Norma, Connie and lesser known, Natalie Talmadge were a “trifecta” that represented the glorious independent woman of the silent era, and yes, they were friends of Mabel Normand. Dave Kehr wrote last week in The New York Times about the Library of Congress’ conservation of some of the Talmadge movies at the Packard Campus of the
By DAVE KEHR
by Marilyn Slater
Norma Talmadge was perhaps the biggest female star of the silent era. Her dark, depthless eyes gazed from the covers of influential fan magazines, projecting a nobly suppressed pain and longing; in the stories inside, she — or her ghost writers — advised the emerging independent American women of the 1920s on matters of fashion and home décor. She regularly topped the popularity polls, outdistancing rivals like Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri and Mary Pickford. She and her husband, the producer Joseph Schenck, founded their own production company in 1917; by 1924, The New York Times was identifying her as “the highest salaried screen actress.”
Yet Norma Talmadge is barely remembered today. Worse, she is misremembered, having inspired two unfair caricatures that have lived on in a pair of popular films. In “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), she is parodied as Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), a silent diva whose
More malignantly, Billy Wilder used Norma Talmadge as the obvious if unacknowledged source of Norma Desmond, the grotesque, predatory silent movie queen of his 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard.” Enthusiastically interpreted by Gloria Swanson, Talmadge’s rival in the 1920s, the Desmond character draws on Talmadge’s reclusiveness (she left films in 1930, living in a Beverly Hills mansion on the considerable fortune she had earned in her prime), her well-known affair with a younger man (the actor Gilbert Roland, her co-star in several ’20s hits) and her reputation for erratic behavior (suffering from severe arthritis, she became addicted to painkillers and in 1946 married her doctor) to compose the movies’ ultimate symbol of female sexual hysteria.
Norma Desmond has become ubiquitous in American popular culture, but Norma Talmadge has become all but invisible. Although an unusually high percentage of her films survive — “Of her 51 features, 32 are currently thought to be complete and 10 more are preserved in part,” Greta de Groat writes on her excellent Talmadge Web site (stanford.edu/~gdegroat/NT/home.htm) — until now only a handful of her earlier movies have been available on home video.
“The Norma Talmadge Collection” from Kino International corrects that lamentable situation by offering two Talmadge features from her glory years: the 1926 comedy “Kiki,” directed by Clarence Brown, and the 1923 melodrama “Within the Law,” directed by Frank Lloyd. Oddly, neither film is typical Talmadge. “Kiki” is a wholly anomalous comedy, with Talmadge as a
In the most resonant moment Percy comes across Talmadge in the prison yard, where she looks up from tending a flower, her eyes set in the expression of distant yearning that was one of her trademarks. “Say, kid!” Percy observes in an intertitle, “If you ever pull that baby stare on a rich old guy, you could pick the gold fillings out of his teeth!”
This is manifestly true, yet Talmadge was anything but the man-baiting vamp frequently portrayed by Swanson and Negri. At a time when women made up the majority of the moviegoing public, she was not a sex object intended for male consumption but a figure women could identify with, struggling with issues of autonomy and identity. The grieving mothers, betrayed wives and reluctant courtesans she incarnated were confronting — in a melodramatically heightened form — the hypocrisies of a social system that subjugated women by idealizing them. Talmadge’s suffering heroines were damned if they played by the rules (of marriage, motherhood and domesticity), doubly damned if they did not (by stepping outside moral regulations to take matters into their own hands).
Far from the hideous grimaces of Norma Desmond, Talmadge’s mime is subtle, flowing and natural, her emotions exact, her transitions graceful. And yet it is a kind of acting that modern audiences inevitably underestimate. In the decades before the Method taught us to appreciate the (apparently) spontaneous expression of an inner reality, 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.
As a companion piece, Kino is also issuing “The Constance Talmadge Collection,” a disc devoted to Norma’s younger sister. (There was a third Talmadge sister, Natalie, who married Buster Keaton and did him no good.) Taller and more animated than Norma,
All of the films in these sets come from the Library of Congress’s newly completed Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, a precious institution that also houses, on its 90 miles of shelving, Norma’s two films for the great director Frank Borzage, “Secrets” (1924) and “The Lady” (1925). Here’s hoping that future volumes of “The Norma Talmadge Collection” find room for that pair, reputed to be among Talmadge’s best. Like a character in one of her own films, this much-abused woman deserves to have her reputation restored.