Movies are full of famous real-life siblings: there were the Barrymores, the Gishes, the Fondas, why even the Baldwins, not to mention Olivia and Joan and Shirley and Warren. But never were there two more glamorous and glorious sister movie stars than Norma and Constance Talmadge.
Norma and Constance Talmadge were Hollywood royalty who reigned during the golden era of the 1920s. Norma's specialty was drama and Connie's was comedy.
|Norma and Constance Talmadge: Never were there such devoted sisters|
The family franchise also included middle sister Natalie, who is chiefly remembered as Buster Keaton's wife, but Norma and Constance, known as "Dutch" to her friends and family, provided the family star power.
|Norma and "Dutch" - Happy in the California sunshine|
|Natalie, Norma and Constance Talmadge|
While they are largely forgotten today, Norma Talmadge and Constance Talmadge were much admired and adored. Women copied them, men wanted them and both sexes flocked to their films.
The driving force behind the sisters was mother, Peg Talmadge. Abandoned by the girls' father when they were small, Peg endured the poverty of a single mother in the early 1900s and earned a meager living by doing an assortment of menial jobs, including doing laundry. Peg may not have had marketable skills, but she was a shrewd woman who taught her daughters that poverty was to be avoided at all costs. All three daughters paid attention.
Considered to be the most beautiful Talmadge, Norma entered moving pictures in 1909 at the Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn. Between 1909 and 1916 Norma made well over 250 films.
In 1916 Norma married producer Joseph M. Schenck, who guided her career ever after. Together they formed the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, which featured Norma in a seemingly endless series of immaculately produced hits.
In 1922, Schenck moved production to the west coast, where Norma joined Constance and brother-in-law Keaton, both of who were also under contract to Schenck. Norma's west coast productions were even more elaborate and glamorous and her public continued to adore her.
Nothing lasts forever. Norma and Schenck divorced (she had a flaming affair with Gilbert Roland and later married George Jessel before settling into a happy marriage with Dr. Carvel James). By the time sound films came in, Norma had been around for almost 20 years. She proved to have a more than adequate speaking voice in her few sound films, but the public had grown tired of her and, it seems, Norma had grown tired of them. The story goes that a retired Norma, when approached by still-loyal fans for an autograph, told them "get away dears. I don't need you anymore and you don't need me."
Until just this week, I had never seen Norma act in a film. I knew her name and her face, but not her films. Luckily, Turner Classics decided to show "Kiki"(1926) and I finally got to see Norma in action!
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"Kiki" is actually a very atypical Norma Talmadge film, since it is a comedy (one of the very few she made). Stealing a page from sister Constance's book, she is quite charming and natural. I would say that she was just a tad too mature for the role of a Parisian gamine who worms her way into Ronald Colman's revue and home and then heart (I kept thinking how cute Clara Bow would have been in this role), but she is always sparkling and never tries too hard.
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The supporting cast of Ronald Colman, George K. Arthur and Gertrude Astor all lend charm and smiles to the proceedings, but it is Norma's show and it shows why she was such a tremendous star.
Like a glass of fine French champagne, Constance Talmadge had great sophistication and simply goes to your head.
The youngest of the sisters, Constance followed Norma into the movies at Vitagraph in 1914. In 1916 she achieved great fame as the spirited Mountain Girl in the Babylonian sequence of D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance."
Once in California, Constance found her true talent lay in sophisticated and bubbly comedies, many of them written by Talmadge family friend, Anita Loos. Throughout the 20s, fun-loving Constance was a fan favorite (it seemed she would have been the more compatible spouse for Buster). However, once sound came in, she saw the writing on the wall and quit acting while never making a sound film. She married four times, and like her two sisters, struggled with alcohol dependency. But her wit and wisdom remained solid. While Norma was struggling to find her footing in talkies, sister Dutch advised her, "Leave them while you're looking good and thank God for the trust funds Momma set up."
Her Sister From Paris
There must have been something in the air this week, because before it was over, I had seen both Norma and Constance Talmadge in one of their movies. I was indeed fortunate, because I saw Constance in "Her Sister From Paris" on the big screen with an audience and live music. Oh bliss!
"Her Sister From Paris" is a delightful piece of fun that stars Constance as dull sister Helen and Paris sister, La Perry. Helen's husband (Ronald Colman again loving up a Talmadge girl and George K. Arthur in support) is giving poor Helen a hard time and she thinks he doesn't love her. When twin sister, La Perry, shows up, hubby goes gaga over her, but we know that it is Helen is disguise. As the straight-laced Helen who bobs her hair and learns to let her hair down at the same time and as sophisticated la Perry, Connie is a dream and today, across the many decades, the audience still loved her.
The Talmadge Legacy
While the names of Norma and Constance Talmadge are remembered only by those who care about such things, the Talmadge legacy lives on in southern California.
Talmadge is a neighborhood in San Diego that was named for the Talmadge sisters (each has a street named after her). It was opened in 1927 as Talmadge Park, part of a family real estate development and is still, by the looks of it, a very charming community.
Norma's legacy also lives on right in downtown Hollywood. Legend has it that she accidently stepped in some wet cement in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater and started the trend of the footprints of the famous.
|Norma's dainty prints were one of the first the first to grace Grauman's forecourt|
By all accounts, Mother Peg was the power behind the throne of the royal sisters and it may be true that Anita Loos based the gold-digging wisdom of her Lorelei Lee on Peg's common-sense approach to life. Her motto was "get rich and get comfortable." All three sisters, though not always happy, were certainly rich and very comfortable long after the film stopped running and the lights came up.
|Mother and her three students: Natalie, Norma, Peg and Dutch|