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Constance Talmadge & Norma Talmadge: Silent Era Superstar Sisters Remembered

Constance Talmadge Her Sister from ParisConstance Talmadge in Her Sister from Paris. The 1925 Sidney Franklin comedy adapted to the screen by frequent Ernst Lubitsch collaborator Hanns Kräly is a great showcase for Constance Talmadge, seen in a dual role as the bourgeois Viennese wife of a well-known novelist (Ronald Colman) and her worldly sister from Paris. Following some identity switching and several inevitable amorous proclamations, the traditional institution of marriage is, in a however unorthodox a manner, ultimately saved. Greta Garbo's last film, MGM's 1941 release Two-Faced Woman, was another version of the same story.

Constance Talmadge & Norma Talmadge in New York: Revisiting top silent era stars & chance to 'meet the music makers'

February 2007 will be Talmadge Sisters Month at New York City's Donnell Library Center Auditorium. As part of the library's “Meet the Music Makers” series exploring the artistic symbiosis between the silent screen and live musical accompaniment, three Constance Talmadge star vehicles and one Norma Talmadge comedy will be screened on four consecutive Wednesdays, beginning Feb. 7, at 2:30 p.m. Admission is free.

Made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts, and organized by the Donnell Media Center's film historian Joseph Yranski, the series will screen The Dangerous Maid (1923), Her Night of Romance (1924), and Her Sister from Paris (1925), all starring Constance Talmadge, plus Norma Talmadge's Kiki (1926).

All four films – to be screened from DVDs – have been recently restored by the Library of Congress, in cooperation with the Douris Corporation.

The musicians accompanying the movies – and discussing their craft – are Bruce Loeb, Stuart Oderman, Judith Rosenberg, and The Biograph Players: Edward Hupton, Joe Kerr, and John Francis.

Worldwide stardom

From the mid-1910s to the late 1920s, Jersey City-born Norma Talmadge (on May 26, 1894) and Brooklyn-born Constance Talmadge (April 19, 1898) were two of the most popular film stars in the world.

Married to powerhouse executive Joseph M. Schenck (1878–1961) since 1916, the luxuriously gowned Norma, in particular, was revered among women, who could identify with her characters' suffering through a whole array of tragic marriages and even more tragic love affairs.

Among Norma Talmadge's career highlights were:

  • Sidney Franklin's Smilin' Through (1922), a tearjerker in which love conquers bad blood between families. (Later remade[1] with Norma Shearer, 1932; and Jeanette MacDonald, 1941.)
  • Frank Borzage's The Lady (1925), in which she loses custody of her young son only to meet him again years later. (Later remade with Irene Dunne, as The Secret of Madame Blanche, 1933.)
  • Fred Niblo's modernized version of Camille (1927), with Talmadge, in the title role, making love to (off-screen lover) Gilbert Roland. (This was one of the myriad film versions of Alexandre Dumas, fils', romantic melodrama, the most famous of which starred Greta Garbo in 1937.)

Directed by future five-time Oscar nominee Clarence Brown[2], the light-hearted Kiki, co-starring future Best Actor Oscar winner Ronald Colman (A Double Life, 1947), was a departure for the actress, who only dabbled in comedy sporadically.

First-rate light comedienne Constance Talmadge

Constance Talmadge, on the other hand, was a popular light comedienne – and would have remained popular if only modern audiences were allowed to see her work.

In fact, her timing and looks are as modern today as they were eight or nine decades ago, as can be attested in Sidney Franklin's highly enjoyable Lubitsch-esque comedy Her Sister from Paris, not coincidentally adapted (from Ludwig Fulda's play) by frequent Ernst Lubitsch collaborator Hanns Kräly – who also wrote Her Night of Romance and adapted Kiki.

In Her Sister from Paris, Constance's bourgeois wife pretends to be her more exciting and worldly “sister from Paris” in order to win back the affections of husband Ronald Colman (who can also be seen in Her Night of Romance and, as mentioned further up, in Kiki). No need to ask whether or not she succeeds in her endeavor.

Norma TalmadgeNorma Talmadge: From the late 1910s to the late 1920s, Norma Talmadge was one of the most popular film actresses on the planet, valiantly – and elegantly – suffering through heartbreak after heartbreak in star vehicles such as The Voice from the Minaret, Smilin' Through, Secrets, The Lady, and Camille. Clarence Brown's 1926 light comedy Kiki was one of the relatively few humorous Norma Talmadge showcases. Following two decades in front of the camera, Talmadge left films at age 36 after the 1930 box office disappointment Dubarry, Woman of Passion. Rumors about her voice being inadequate, however, seem to be untrue; other issues were apparently at work, including her impending divorce from powerhouse executive Joseph M. Schenck, which would be finalized in 1934. Largely forgotten, but still a wealthy woman, the former silent era superstar suffered a fatal stroke at age 63 on Christmas Eve 1957 in Las Vegas. Norma Talmadge also has a special place in Hollywood – the Los Angeles suburb – history, as hers were (accidentally) the first footprints immortalized in cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.

Not trendy = not worthy of attention

Unfortunately, neither Norma nor Constance Talmadge have had their champions among the vast majority of film scholars, who opt to drool over Lon Chaney, Louise Brooks, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton (who happened to be married to Natalie Talmadge, Norma and Constance's less famous sister), and two or three other well-known silent idols rather than attempt to expand their (and their readers') knowledge and appreciation of the immense talent pool found in silent films.

After all, a relatively large number of the Talmadges' films have survived. For lack of interest, most lie unseen and unremembered in vaults at the Library of Congress and other institutions.

And that's why the “Meet the Music Makers” series is such a treat. It's a rare chance to learn more about the art of film scoring – Turner Classic Movies' Young Composers should attend these screenings religiously – and to get acquainted with two of the top film stars Hollywood has ever produced.

Check out the Donnell Media Center's Norma and Constance Talmadge schedule and additional film/scoring info further below.

Norma & Constance Talmadge remakes

[1] Two of the Norma and Constance Talmadge films being screened at the Donnell Media Center were remade during the sound era:

  • Starring another silent era icon, Mary Pickford, Kiki was remade in 1931. Sam Taylor directed; popular silent era player Reginald Denny was the leading man. Possibly because Pickford – following the 1929 talkies Coquette and The Taming of the Shrew – had once again been cast against type, the Kiki remake was a commercial flop. Curiously, Pickford's follow-up star vehicle (and last film), Secrets (1933), was another unsuccessful sound remake of a successful silent Norma Talmadge film.
  • In 1941, Greta Garbo starred for George Cukor in a remake of Her Sister from Paris: the box office disappointment Two Faced Woman, which turned out to be the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer star's final film. Melvyn Douglas had the Colman role, while former RKO superstar Constance Bennett was Garbo's competitor.

Clarence Brown

[2] Clarence Brown's five Best Director Oscar nominations were for:

  • Anna Christie and Romance (1929–1930).
  • A Free Soul (1930–1931).
  • The Human Comedy (1943).
  • National Velvet (1945).
  • The Yearling (1946).

An MGM contract director throughout most of his career, Brown frequently worked with Greta Garbo (Flesh and the Devil, Anna Christie, Romance, Anna Karenina, etc.).

From 1933–1945, he was married to another silent film star, Alice Joyce (The Green Goddess, Sorrell and Son).

Constance TalmadgeConstance Talmadge. Although never as huge a box office draw as her older, brunette, superstar sister Norma Talmadge, the younger, blonde Constance Talmadge was a star in her own right. But whereas Norma became immensely popular suffering for love on screen, Constance's popularity was a result of her lighthearted performances in dozens of comedies, among them Romance and Arabella, A Virtuous Vamp, Wedding Bells, Her Night of Romance, Her Sister from Paris, and Breakfast at Sunrise. Unlike Norma, who did appear in a couple of talkies, Constance – by then a wealthy woman – abandoned films without bothering to star in a single sound film. She was last seen in Louis Mercanton's 1929 French romantic comedy Vénus. Reportedly an alcoholic recluse in later years, Constance Talmadge died of pneumonia at age 75 on Nov. 23, 1973, in Los Angeles.

Norma & Constance Talmadge movies: 'Meet the Music Makers' schedule

The information below is from the Donnell Media Center “Meet the Music Makers” press release. Programs are subject to last-minute changes or cancellation.

Wednesday, Feb. 7, at 2:30 p.m.
Bruce Loeb will play for the film.
HER NIGHT OF ROMANCE, DVD, b&w, 70 minutes.
Directed by Sidney Franklin, 1924.
Starring: Constance Talmadge. Ronald Colman. Jean Hersholt. Albert Gran. Robert Rendel. Sidney Bracey. Joseph J. Dowling. Emily Fitzroy. Clara T. Bracy. Templar Saxe. James O. Barrows. Claire de Lorez.

An heiress in Her Night of Romance disguises her identity while traveling in England with her father. There she falls in love with an impoverished nobleman who is also in disguise. When it is discovered that they spent the night alone at his estate, they are forced to pretend to be married.

Bruce Loeb, a San Franciscan Bay native, studied voice, piano and harpsichord at U.C. Berkley and at conservatories in Holland and Israel. For twenty years he has been accompanying silent films at the Pacific Film Archives, using period music as the basis for his improvisations. In addition, he teaches piano in Berkeley.

Wednesday, Feb. 14, at 2:30 p.m.
Stuart Oderman will play for the film.
THE DANGEROUS MAID, DVD, b&w, 80 minutes.
Directed by Victor Heerman, 1923.
Starring: Constance Talmadge. Conway Tearle. Morgan Wallace. Charles K. Gerrard. Marjorie Daw. Kate Price. Tully Marshall. Louis Morrison. Phil Dunham. Otto Matieson. Clarence Wilson. Tom Ricketts. Ann May. Ray Hallor. Lincoln Plumer. John Francis Dillon (as Jack Dillon).

The Dangerous Maid is a historical romance set during the reign of James II. Based upon the book Barbara Winslow - Rebel by Elizabeth Ellis, a daring English noblewoman attempts to save her kinsman just before “The Glorious Revolution,” when Catholics and Protestants were warring with one another.

New York City native Stuart Oderman has accompanied silent films for over 48 years appearing regularly at the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Public Library and the Gish Theatre at Bowling Green State University. Besides performing extensively throughout the United States, Canada and Greece, he has the added distinction of having been a personal friend of Constance Talmadge.

Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 2:30 p.m.
Judith Rosenberg will play for the film.
HER SISTER FROM PARIS, DVD, b&w, 70 minutes.
Directed by Sidney Franklin, 1925.
Starring: Constance Talmadge. Ronald Colman. George K. Arthur. Margaret Mann. Gertrude Claire.

Based upon Ludwig Fulda's play Her Sister from Paris, in which a celebrated author loses interest in his faithful but frumpy wife. The arrival of her sophisticated twin sister who is a dancer/“woman of the world,” provides just the right impetus to mend the marriage and reinvigorate both spouses.

Judith Rosenberg is native to Brooklyn, with both her B.M. and M.M. in Performance from the Eastman School of Music. She is Artist/Lecturer and Music Director of the Dance Department at Mills College in Oakland, California. She has accompanied many of the country's most prominent Modern Dance performers. Since 2001, she has begun to compose musical accompaniment for silent films.

Wednesday, Feb. 28, at 2:30 p.m.
The Biograph Players (Edward Hupton, Joe Kerr, John Francis) will play for the film.
KIKI, DVD, b&w, 92 minutes.
Directed by Clarence Brown, 1926.
Starring: Norma Talmadge. Ronald Colman. Gertrude Astor. George K. Arthur. Marc McDermott. Frankie Darro. Erwin Connelly. William Orlamond. Mack Swain.

One of Norma Talmadge's rare comedic performances, Kiki is based upon the play by André Picard and adapted by David Belasco. A Parisian gamine desires to become a chorus girl and does succeed, but exchanges it for the love of the manager of the Follies.

The Biograph Players is a piano, synthesizer and percussion trio that utilizes film music and popular songs of the silent era, original compositions and improvisation to provide exciting accompaniment for silent films across the United States.

Edward Hupton, a native of Des Moines, founded the group and is a former member of the Bijou Players, and has composed music for public television.

San Antonio native Joe Kerr studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in France, and is coordinator of the summer music program at Fontainebleau.

John Francis from Bellaire, Ohio, has worked with the American Ballet Theatre and New York Chamber Symphony, as well as teaching in several music schools in New York.

The Donnell Library Center Auditorium is located at the New York Public Library at 20 West 53rd Street. For more information, call (212) 621-0609.

 

Donnell Library Center website.

Library of Congress website.

Constance Talmadge and Norma Talmadge publicity photos, plus image of Constance Talmadge in Her Sister from Paris: Courtesy of the Joseph Yranski Collection


         
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1 Comment to Constance Talmadge & Norma Talmadge: Silent Era Superstar Sisters Remembered

  1. David M.

    I think it's inappropriate to blame film scholars for the Talmadge's lack of lasting fame. I've seen their work and quite frankly it doesn't hold up. They are not as attractive and talented as you suggest. Furthermore, the silent stars that are membered today were multi-talented. They directed, edited, wrote, and acted in their own movies. The Talmadges were unable or unwilling to do this.