The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
it’s difficult to gauge the parameters of success. In one sense, Norma Talmadge
had it all. She had the looks, and a Hollywood-style rags-to-riches story. She
became known to the world as a major film star, and even became a businesswoman
to contend with. But, like so many others, Norma’s shine wouldn’t glitter
strongly enough to see her through cinema’s transition to sound. It’s as
impossible to imagine how this would affect someone who virtually grew up
onscreen as it is to imagine that there was ever a time before the talkies. But,
when all is said and done, Norma goes down in history as a starlet of a golden
Norma was truly born to be in the movies. She came into this world on May 26,
1895 – the year the first film was screened before a public audience in Paris.
Norma grew up in New Jersey in an unhappy family consisting of an unemployed
alcoholic of a father and a wife who couldn’t control her husband’s
temperamental ways. One Christmas Day when Norma was still a little girl, Mr. Talmadge simply got up and left his wife and three daughters, leaving them to
fend for themselves. Norma’s mom, Peggy, became a laundress to pay the bills.
Luckily for Norma, she had the gorgeous looks to land her modeling jobs when she
was as young as 14. This would be the beginning of a long life in the spotlight.
Norma’s modeling caught the eye of studio heads in New York City, which at the
was as big a movie center as Los Angeles – in fact, Vitagraph movie studios
hadn’t moved West yet in those days. It wasn’t long before Norma, in 1909, got a
bit part in the film “The Household Pest”. Peggy was thrilled that her daughter
was becoming a source of income, and really pushed for Norma to pursue acting
for the movies. Norma followed her mom’s advice, and landed more roles for
Vitagraph: in 1910 alone, she appeared in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, “Love of
Chrysanthemums”, “A Dixie Mother”, and “A Broken Spell”. These roles really
helped Norma learn the craft of acting, and the studio trusted her enough the
following year to give her a meaty role in “A Tale of Two Cities”, just when
literally adaptations were becoming all the rage. Just two years later, in 1913,
the young Norma Talmadge was the hottest starlet on the East coast.
In 1915, after her first big starring role in “The Battle Cry of Peace”, Norma
and her mother journeyed to California to find even more fame and fortune – this
time in Hollywood. But she wasn’t as lucky the first time around as she had been
in New York. After making “Captivating Mary Carstairs” that year, she was
distressed to see the movie fail miserably – so much so
that the studio that
made was forced to shut down. But this wasn’t the end.
Norma’s sister Constance
was working for the leading director of his time, the legendary D.W. Griffith,
who has gone down in history for inventing editing and the close-up. Constance
was able to get Norma a contract at Griffiths’ company, and within eight months,
Norma had made seven feature films and a few shorts. (This was a time when
movies were made in a matter of days, not months or years).
Norma’s contract ran out, her family went back East, and in 1916, Norma married
Joseph Schenck, who helped Norma create a production company – a highly unusual
and daring move for a young starlet. The company put out several films,
including “Panthea”, which was a huge hit, and helped make Norma even more
popular. Based on this success, the company moved to Hollywood in 1920. By this
time, all the major hits were being made in California, and it was a real boon
time for Norma’s company as well. Some memorable hits starring Norma, and made
by her company, were: “The Wonderful Thing” (1921), “The Eternal Flame” (1922)
and “The Song of Love” (1923). She became more famous, and richer, with every
film. 1926’s “Kiki” was one of her biggest hits. At the height of her fame,
Norma became known as “The Lady of the Great Indoors”, for her roles in the
enormously popular, emotional melodramas.
Norma continued to ride the waves of success until 1928. In 1927, she became the
third star (after Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford) to
imprint her feet in
clay, in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. But sadly, her popularity began to
fade. Now that the talkies had arrived, the silent films still being made – like
Norma’s “The Undisputed Women” in 1928 – were not doing well at the box office.
Her final film was “Du Barry, Woman of Passion” in 1930. The talkies did not
seem to have room for Norma, and people began to forget who she was because she
didn’t have a voice to match her looks. But she didn’t go down without a fight.
Norma divorced Schenck and remarried, to George Jessel, who had a radio show in
Los Angeles. He included her in his show to help her and to try to increase his
standing in the ratings. Norma was hopeful this would attract attention from
the movies studios once again, but things didn’t turn out as she might have
hoped. The radio show was eventually canceled, and her career would never pick
up again. Norma and Jessel divorced in 1939, and seven years later she married
again, to Dr. Carvel James. 11 years later, in 1957, she died of a stroke in Las
Vegas. Some things come full circle – she died on Christmas Eve, a season
wrought with bad memories of her father’s departure from family life.
Gone, but not forgotten. Norma appeared in a staggering 250 films during her
career, many of which remain in print, for posterity, to this day.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and
journalist based in Toronto. Norma Talmadge is her very first entry into The
Silent Collection, now a regular column in
The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter, featuring Viola Dana next issue!
Other Norma Talmadge Pages:
Jackson's Norma Talmadge Page -- One of Motion Pictures Pioneering Actresses!
The Norma Talmadge Website -- This site is dedicated exclusively to
Ms. Talmadge and is absolutely loaded with facts about the early actress.
Includes a Filmography, extensive biography, Video Reviews, links to photos of
Norma Talmadge on the web, and a wide selection of contemporary articles.