Eugene O´Brien, and the teaming was such a hit they continued to be paired for 10 more films, including The Moth, and The Secret of the Storm Country, a sequel to Mary Pickford's immensely popular Tess of the Storm Country. In 1918 after The Ghost of Yesterday, By Right of Purchase, and De Luxe Annie she reteamed with Sidney Franklin, who directed The Safety Curtain, Her Only Way, Forbidden City, The Heart of Wetona, and 1919's The Probation Wife.

In 1920 Norma moved her production company to Hollywood, and throughout the 1920s Norma continued to triumph in films such as 1920's Yes or No, The Branded Woman, 1921's Passion Flower, and her biggest hit yet, 1922's Smilin´ Through. 1924's Secrets, however, marked the pinnacle of her career. Although she continued to make films such as The Lady (1925), Kiki (1926), and Camille (1927), her films and her popularity lost some of their luster.

During filming of Camille Norma fell in love with leading man Gilbert Roland, and began divorce proceedings in order to marry him. She never married Roland, but Schenck made no move to stop the proceedings.

Her career continued to decline, with the box-office failures of 1928's The Dove and The Woman Disputed. With the debut of talkies Norma made two films, including the disastrous Du Barry, Woman of Passion, but by then her career was over, her voice unsuited to the sophisticated roles she had been playing throughout her silent career. After Du Barry Constance sent her famous telegram, cabling Norma "Quit pressing your luck, baby. The critics can't knock those trust funds Mama set up for us."

In 1934 she divorced Schenck, from whom she had been separated for seven years, and nine days later married George Jessel. Throughout her and her family's life, Schenck continued to do what he could for them, acting as a financial advisor and guiding her business affairs. She divorced Jessel in 1939, falling into a drug addiction of which her crippling arthritis was one manifestation. In 1946 Norma married Dr. Carvel James, who made her last years as comfortable as possible. Norma Talmadge died December 24, 1957.

Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1997 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431