“The thing that makes Talmadge a star is the look in her eyes,” MGM studio head and star-maker Louis B. Mayer once said of actress Norma Talmadge. One of the most popular stars of the silents, her career ended after two poorly received talkies, and she is nearly forgotten today. If Talmadge is remembered at all, it is because of two iconic films of the 1950s. Both feature characters based on erroneous impressions of Talmadge: Lina Lamont, the silent screen star in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) whose screechy voice ends her career when sound arrives; and Norma Desmond, the faded diva of Sunset Boulevard (1950), driven mad with dreams of a glorious comeback. It is true that Talmadge retired after her sound films failed. It’s also true that her voice bore slight but not unpleasant traces of Brooklyn. But the truth about why Norma Talmadge’s career ended bears little resemblance to the myths she inspired.
Talmadge rose to fame thanks to her beauty, a determined stage mother, and an advantageous marriage. The eldest of three daughters, she was born in 1894 to a strong-willed mother who raised her brood—Norma, Natalie, and Constance—in Brooklyn, running a home laundry, renting out rooms, selling wrinkle cream, and teaching painting-on-velvet to housewives.
Anita Loos, who scripted films for both Norma and Constance, writes in The Talmadge Girls (1978) that Norma began posing for illustrated song slides as a teenager around 1910. Mother Peg then decided that her daughter belonged in motion pictures, and Norma went to work at Vitagraph Studios. Constance soon followed her sister into the movies, and the formidable Peg even got Natalie a clerical job in the film industry.
Although she made many films in both New York and California, Talmadge’s career didn’t take off until 1916 when she met and married Loew’s theater chain executive Joseph Schenck. He wanted to break into film production and soon launched the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation. According to researcher Greta de Groat, most of Talmadge’s early films were melodramas that “deal with a wider variety of contemporary social issues than her later films.” Her final film made at the New York studio was her biggest hit and one of her best, the supernatural romance Smilin’ Thru (1922).
By the time Schenck moved his company to California in 1921, Talmadge was a huge star with a devoted following and critical respect. Once she went to Hollywood, her films got “bigger and glossier,” de Groat writes. She worked with top directors such as Clarence Brown and Frank Borzage, earning acclaim for her performances in two Borzage pictures, Secrets (1924) and The Lady (1925). Film historian Jack Spears summed up a Talmadge film of the Hollywood era: “a brave, tragic and sacrificing heroine, lavish settings and beautiful clothes, and buckets of tears before the eventual redemption at the fadeout.”
When she made The Woman Disputed, Talmadge’s popularity was on the wane and her marriage was in trouble. She had begun an affair with Mexican heartthrob Gilbert Roland on the set of Camille (1927). Schenck knew about the romance—Talmadge had asked for a divorce—but realized that the two were a great box office team and paired them as costars three more times. In spite of excellent production values and the heat between the stars, the Variety critic wrote that Camille “lacks punch.” The Dove (1928) and The Woman Disputed also met with critical disdain.
In The Woman Disputed, Talmadge plays a young Austrian woman forced into prostitution. She is befriended by two soldiers, an Austrian, played by Roland, and a Russian. Her love for Roland’s character splits the friendship apart, and she must make the ultimate sacrifice for her country. Talmadge’s beautiful close-ups bear the unmistakable imprint of director Henry King. “This understanding of portrait heads within a film became a rapidly waning art in the sound era,” writes film historian Clive Denton, “but it remained with Henry King.” King apparently disliked The Woman Disputed, and according to de Groat, Sam Taylor, co-credited as director, completed some scenes in the film.
King’s career spanned half a century, ending with 1962’s Tender Is the Night, and his transition to talkies was seamless. Talmadge had a harder time. In silent films, she had played a variety of roles. The production values were first-rate and her wardrobe was often a highlight of a sometimes mediocre film. By the late 1920s, however, she could no longer count on Schenck’s undivided attention to her career as their marriage was effectively over. Younger actresses more identified with the 1920s zeitgeist were surpassing her at the box office. The grandiose melodramas that her fans had loved seemed old- fashioned. In a study of Talmadge’s work, Greg M. Smith notes that sound films made her former versatility impossible. “The ‘real’ Talmadge was certain-ly incapable of reenact- ing her versatile range of silent cinema types. In the talkies Talmadge the masquerader was bound by the limitations of her body.”
The critics’ verdict on her voice in her sound debut, New York Nights (1929), was favorable, but many agreed with the Variety critic who wrote, “A better picture will give her an even break.” They were less kind about her performance in Du Barry, Woman of Passion (1930). Among the most brutal was a review in Time: “Norma Talmadge plays less pompously than might be expected, but people who liked her program pictures in the old days may hope that this will be the last attempt to establish her as a great figure in sound pictures. However, her diction is improving; in her first dialog effort she talked like an elocution pupil; this time she talks like an elocution teacher.”
Loos claims that Constance Talmadge read the Time review and cabled her sister, “Quit pressing your luck, baby. The critics can’t knock those trust funds Mom set up for us.” Norma agreed and retired from the screen with no apparent bitterness. According to film historian Jeanine Basinger, “Most of the young girls who became stars … had a voracity for success that never left them. The Talmadges were different. They worked hard and did what was expected of them, but in the end, when fame abandoned them, they seemed to walk away with a ‘who cares?’ attitude.”
Schenck eventually agreed to a divorce, but Talmadge decided against marrying Gilbert Roland. He eventually married and divorced Constance Bennett and had a long and successful career. Talmadge married and divorced comedian George Jessel. In the 1940s, she began to suffer from crippling arthritis and became addicted to painkillers. She married her doctor in 1946 and withdrew from the public eye until her death in 1957. One story, possibly apocryphal, about Talmadge’s later years is that she shooed away autograph-seekers, saying: “Get away, dears, I don’t need you anymore.”
Earlier this year, two of Talmadge’s films, Kiki (1926) and Within the Law (1923), were released on DVD, giving modern audiences a rare glimpse of her mastery of a now lost art. New York Times critic Dave Kehr wrote of her unique charm: “Screen acting, particularly in the silent era, was more concerned with the clean, clear delineation of significant surfaces—a repertory of gestures and facial expressions with agreed-upon meanings. On that level Talmadge is a virtuoso, precise in her attack, flawless in her smooth succession of different moods.”
Presented at SFSFF 2010 with live music by Stephen Horne