Can you imagine what a distorted picture of film history we'd have if the only Bette Davis movies that survived were Satan Met A Lady and Wicked Stepmother—if, say, Jezebel and The Letter had disintegrated in the can and Now, Voyager and All About Eve existed as only a damaged print in an archive vault somewhere?
That's about where we stand with regard to Norma Talmadge and our understanding of the silent film era.
I was up at 3 o'clock this morning with what Winnie the Pooh would call a rumbly in my tumbly (well, more like mild nausea—I've been eating my own cooking again) and wound up chasing Norma Talmadge through the misty maze of time. I'm working on a side project I haven't quite decided whether to call the Silent Oscars, the Mythical Monkeys or the Alternate Katies which would go back and hand out awards to movies from 1915-1927, and anybody who's ever attempted to study silent movies eventually runs up against the woeful state of films from that era. Oscar-winning director and enthusiastic film preservationist Martin Scorsese estimates that 80% of all American movies from that period are permanently lost—and lord knows how many that have been found are impossible for an average guy like me to see.
That state of affairs is particularly egregious with regard to Norma Talmadge. She was as highly regarded in her day as Lillian Gish but was a great deal more popular—thus leading someone (I forget who) to compare her to Bette Davis—but the fact is, very little of her work is available, just three DVDs, mostly featuring work from the days before she was a star. I've seen enough of Kiki, a comedy from 1926 co-starring Ronald Colman, to think I'll risk buying it on DVD. It also includes something called Within The Law, a melodrama more typical of her silent work.
Her two most highly-regarded films were Smilin' Through (1922) and Secrets (1924). A single print of the former is housed at the Library of Congress; incomplete prints of the latter are floating around, with at least a third of the film presumed lost. Neither are available on DVD or video.
Of her two talkies, the less said the better. I've seen the first, New York Nights, and she's fine but the movie is an incoherent mess—like so many movies from 1929, the director was dead set on inserting lousy songs where they don't fit and the result is a movie with no pacing and an uncertain narrative.
Worse is her last film, Du Barry, Woman Of Passion, and to say it was a disaster is an understatement. Allegedly, it inspired Jean Hagan's character in Singin' In The Rain—you remember her, don't you, the beautiful silent star who makes a fool of herself every time she opens her mouth. Although Talmadge did not display the thick Brooklyn accent of legend, she was ill-equipped for the long, florid speeches of a stage-bound costume drama and the movie was a flop.
"Quit pressing your luck, baby," wrote her sister Constance, who had retired without ever attempting a sound picture. "The critics can't knock those trust funds Mama set up for us."
Talmadge was the eldest of three acting sisters, born into poverty in New Jersey. Her father left one Christmas morning never to return but her mother, the indomitable Peg Talmadge, moved the family to Brooklyn and pushed her daughters relentlessly, finally scoring film work for Norma at Vitagraph Studios in Flatbush by sneaking past the guard at the studio gates. Norma was just sixteen.
Talmadge made hundreds of shorts at Vitagraph but didn't achieve much notice until starring in a 1915 anti-German propaganda piece called The Battle Cry Of Peace. Peg, Norma and sisters Constance and Natalie, soon moved to California where they landed contracts with D.W. Griffith, then the biggest name in Hollywood. Constance wound up the star of Griffith's Intolerance, but Norma didn't really come into her own until she married producer Joseph Schenck, who later produced Buster Keaton's best work (sister Natalie, in fact, married Keaton). She and Schenck formed the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation and promptly began turning out high-quality hits.
By 1921, Talmadge was the most popular actress in America. In 1927, she started a lasting tradition when she accidentally stepped into wet cement in front of the newly-constructed Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
Talmadge's marriage to Schenck took an odd turn in 1926 when while filming a silent version of Camille she began an affair with co-star Gilbert Roland. Schenck refused Talmadge's request for a divorce (this was long before the no-fault divorce laws of today), but continued to cast the couple together to take advantage of their box office popularity. Not until Talmadge began an affair with comedian George Jessel in 1934 did Schenck finally relent.
Crippled by arthritis, Talmadge lived out her retirement in seclusion and died of pneumonia in 1957.
Postscript: A picture of sisters Constance and Norma Talmadge: