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Woman Disputed: Who was Norma Talmadge, and why aren't more of her films available?

by Greta de Groat


Life and Career                           The Fate of her Films

Norma Talmadge may have been one of the superstars of silent film, but one would hardly guess that from the vantage point of today. A warm, sensitive actress with one of the most expressive faces in the business, she was highly regarded for her naturalism and sincerity and beloved by both audiences and critics. Unfortunately, of the major silent stars, her films have been the least accessible. With firsthand evidence unavailable, some recent film writers mention her only in passing Others have developed a curious lore about her which seems to have been passed from one writer to another--that she was a talentless clothes horse, a sob sister, a bad actress with a comical accent that put her out of business when talkies came in. This attitude would have astonished her contemporaries. They knew her, as Adela Rogers St. John put it, as "our one and only great actress."

Life and career

Norma Talmadge gave her birth year as 1895 and later as 1897, and modern sources give her birthdate as May 26, 1893. However, her birth certificate shows that she was born May 2, 1894 in Jersey City, New Jersey.* Largely abandoned by their father, Talmadge and her younger sisters Natalie and Constance were raised in Brooklyn by their witty and indomitable mother Peg, who instilled in them respect for the value of a dollar and the common sense not to take themselves too seriously.

Norma Talmadge and her pomeranian dog
A publicity shot Norma Talmadge with her pet pomeranian Dinky, at the time of her New York films. Dinky appeared with her in at least two films, Yes or No and Probation Wife and with Constance in Dulcy. There are more pictures in the Picture gallery, and other pictures here and here

In 1910, smitten by the movies, she went to work at Vitagraph Studios in nearby Flatbush. At Vitagraph she played everything from leads to extras, gaining valuable experience and public exposure. She make her first two features for Vitagraph, then seeking more money, made a film for National Film Corporation in California. It quickly became clear that this company lacked the resources to be viable, so, stuck in California with no income, Peg took Norma to Triangle studios, where she and Constance were signed as featured players. That Norma was not a natural born dramatic actress is clear from these Triangle features, where she is attractive and charming in the lighter moments, but still stiff and forced in the more dramatic scenes. Still, she had potential that was recognized by Joseph M. Schenck, a wealthy exhibitor who wanted to produce his own films. Immediately taken by Norma both personally and professionally, he set up the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, and they were married in on October 20, 1916, during the production of their first film, the now lost Panthea. This was a smash hit, and Norma was marked as one of the brightest up and coming stars.

Schenck soon had a stable of stars operating out a 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 Comique unit with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle on the top floor, with Natalie acting as secretary and taking occasional small roles in her sisters' films. **Arbuckle brought in nephew Al St. John and vaudeville star Buster Keaton. When Scheck decided it was financially advantageous to rent Arbuckle to Paramount 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.

Norma made between four and six films a year in New York between 1917 and 1921. These films have an intimate feel, with small scale settings and familiar actors appearing from one film to the next; even Norma's personal jewelry and pets can be recognized. An advantage to the East Coast locale was access to the country's best high fashion designers, such as Madame Francis and Lucile. Most of the films are melodramas, usually in a marital or society setting, and deal with a wider variety of contemporary social issues than her later films. They are particularly enjoyable to those who appreciate the grittier filmmaking style of this era. Norma often plays a nice young woman who is being blackmailed for some innocent but potentially compromising situation, or she has for one reason or another married a cruel or uncaring man. Though she struggles to protect her family, her efforts are seldom very effective and are often misunderstood. But we know she will eventually be rescued by some quirk of fate, or more usually, by a man. In contrast to some other silent actresses who specialized in virginal innocents, Norma played warm and loving young women, often married and well aware of the opposite sex, yet virtuous and sweet. She exhibited a real freshness, vitality, and natural charm and good humor that won her an increasing number of fans.

Talmadge's acting ability improved by leaps and bounds during this period. In early films such as Poppy (1917), she is wide eyed and eager, seeming to be ready to absorb everything around here, still more of a personality than an actress. By the time she made The Safety Curtain (1918), she had learned to play her face and body like an instrument, registering the most subtle thoughts and emotions. Yet she never was as versatile as claimed--her bad girls were never very bad and her personality is always recognizable. If most of her films were repetitious and predictable, it didn't seem to matter to her legion of fans, who voted the runaway box office favorite in 1921, polling more than twice as many votes as her closest competitor--sister Constance. Once one becomes familiar with Norma Talmadge, she is simply likable and fun to watch. She has one of the great film faces.

After Smilin' Through, Schenck closed the New York studios and Norma and Constance moved west to join Buster and Natalie, who had preceded them. The sisters threw themselves into the Hollywood social scene, and Norma and Constance's refreshing lack of pretense soon made them among the most popular and best liked stars among their peers.

Norma'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 best of all, Frank Borzage. Though her films were uneven, she did the finest work of her career during this period.

Joseph Schenck had moved over to head United Artists in 1924, but Norma still had a distribution contract with First National. Her last film under this arrangement was Camille, during which she fell in love with leading man Gilbert Roland. She asked Schenck for a divorce, but he wasn't ready to grant it. Nor, despite his personal feelings, was he going to break up a money-making team, and continued costarring Roland in her next three films released by United Artists. Unfortunately, UA had distribution problems, and her first film for them, The Dove, was weak. By the time her next film, Woman Disputed was released, the talking film revolution had begun, and Norma began taking voice lessons in preparation.



Talmadge and Joyce
Veteran Divas rest on their laurels. Norma Talmadge, Anna Q. Nilsson, and Alice Joyce enjoy the sun at Herbert Brenon's third annual tennis tournement at Malibu Beach in November of 1931. All were retired from the screen by this time, though Nilsson returned in bit parts shortly therafter. Talmadge and Joyce had entered films in 1910, Nilsson in 1911. Director Herbert Brenon had temporarily been Talmadge's "permanent director" in 1921, but that arrangement lasted for only four films. (Click on thumbnail for larger view)


Carl Brisson Party with Norma and George Jessel
From circa 1935. The caption reads: IN HONOR OF THE NEWLYWEDS--Mr. and Mrs. Fred Perry (Helen Vinson), Carl Brisson, Paramount star of "Ship Cafe" entertained at his Bel Air home the other evening with a dinner party. The host is shown here (left) with Mr. and Mrs. George Jessel (Norma Talmadge) and the guests of honor, Mr. and Mrs. Perry. (Click on thumbnail for larger view)

Her first talkie, New York Nights, showed that she could speak and act acceptably in talkies, but the world was moving on and in the excitement of discovering new favorites, the public was letting go of the old stars. Norma tried a big, important film next, DuBarry, Woman of Passion, but between incompetent direction and Talmadge's inexperience at a role requiring very demanding vocal acting, it was a dismal failure. She still had two more films on her United Artists contract. Sam 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. The role as the cynical golddigger in that film would have been quite a departure for her, and one wonders about her reason for abandoning the effort. She claimed to be searching for the right story, but apparently she never found anything she really wanted to take on, and Du Barry turned out to be her final role.

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. At this time Gilbert Roland's career had gone into what turned out to be a temporary slump--now that he was no longer co-starring with Talmadge, Schenck had him blacksisted. Playing small and sometimes unbilled parts, he looked like he was finished. Some time before late 1932, she decided against marrying him, as he was several years younger than and she feared he would eventually leave her. Mother Peg fell ill in 1931, and died in September 1933. In late 1932, Talmadge began seeing George Jessel, also younger, and did some personal appearances with him. In 1934, Schenck finally granted Talmadge her divorce and she married Jessel, with the apparent blessing of Schenck. She did some appearances on his radio program, which were her last professional work. This marriage didn't last, and they were divorced in 1939. Fortunately, 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 in the company of her sisters. In 1946 she married her doctor, Carvel James. Increasingly crippled by painful arthritis and said to be dependent on painkilling drugs, she moved to the warm climate of Las Vegas 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 York, to accept her award. She died on Christmas Eve, 1957, with her husband at her side. One of the first people her sister's called to convey news of her death was Gilbert Roland. The public had not forgotten her, either, and her death was front page news all over the country.

Norma Talmadge at home in Las Vegas in 1955 holding two pekinese dogs
Norma Talmadge at her home in Las Vegas in 1955.


The Fate of her Films

To set the record straight on Norma Talmadge, her films need to be available so that scholars and film buffs may see for themselves what made her one of the great stars of the silents. Many writers also have reported that her films are lost. Fortunately, however, this is not the case. Of her 51 features, 31 are currently thought to be complete and 11 more are preserved in part. The video situation is quite different, with not a single film from her peak period in the 1920s currently available [Update: fortunately this is no longer the case--read on].

A few of her films have been in circulation on the 16 mm. market. Many early one and two reelers she made for Vitagraph survive and some are on video. Also, some of her films from the teens have been around, particularly her delightful Triangle comedy The Social Secretary (1916). It is now out again on video. Two of her Triangle dramas, Children in the House and Going Straight (both 1916) have recently appeared on video as well. Though they are interesting and enjoyable films, they were early in her career when her acting talent was not yet fully developed. Three 1918 films from her own production company, The Heart of Wetona, Forbidden City and The Safety Curtain, have also been in circulation, and the latter two are also out on video. The Safety Curtain is the pick of this lot. A very melodramatic film, it gives Talmadge the chance to run the emotional gamut, and is a fine exhibition of what she could do as an actress in her youth. As for the other two films, she is still enchanting, but she plays roles that unfortunately exhibit dated racist attitudes which diminish a modern viewer's pleasure, and are not among her more interesting and accomplished performances. Her last film, Dubarry, Woman of Passion (1930) is out on video, and contrary to legend, reveals a pleasant voice with no trace of a Brooklyn accent. But things are looking up: In 2010 Kino released Kiki and Within the Law. A huge Thank You to this fine company!!!

Norma and Constance Talmadge
Norma and her sisters (here with Constance) never lost their genuine cameradierie

To really assess Norma Talmadge properly, one should see her films from her peak period of stardom in the 1920s, when her films were lavishly produced and directed by some of the finest directors in Hollywood and she had developed into one of the screen's best actresses. Yet these are the films which have been the most difficult to access.

There has long been a rumor that Schenck allowed her films to deteriorate. In fact, many had been collected by Raymond Rohauer (along with some of sister Constance's films) and were recently deposited at the Library of Congress, now by far the largest repository of Talmadge films anywhere. However, they were sorely neglected, and that when the Library received them it was too late for some. Her first independent production Panthea (1917) was lost. Frank Borzage's film The Lady (1925) had lost reel two. The Eternal Flame (1923), highly praised by Robert E. Sherwood, is missing its third and last reels. The Library of Congress staff did what they could with the sticky footage, printing whatever was salvageable. Many of the films which were preserved in full or nearly full prints show some deterioration. The amount varies from film to film. I was able to examine several of the "deteriorated" prints recently, and all of the prints which were complete were quite watchable, with the deterioration taking up only a very small part of the running time and never obliterating the picture. Passion Flower (1921) has a strip of deterioration along the side of the first scene (which is printed three times on the Library's viewing copy), and a lapse of continuity toward the end of the film. However, it was quite obvious what the missing action was, so it doesn't confuse the narrative. Within the Law (1923) had some jumpy footage toward the end of the second reel but is otherwise quite a fine print. Smilin' Through (1922) is faded in some parts, with occasional deterioration at the side of the frames and one scene with patchy splotches throughout. Yet many films on video are in considerably worse shape, from faded, contrasty, and blurry prints. The image quality in these 35 mm. prints is excellent for the most part and they would make fine transfers to video. Other archives own films as well, in various states of completeness and preservation, particularly the George Eastman House and The Museum of Modern Art. A few films are preserved only in European Archives.

What are the prospects that these films will soon be out on video for the rest of the world to see? There are a couple of obstacles which stand in the way.

The first obstacle is the rights situation. The Rohauer prints at the Library of Congress were given with restrictions, meaning that one must contact the Douris Corporation to be able to use the material. This includes even the films which are technically public domain. Rohauer had planned to print at least some of the films and add music scores, but this plan fell through on his illness and death. Perhaps Douris would be amenable to making the films publicly available again.

A more serious obstacle is a perception of audience indifference. Norma Talmadge has fallen into such obscurity over the years that even with the revival of interest in silent films she is known as little more than a name to the current generation of film aficionados. There is little about her in the standard film histories and reference sources, and much of what there is negative. Why the indifference and hostility?

One explanation for the critical tone is the long standing antipathy toward melodrama in general and women's pictures in particular. These pictures have always been popular with women audiences, and many men love them as well. However, many other men have developed an active dislike for them, encouraged over the years by increasing emphasis of more typically male-oriented genres which have eventually come to dominate the screen and the video market. Women's melodramas are seen as inferior and unworthy of serious attention. This may be one reason that male stars have been the focus of both critical and preservation activities. Those female stars who have received attention have tended to be in the sex symbol mode--Garbo, Brooks, Bow. The women who didn't fit into that category have been largely ignored, unless there has been some other reason to notice them (Gish's association with Griffith, Pickford's position as an industry magnate, Swanson's spectacular comeback as the quintessential stereotype of a faded movie queen). Alas, merely talent and success have not qualified for attention.

Norma Talmadge on the set of The Voice From The Minaret with Frank Lloyd adjusting her makeup
Director Frank Lloyd adjusts Norma's makeup on the set of The Voice From the Minaret (1923)

As a result, video companies aren't willing to go to the expense of restoring films, clearing the rights, and transferring them to video if they are afraid they won't recoup their costs. I recently asked Kino Video if they would be interested in releasing Smilin' Through, and they admitted that they didn't feel it would be worth their while. [Update: this was obviously written before the recent release] It's a vicious cycle-if the films are never shown, no audience is developed for them, so a demand for them is never built. There has been recent scholarly interest in women's films and melodrama, but if works are not available for study, the field of research will lie dormant. Women's pictures are not to everyone's taste certainly, but they feature the best and most varied parts for actresses; roles in which they can really shine. With video purchase and television ratings in part determining the supply of available films, silent film fans who want to see more of the great ladies of the screen need to make our desires known. One encouraging sign is that Grapevine Video's small selection of Norma Talmadge films was apparently selling well enough for them to expand their offerings. But they or anyone else are unlikely to offer Talmadge's best films unless viewers make it clear that the demand is there.

Which films would be attractive candidates for video release? As with most stars, Talmadge's films range widely in quality, but many are quite worthy of revival. She worked particularly well with Frank Borzage, and The Lady is probably their finest collaboration. The missing second reel is hardly noticed, but it does have a couple of scenes with very significant deterioration. Even so, it is a lovely piece with a great performance by Talmadge, and received an enthusiastic reception at a screening few years ago at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley. The Library of Congress also has an incomplete print of the other Frank Borzage film, Secrets (1924), but fortunately other archives have prints of varying length, so it's likely that between them the whole film exists. Judging from MOMA's Czech-titled print, it is one of her best. The much-maligned Woman Disputed (1928) turns out to be a wonderful film, beautifully shot and with fine performances all around. The Library of Congress copy lacks its original Movietone score, so modern audiences would be spared the distraction of the notorious and widely ridiculed theme song which did so much to hurt the film's reputation. Certainly Smilin' Through, as one of the most popular films of the 1920s and a lovely example of the height of '20s romanticism, would be a desirable title. Passion Flower (1921) is a fascinating, offbeat drama directed by Herbert Brenon, who also directed the exciting The Sign on the Door (1921), with a bravura scene for Norma locked in a room with a dead man! Within the Law (1923) is an entertaining crime story in which she lives up to her reputation as one of the best dressed women on screen. Douris Corporation has a shortened print of the elusive Camille (1927), which unfortunately is probably not in good enough condition to be a single video release, but it would be a dandy extra. Song of Love is a change of pace, one of the desert pictures following in the wake of The Shiek. It is quite silly, but entertaining. For those interested in women filmmakers, it was written and co-directed by Frances Marion. Kiki is another change, a rare comedy directed by Clarence Brown, and has recently been successfully revived at several film festivals. Of the earlier independent films, New Moon (1919) is particularly interesting. The Devil's Needle (1916), though one of her early Triangle efforts, treats the subject of drug addiction in the art world and would be of considerable interest today. Check out the clips which are already on video.

With the renewed interest in silent films and explosion of titles on video and television, we have an opportunity not open to film fans of previous generations: to see and appreciate the finest actresses of the silent screen. Let's be sure to make the most of this opportunity and see to it that these great performances will be available for everyone to see. Then Norma Talmadge will again take her place as one of the giants of the silent screen.



* The birth certificate does't bear the child's name (she probably wasn't baptised yet), but the day May 2 matches the birthdate she reported on her passport and is reported in early articles about her. May 1894 matches the 1900 census data on her. The parents are Fred K. Talmadge and Margaritte Fritts. I have no idea where the Fritts name came from (i've only seen her maiden name listed as Jose), but the father and mother's ages match that of Fred and Margaret Talmadge as reported on the 1900 census, and his occupation matches. In many articles Norma reported her birth place as Niagara Falls, but in others she reported it as Jersey City.

** Lea Jacobs did the chronology on this story from Anita Loos and determined that this arrangement could have only happened for a brief period in the Spring and Summer of 1917, as Arbuckle wasn't signed until March of that year and he and the Comique unit moved to Los Angeles after a few months. Constance followed in December and didn't return to the east until 1919.


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©1999, by Greta de Groat
Last revised, August 27, 2012