Classic Hollywood #28 – Norma Talmadge

Norma Talmadge

portraits Norma Talmadge on set

Norma Talmadge, was one of the biggest stars of the silent film era. She was born on May 26, 1894 in Jersey City, NJ, and raised in Brooklyn, NY. Norma had two sisters, Constance Talmadge, also a major star, who was in 83 films and Natalie Talmadge who appeared in nine films.

Norma appeared in over 200 silent pictures, most of which are now considered lost films. In 1916, Norma married film producer Joseph Schenck who became head of United Artists and would go on to become the chairman of 20th Century Fox.

As with many of the silent stars, Norma’s career ended with the advent of sound. By 1928 her career had already stalled to one film per year. There was talk in 1928 of reissuing her favorite film Smilin’ Through (1922), but Norma was staunch in her refusal to re-release it. Norma said, “I thought it was a lovely picture and the fans liked it. Why reissue it? I would rather people only had the peasant memory of it.” This attitude was similar to the screen’s biggest star Mary Pickford, who had said she would never allow any of her films to be released again.

Norma made two sound films, New York Nights (1929) and Du Barry, Woman of Passion (1930). The Du Barry film was widely panned by critics and public alike. Norma then waited for the right script for her next movie. She said she was “favoring playing a comic role.” She never appeared in another film.

Instead, Norma Talmadge travelled the world and invested wisely in real estate, becoming very wealthy.

Legend has it that Norma Talmadge has the distinction of being the first to leave her handprints, footprints and signature at the would famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The apocryphal story is Norma accidentally walked through some wet cement in front of the theatre and owner Sid Grauman hit upon the idea of immortalizing the stars (and his theatre) by having them leave their prints in the cement.

The other legend, or rumor, is that Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder writers of the classic film Sunset Boulevard (1950), partially based the character Norma Desmond with Norma Talmadge in mind.

Norma separated from Joseph Schenck in 1926, but didn’t divorce him until 1934. Two weeks after the divorce she married comedian George Jessel. That marriage lasted five years until 1939. In 1946 she married Dr. Carvel James who she remained married to until her death.

Norma Talmadge died 56 years ago today, December 24, 1957 at the age 63 in Las Vegas, NV after suffering a series of strokes and then developing pneumonia. Forgotten by her adoring public, 30 close friends and relatives attended the private, unpretentious funeral service. Norma Talmadge is interred alongside her two sisters at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

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