October 19, 2011


Norma Talmadge-December 1929


Norma Talmadge was one of the brightest stars during the silent era. She is rumoured to have been the inspiration for Norma Desmond in the film noir classic, Sunset Boulevard as well as the Lina Lamont character in Singin' in the Rain. These are dramatic and comedic depictions of fading stars. Norma Talmadge made films from early in the century and her star shone brightly until she retired at the height of her fame. 

Her dark-haired bob and creamy complexion made her one of the most photogenic stars, and her acting abilities one of the most popular. She was dressed by top designers of the day, including Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon. This was before the studios hired costumers to design wardrobes for the top stars. Actresses like Gloria Swanson often chose and wore gowns from their own closets, and, the results were often stunning!

Norma influenced style from the late 'teens through the 1920s. Below left, a movie magazine cover of 1921. Right, a beautiful portrait by Albert Vargas.

Glamorous, poised and elegant, with star power  and attitude to burn, she was the diva of divas. Below right: bejewelled and wrapped in marabou feathers.  To the left: precious and priceless pearls topped with the de rigeur cloche hat of the '20s. 


Her raised profile was widely copied by everyone from Joan Crawford to an up and coming young Swedish actress named Greta Garbo:  chin uplifted with a regal, haughty air. That look WAS Norma: it highlighted her lovely profile to its best advantage. F. Scott Fitzgerald's description of Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby reminds one of Norma.  "...her chin was raised a little, as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall." 

It was she who, in 1927, accidentally walked into wet cement at Graumann's Chinese Theatre to begin a cinematic and pop culture ritual we still use today. Hands and feet on the sidewalk at Mann's was a Hollywood honour long before a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

As all lovers and collectors of Paper Dolls know, for an actress or celebrity to be the subject of one is a great honour. Below,  "Norma Talmadge" cut-out dolls with costumes from early film roles: The Social Secretary (1916) and The Heart of Wetona (1918).

Movies were a Talmadge family affair. Older sister Natalie was married to Buster Keaton. Sister Constance was a brilliant and popular comedienne of the day. Below, Connie, on the right, and Norma ham it up in the same "Queen's Chair"  (note the uplifted chin on Norma).

 The Talmadge sisters were a force to be reckoned with.  Sadly, many of both their films are "lost"--allowed to deteriorate and simply crumbled into dust.  Luckily, today organizations like the AFI (American Film Institute) and others are working to preserve and even reconstruct some of these classic and historic films.
Below, a stunning shot of the sisters (minus Natalie) at the height of their fame, circa 1926, wrapped in antique shawls.

Like many silent actors, Norma couldn't successfully make the transition to talking pictures. Not that her voice was unpleasant, but, it did register a Brooklyn-ish accent, which made playing certain roles difficult and, just like in Singin' in the Rain, laughable.
No one could fake British royalty or European aristocracy with a Flatbush accent.  John Gilbert and many others met with the same fate. In Gilbert's case, his voice didn't quite match the machismo of his screen image.

Norma's predicament was fodder for PHOTOPLAY, whose cover she had graced many times at the height of her stardom.  Still, she gave it the old school try.  She fared well in 1929's New York Nights and proved that her voice was pleasant enough.  Her next film would not be as kind.


In 1930, after sister Norma's film, DuBarry, Woman of Passion, vocally demanding, opened to bad reviews, the ever-witty Constance sent a Telegram saying "Quit pressing your luck baby. The critics can't knock those trust funds mama set up for us." 
Shortly afterward, the film career of one of the brightest lights and pioneers of old Hollywood retired--at the height of her beauty and popularity.  Number 13 or not, the microphone had no mercy.



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