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Norma Talmadge (May 26, 1893 – December 24, 1957) was an American actress and film producer of the silent era. A major box office draw for more than a decade, her career reached a peak in the early 1920s, when she ranked among the most popular idols of the American screen.

Her most famous film was Smilin’ Through (1922), but she also scored artistic triumphs teamed with director Frank Borzage in Secrets (1924) and The Lady (1925). Her younger sisters Constance Talmadge and Natalie Talmadge were also movie stars. Talmadge married millionaire and film producer Joseph Schenck and they successfully created their own production company. After reaching fame in the film studios on the East Coast, she moved to Hollywoodmarker in 1922.

A specialist in melodrama, Talmadge was one of the most elegant and glamorous film stars of the roaring twenties. By the end of the silent film period her popularity with audiences had waned. After her two talkies proved disappointing at the box office, she retired a very wealthy woman. Of all the silent stars whose reputation collapsed with the coming of sound, Norma Talmadge was the most important. She is little remembered, since her films are seldom revived today, yet in her day she was hugely popular and the epitome of stardom.

Early life

Talmadge was born on May 26, 1893 in Jersey City, New Jerseymarker, although it has been widely believed she was born in Niagara Fallsmarker, New Yorkmarker. After achieving stardom, she admitted that she and her mother provided the more scenic setting of Niagara Falls to fan magazines to be more romantic. Talmadge was the eldest daughter of Fred Talmadge, a chronic unemployed alcoholic, and Margaret "Peg" Talmadge, a witty and indomitable woman. Talmadge's childhood was marked by poverty. One Christmas morning Fred Talmadge left the house to buy food and never came back, leaving his wife to raise their three little daughters. Peg took in laundry, sold cosmetics, taught painting classes, and rented out rooms, raising her daughters in Brooklynmarker, New Yorkmarker.

After telling her mother about a fellow classmate from Erasmus Hall High Schoolmarker who modeled for popular, illustrated song slides (which were often shown before the feature in movie theaters so that the audience could sing along), Mrs. Talmadge decided to locate the photographer and arranged an interview for her daughter, who, after an initial rejection, was hired soon after. When they went to the theater to see her "debut", Peg resolved to get her into motion pictures. Mrs. Talmadge pushed all three of her daughters to become actresses, encouraging them relentlessly to make money and invest it, though none of the sisters were really interested in being movie stars.

Career

Early films

Norma Taldmadge, c. early 1920s
Talmadge was the eldest and the most beautiful among the three daughters and the first pushed by the mother to look for a career as a film actress. Mother and daughter traveled to the Vitagraph Studios in Flatbush, New York, just a streetcar ride from her home. They managed to get past the studio gates and in to see the casting director, who promptly threw them out. However, when scenario editor Breta Breuill, attracted by Talmadge's beauty, arranged a small part for her as a young girl who is kissed under a photographer's cloth in The Household Pest (1909).

Thanks to Breuill's continued patronage, between 1911 and 1912, Talmadge played bit parts in over 100 films. She eventually earned a spot in the stock company at $25 per week and got a steady stream of work. Her first role as a contract actress was 1911's Neighboring Kingdom, with comedian John Bunny. Her first real success came with the first original screen version of A Tale of Two Cities (1911), a three hour epic released in weekly one-reel segments in which she played the small role of Mimi, a seamstress who accompanies Sidney Carton to the guillotine. With help from the studio's major star, Maurice Costello, the star of A Tale of Two Cities, Talmadge's acting improved and she continued to play everything from leads to extras, gaining experience and public exposure in a variety of characters—from a colored mammy to a clumsy waitress to a reckless young modern, she began attracting both public and critical notice. By 1913 she was Vitagraph's most promising young actress. That same year she was assigned to Van Dyke Brooke's acting unit, and throughout 1913 and 1914 appeared in more films playing frequently with Antonio Moreno as her leading man.

In 1915, Talmadge got her big break, starring in Vitagraph’s prestigious feature film The Battle Cry of Peace, an anti-German propagandist drama. But ambitious Peg saw that her daughter's potential could carry them further, and got a two-year contract with National Pictures Company for eight features and $400 per week. Talmadge's last film for Vitagraph was The Crown Prince's Double, and in the summer of 1915 she left Vitagraph. In the five years she had been with Vitagraph, she made over 250 films.

In August the Talmadges left for Californiamarker where Norma's first role was in Captivating Mary Carstairs. The whole enterprise was a fiasco; the sets and costumes were cheap and the studio itself lacked adequate backing. The film was a flop, and the small new studio shut down after the release of Mary Carstairs. The demise of National Pictures Company left the family stranded in California after only one picture. Deciding it was smarter to aim high, they went to the Triangle Film Corporation, where D.W. Griffith was supervising productions. On the strength of The Battle Cry, Talmadge got a contract with Griffith's Fine Arts Company. For eight months, she starred in seven features for Triangle, including the comedy The Social Secretary (1916), a comedy written by Anita Loos and directed by John Emerson, that gave her an opportunity to disguise her beauty as a girl trying to avoid the unwelcome attentions of her male employers.

Norma Talmadge Film Corporation

When the contract ran out the Talmadges returned to New York. At a party, Talmadge met Broadwaymarker and film producer Joseph M. Schenck, a wealthy exhibitor who wanted to produce his own films. Immediately taken by Talmadge both personally and professionally, Schenck proposed marriage and a production studio. Two months later on October 20, 1916 they were married. Talmadge called her much older husband, “Daddy.” He supervised, controlled and nurtured her career in alliance with her mother.

In 1917, the couple formed the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, which became a lucrative enterprise. Schenck vowed he would make his wife the greatest star of all, and one to be remembered always. The best stories, most opulent costumes, grandest sets, talented casts and distinguished directors, along with spectacular publicity, would be hers. Before long, women around the world wanted to be the romantic Norma Talmadge and flocked to her extravagant movies filmed on the East Coast. Schenck soon had a stable of stars operating in his studio in New York, with the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation making dramas on the ground floor, the Constance Talmadge Film Corporation making sophisticated comedies on the second floor, and the Comic unit with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle on the top floor, with Natalie Talmadge acting as secretary and taking occasional small roles in her sisters' films. Arbuckle brought in his nephew Al St. John and vaudeville star Buster Keaton. When Scheck decided it was financially advantageous to rent Arbuckle to Paramount Pictures for feature films, Keaton took over the comedy unit and soon married Natalie, bringing him more thoroughly into the Talmadge family fold, at least for a time.

Talmadge’s first film for her studio, the now lost Panthea, (1917) was directed by Allan Dwan with assistants Erich von Stroheim and Arthur Rossen. The film was a dramatic tour de force for her in a story set in Russia, of a woman who sacrifices herself to help her husband. The film was a hit, turning Talmadge into a sensation and established her as a first rate dramatic actress.

Talmadge’s acting ability improved rapidly during this period. She made between four and six films a year in New York between 1917 and 1921. Under Schenck's personal supervision other films followed, including Poppy (1917) in which, she was paired with Eugene O'Brien. The teaming was such a hit they made ten more films together, including The Moth, and The Secret of the Storm Country, a sequel to Tess of the Storm Country (1914), starring Mary Pickford. In 1918 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. These films have an intimate feel, with small-scale settings and familiar actors appearing from one film to the next; even Talmadge's personal jewelry and pets can be recognized. An advantage of the East Coast locale was access to the country's best high fashion designers, such as Madame Francis and Lucile. Eventually, Talmadge began writing a regular monthly fashion advice column for Photoplay magazine.

Hollywood films

Throughout the 1920s Talmadge continued to triumph in films such as 1920's Yes or No, The Branded Woman, Passion Flower (1921 The Sign on the Door (1921). The next year she had her biggest hit, Smilin' Through (1922) directed by Sidney Franklin. One of the greatest screen romances of the silent film era, it was remade twice, in 1932 with Norma Shearer and in 1941 with Jeanette MacDonald. This would be the most popular film of her entire career.

After Smilin' Through, Schenck closed the New York studios and Norma and Constance moved to Hollywood to join Keaton and Natalie, who had preceded them. Talmadge's Hollywood films were different from her New York films. Bigger and glossier, they were fewer but more varied, often with period or exotic settings. She teamed with cinematographer Tony Gaudio and some of Hollywood's finest costume designers for a more glamorous image. She also worked with top-flight directors such as Frank Lloyd, Clarence Brown, and Frank Borzage. Though her films were uneven, she did the finest work of her career during this period. With help from films directed by first husband Joseph M. Schenck, Talmadge became one of the most highly paid actresses of the 1920s.

In 1923, a poll of picture exhibitors named Norma Talmadge the number one box office star. She was earning $10,000 a week, and receiving as many as 3,000 letters weekly from her fans. Her film Secrets, (1924), directed by Frank Borzage marked the pinnacle of her career giving her best performance and receiving the best reviews. In 1924, Joseph Schenck had moved over to head United Artists, but Talmadge still had a distribution contract with First National. She continued to make successful films such as The Lady (1925) directed by Frank Borzage and the romantic comedy Kiki (1926) directed by Clarence Brown, remade later by Mary Pickford as a sound film in 1931.

In 1927, Norma Talmadge started a famous Hollywood tradition when she accidentally stepped into wet cement in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatermarker.

Career decline

Talmadge's last film for First National was Camille (1926), a film adaptation of an Alexandre Dumas, fils novel later remade by Greta Garbo. During the filming of Camille, Talmadge fell in love with leading man Gilbert Roland. She asked Schenck for a divorce, but he was not ready to grant it. Despite his personal feelings, he was not going to break up a moneymaking team, and continued casting Roland in Talmadge's next three films released by United Artists. Talmadge and Schenck separated, though he continued producing her films. He was now president of the prestigious but theater-poor United Artists Corporation, and the rest of Talmadge's films were released for that company. UA’s distribution problems, however, began to erode her popularity. Her first films for this studio, The Dove (1927) and The Woman Disputed (1928) were box-office failures and ended up being her last silent movies.

By the time Woman Disputed (1928) was released, the talking film revolution had begun, and Talmadge began taking voice lessons in preparation. She worked diligently with voice coaches for over a year so she could make her sound debut. Her first talkie, New York Nights (1929), showed that she could speak and act acceptably in talkies. While her performance was good, the film was not. Talmadge's next took on the role of Madame Du Barry in the 1930 film DuBarry, Woman of Passion. In spite of the elaborate sets by William Cameron Menzies, incompetent direction and Talmadge's inexperience at a role requiring very demanding vocal acting, the film was a failure.

Talmadge's sister Constance sent her a telegram with this advice: "Quit pressing your luck, baby. The critics can't knock those trust funds Mama set up for us". As time passed, it was increasingly clear that the public was no longer interested in its old favorites, and Talmadge was approaching forty, a difficult age for an actress in any era. She was seen as an icon of the past. Talmadge had been increasingly bored with filmmaking before the talkie challenge came along, and this setback seems to have discouraged her from further attempts.

She still had two more films on her United Artists contract. Samuel Goldwyn announced he had bought The Greeks Had a Word for It for her in late 1930, and she reportedly did some stage rehearsals for it in New York, but within a few months, she asked to be released from her contract and she never again appeared on screen.

Retirement

Once leaving the movie world, Norma Talmadge rid herself of all the duties and responsibilities of stardom. She sweetly told eager fans who were pressing her for an autograph as she left a restaurant, "Get away, dears. I don't need you anymore." However, she was regarded a loyal friend who thought nothing of standing by those she cared about, either publicly amid rumors or scandal or privately.

Some time before late 1932, Talmadge decided against marrying Gilbert Roland, as he was twelve years her junior and feared he would eventually leave her. Mother Peg fell ill in 1931, and died in September 1933. In late 1932, Talmadge began seeing her ex-husband Joseph Schenck's poker friend, comedian George Jessel. In April 1934, Schenck, from whom she had been separated for seven years, finally granted Talmadge her divorce and nine days later, she married George Jessel. Schenck continued to do what he could for Norma and her sisters, acting as a financial adviser and guiding her business affairs.

Talmadge's last professional works consisted of appearances on Jessel's radio program, which was sagging in its ratings. The program soon ended, and the marriage did not last; the couple divorced in 1939. Schenck's business acumen and her mother's watchful ambition for her daughters had resulted in a huge fortune for Talmadge, and she never wanted for money. Restless since the end of her filmmaking days, Talmadge traveled, often shuttling between her houses, entertaining, and visiting with her sisters. In 1946, she married Dr. Carvel James, a Beverly Hillsmarker physician.

Later years and death

In her later years, Talmadge, who had never been comfortable with the burdens of public celebrity, became reclusive. Increasingly crippled by painful arthritis and reportedly to be dependent on painkilling drugs, she moved to the warm climate of Las Vegas, Nevadamarker for her final years. In 1956, she was voted by her peers as one of the top five female stars of the pre-1925 era, but was too ill to travel to Rochester, New Yorkmarker to accept her award.

After suffering a series of strokes in 1957, Talmadge died of pneumonia on Christmas Eve of that year. At the time of her death, her estate was valued at more than USD$1,000,000. For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Norma Taldmadge has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Famemarker at 1500 Vine Street.

Selected filmography

Year Film Role Other notes
1915 Captivating Mary Carstairs Mary Carstairs First feature film
The Battle Cry of Peace Virginia Vandergriff
The Crown Prince's Double Shirley Rives
1916 The Missing Links Myra Holburn
Martha's Vindication Martha
The Children in the House Cora
Going Straight Grace Remington
The Devil's Needle Renee
The Social Secretary Mayme
Fifty-Fifty Naomi
1917 Panthea Panthea Romoff First film for Norma Talmadge Film Corporation
Producer
The Law of Compensation Flora Graham/Ruth Graham
Poppy Poppy Destinn
The Moth Lucy Gillam
The Secret of the Storm Country Tess Skinner
1918 The Ghosts of Yesterday Ruth Graham/Jeanne La Fleur
By Right of Purchase Margot Hughes
De Luxe Annie Julie Kendal (De Luxe Annie II) Producer
The Safety Curtain Puck
Her Only Way Lucille Westbrook
The Forbidden City San San/Toy
1919 The Heart of Wetona Wetona
The New Moon Princess Marie Pavlovna
The Probation Wife Josephine Mowbray Producer
Dust of Desire - Cameo appearance
The Way of a Woman Nancy Lee
The Isle of Conquest Ethel Harmon Producer
1920 She Loves and Lies Marie Callender, aka Marie Max and June Dayne
A Daughter of Two Worlds Jennie Malone
The Woman Gives Inga Sonderson
Yes or No Margaret Vane/Minnie Berry Producer
The Branded Woman Ruth Sawyer Producer
1921 Passion Flower Acacia, The Passion Flower Producer
The Sign on the Door Ann Hunniwell/Mrs. 'Lafe' Regan Producer
The Wonderful Thing Jacqueline Laurentine Boggs Producer
Love's Redemption Jennie Dobson (aka Ginger) Producer
1922 Smilin' Through Kathleen/Moonyeen Producer
The Eternal Flame Duchesse de Langeais Producer
1923 The Voice from the Minaret Lady Adrienne Carlyle Producer
Within the Law Mary Turner Producer
Ashes of Vengeance Yolande de Breux Producer
The Song of Love Noorma-hal Producer
1924 Secrets Mary Carlton Producer
The Only Woman Helen Brinsley Producer
1925 The Lady Polly Pearl Producer
Graustark Princess Yetive Producer
1926 Kiki Kiki Producer
Camille Marguerite Gautier (Camille) Producer
1927 The Dove Dolores Producer
1928 The Woman Disputed Mary Ann Wagner Producer
1929 New York Nights Jill Deverne Producer
1930 Du Barry, Woman of Passion Madame Du Barry


References

  1. Staff. "NORMA TALMADGE, FILM STAR, DEAD; Noted Actress of the Silent Screen, 1911-30--Made Her Movie Debut at 14 Appeared in Scores of Films Her First Picture Founded Own Concern", The New York Times, December 25, 1957. Accessed August 2, 2009. "At 13, while she was a student at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, Norma found that she could help a little by posing for colored slides that illustrated the songs plugged in the pits of the nickelodeons of 1910."
  2. "Woman Disputed: Who was Norma Talmadge, and why aren't more of her films available?: Greta de Groat


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