By Steve Starr
Glamorous, former silent movie star Norma Talmadge, approached by autograph seekers at a public event, told her fans, sweetly, "Get away, dears. I don't need you anymore."
Norma Talmadge was born May 26, 1894 in Jersey City, New Jersey. Just two years later, projected motion pictures made their commercial debut in America. After being deserted by their alcoholic father one Christmas day, Mrs. Talmadge, Norma and her younger sisters Constance and Natalie moved to Brooklyn. Mother Peggy took in laundry and taught painting classes to make ends meet.
One afternoon, 14-year-old Norma came home from school and spoke of a classmate who modeled for popular, illustrated song slides, which were often shown before the feature in movie theatres, and the audience would sing along.
Mrs. Talmadge decided to locate the photographer, and arranged an interview for Norma, who was hired. When Norma and Peg arrived at the studio for the photo session, Norma was told she wasn't right for the shots, and the appropriate type of model would be in the following day. Just then, luckily, the phone rang with an order for the photos right away, and Norma kept the job.
When the "singsongs" debuted on screen, Mrs. Talmadge decided her daughter should be an actress instead. The pair traveled to the Vitagraph Studios in Flatbush, New York, and somehow finagled their way through the gates to the casting director. They were promptly thrown out. However, a scenario editor, Breta Breuill, was enamored by Norma's beauty and arranged a small part for her as a young girl who gets kissed under a photographer's cloth in The Household Pest (1909). For the next few years, Breta continued to help Norma find roles.
Peg was very popular and ambitious, and encouraged all three of her daughters to become actresses. In the grandest tradition of a stage mother, Mama Talmadge pushed them relentlessly to make money and invest it, though none of the sisters were really interested in being stars. Norma's new career was fun at first, but then it became plain tedious. She appeared in almost 250 movies by the age of eighteen, and if it were not for her mother's insistence, she would have quit the business. Eventually, however, cocaine helped ease poor Norma’s stress and boredom.
By 1913, Norma was considerd Vitagraph's most promising actress. In 1915, Peg arranged a two-year contract for Norma in California with National Pictures Company, where her first role was in Captivating Mary Carstairs. The film was a flop, and the small new studio shut down. Constance, already starring in films for the famed D.W. Griffith, helped her sister obtain a short contract with his studio. There, Norma made seven features and a few short movies.
In 1916, Norma and Constance, their contracts having ended, ran back to the East Coast. In New York, Norma met and married Broadway and film producer Joseph M. Schenck, who was president of United Artists. There was considerable advantage to being the wife of an industry leader. They formed the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, which became one of the most lucrative partnerships in the history of film. Tragedienne Norma's career flourished along with that of comedienne Constance. Natalie, not as pretty and photogenic as her sisters, made only a few movies, and soon retired to marry comic star Buster Keaton.
Norma's short, heavy husband 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.
In 1919, her movie, The New Moon, was so thronged with patrons at New York's Rivoli Theatre that Norma and her sisters could not get in to see it. The police ordered the box office to stop selling tickets to prevent overcrowding. In 1920, Norma and Joseph moved their production company to Hollywood.
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 a week from her fans. With only one exception, Norma always played the beautiful, brave, and tragic heroine. It was said that no one could suffer on the silver screen better than Norma could, and she was artfully described by one critic as “The Lady of the Great Indoors.”
Her womanly movies included The Way Of A Woman (1919), The Woman Gives (1920), The Branded Woman (1920), The Only Woman (1924), and The Woman Disputed (1928). Her best films are considered Smilin' Through (1922) and Secrets (1923). In 1927, Norma began a famous Hollywood tradition which survives today as the star accidentally stepped into the wet cement of a newly laid sidewalk outside Graumann's Chinese Theatre.
When talking pictures hit the film industry, Talmadge worked diligently with voice coaches for over a year to overcome her thick Brooklyn accent so she could make her sound debut in New York Nights (1930). Norma was the first movie star whose voice truly destroyed her career. The movie received terrible reviews.
That same year, her next sound film Du Barry, Woman of Passion, was such a disaster of acting, dialogue, and sound that poor Norma was practically laughed out of town when the ludicrous epic premiered at the Rivoli. Constance wired Norma with this advice: "Leave them while you 're looking good, and thank God for the trust funds Momma set up." Years later, in 1952, the hilarious role of the 1920's actress Lina Lamont with the thick Brooklyn accent played by Jean Hagen in the great musical Singin' In The Rain was inspired by Norma's plight.
In 1927, Norma separated from Schenck for seven years, during which time she had a serious affair with the handsome Mexican actor Gilbert Roland, her co-star in four films, whom she met while filming Camille (1927). Divorcing Schenck in 1934, she married entertainer George Jessel. Jessel had a radio program, which was sagging in its ratings. He asked his new wife to become a regular on his show, and Norma joined the cast, hoping it would revive her movie career. The program soon ended, and the couple divorced in 1939. In 1946, she married one Dr. Carvel James, and lived with him in Las Vegas until, while suffering with crippling arthritis and still addicted to cocaine, she died from a stroke Christmas Eve, 1957.
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A photographer, designer, artist, and movie star historian, Starr is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames and artifacts, and celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2007. His personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames is filled with photos of Hollywood's most elegant stars.
Steve Starr's column, STARRLIGHT, about movie stars of the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's, appears in various publications, including Entertainment Magazine Online-www.EMOL.org/reporters/Starr, the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, and the Windy City Times.
You may email Steve at SSSChicago@ameritech.net, and visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com where you can enter The Starrlight Room and view part of his collection, read STARRLIGHT stories, and enjoy many of the letters, photos, and autographs he has received from his favorite luminaries.
Steve Starr is a Nightlife Photographer for Clubline Magazine, a photo contributor to various periodicals, and the House Photographer for the gorgeous Rumba Restaurant and Nightclub, 351 West Hubbard Street, Chicago. STARRGAZERS-Radiant Digital Photography by Steve Starr is available for portraits and events. Phone 773-463-8017 for further information.
Photo of Steve Starr in Chicago, September 2, 2007, by Patrick Hipskind
Film Entertainment Magazine