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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
Constance Talmadge

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Constance Talmadge Large Fan PhotoThere aren’t many family clans in the movie business. Which isn’t to say that some attempt to become as famous as their superstar family members – Casey Affleck and Eric Roberts are good examples today – it’s just that it’s not so easy to succeed. The Barrymores were legends, but in different generations. But in the silent era, there were perhaps two famous sibling pairings: the Gish sisters, and Norma and Constance Talmadge. In fact, there were three Talmadge sisters, all working under the tutelage of the first real “stage mother” as we know them today. Middle sister Natalie appeared in a few films, but never achieved Norma and Constance’s fame. Fortune, yes: she was married to Buster Keaton for a time and was very much part of a lustrous Hollywood family. But in fact, she often signed autographs for her famous sister Constance, the comedienne among the three.

We’re not sure exactly when Constance Alice Talmadge was born, but it could have been anytime between 1897 and 1903 (Editor's Note: I've been contacted by a reader noting the each of the 1900, 1910, and 1920 U.S. censuses give 1898 as the year of Constance Talmadge's date of birth); the latter is the date on her tombstone, but it was very common back then to present oneself as being younger than one was. We do know she was the youngest of the three sisters, born to Margaret or Peg Talmadge and an unemployed alcoholic father. One Christmas Day when the girls were still young, Mr. Talmadge simply got up and left his wife and three daughters, leaving them to fend for themselves.

Like sister Norma, but a little later, Constance’s career began in New York, where she made several short films for Vitagraph, including Buddy’s First Call, Uncle Bill,1916 Norma & Constance Talmadge MJ Moriarty Playing Card Our Fairy Lady, In the Latin Quarter, Fixing Their Dads, The Evolution of Percival, The Maid From Sweden, Father’s Timepiece, In Bridal Attire and Buddy’s Downfall (all 1914). Her character in several of these films is named Connie (also one of Constance’s nicknames), a testament to a period where it was somewhat of a fine line between personage, model and actress. Of course, it was the silent era, and these short films did not display extraordinary amounts of character development, but it’s interesting nonetheless and it must have made mother Peg happy to see another of her daughter’s make a name for herself in the business. Her motto, after all, was “Get the money, and then get comfortable.”

There was still a ways to go. The family moved to California where it was rumored the film industry was really taking off, and both Norma and Constance found almost instant success there. Constance was coming from a stage in her career where she was earning $5 per day as an extra, but was definitely at right place at the right time when she paired with D.W. Griffith to make Intolerance (1916), one of the best known classic films to this day. Griffith not only revolutionized cinema, but helped to create it with his ingenious “discovery” of the power of editing and the close-up. Constance played Mountain Girl, a tomboy figure that perfectly suited Constance; she was nicknamed Dutch as a child because her tomboyish ways, chubbiness and blonde hair made her look like a little boy from The Netherlands.

The film was a huge success, and more importantly, Mountain Girl became extremely popular throughout the course of this multi-episode production. Griffith, always one to 1920's Constance Talmadge Ghiradelli's Chocolate Cardcapitalize on success while moving forward with ever more ways of telling stories on film, actually re-shot the ending of the film, with had Mountain Girl die, so that there could be a happy ending. This was released in 1919 as The Fall of Babylon, and audiences couldn’t have been happier. How many audiences today would care enough about a character or actress to wait three years to see them not die at the end of a film? But back then, stars were just being born, and the loveable Constance was one of them.

Between film and remade ending, Constance made many films, the vast majority of which don’t survive today, but that which displayed her comic abilities: The Matrimaniac (1916); Scandal; The Honeymoon (both 1917); The Studio Girl; Up the Road with Sallie; Good Night, Paul; Sauce for the Goose; Who Cares? (all 1918); Romance and Arabella, Experimental Marriage and Happiness a la Mode (1919). By this time, sister Norma had married producer Joseph Schenk, who would become a big player in Hollywood. He set up production companies for both sisters, so that starting in 1917, the Constance Talmadge Film Company was giving Constance control over which scripts she would choose as well as her costars.

Life was good. She was making movie after movie, was a wild success, and was truly living the Hollywood life. She got married to the first of four husbands, John Pialoglou, in 1920, and this one was a double wedding; the other happy bride was Dorothy Gish. Fans today (though there of course fewer and fewer who were around in those times), remember Constance’s massive film successes, among them AConstance Talmadge 5x7 Fan Photo Virtuous Vamp (1919), and Polly of the Follies, which Constance executive produced.

After A Virtous Vamp, Constance made 24 more films, deciding definitively to end her career with the advent of sound. Among these films are The Perfect Woman (1920), Woman’s Place (1921), East is West (1922), Dulcy (1923), Her Night of Romance (1924), Her Sister From Paris (1925), The Duchess of Buffalo (1926), Breakfast at Sunrise (1927) and her last film, Venus (1929), which was shot in France. She wasn’t nearly as prolific as Norma, sometimes making only two or three films a year, if that – in those days, this is a relatively low output. She did, though, get married two more times during this period, first to Alistair MacIntosh, and then to Townsend Netcher.

She also opened Talmadge Park in 1927 with Norma, a real estate development in San Diego. To this day it’s known as the Talmadge district, and has streets named after each sister. It seems they really enjoyed fame; Norma and Constance were almost a couple of the first people to start the ongoing tradition of imprinting hand and 1933 Constance Talmadge Wire Photofootprints by the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Constance, to be different, walked across her panel, so that five footprints can be seen. Look out for it next time you’re in Hollywood; her prints are behind the box office.

Norma’s career didn’t take off in the sound era, but it wasn’t for lack of trying; she was a born entertainer and kept on entertaining in whatever way she could until the end. Constance, on the other hand, was perfectly happy letting go of her acting career, and never really looked back. She’d had a great time, and was happy to live out her last years with her fourth husband, Walter Michael Giblon, whom she lived with until his death in 1964 – she did a lot of charity work as well. Constance passed away on November 23, 1973, wealthy and content, and one of the illustrious and glamorous icons of the silent age.
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter. Tammy invites you to write her at stonetamar@hotmail.com with any questions or comments on her column.