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
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
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
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
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,
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,
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,
The Children in the House,
The Devil´s Needle,
The Social Secretary (written by Anita Loos),
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
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
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,
The Heart of Wetona,
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,
Passion Flower, and her biggest hit yet,
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
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
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