The Talmadge Sisters: Top silent era stars Norma & Constance in New York
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, one Norma Talmadge comedy and three Constance Talmadge comedies/dramas will be screened, one per day, 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 present Norma Talmadge’s Kiki (1926), and Constance Talmadge’s The Dangerous Maid (1923), Her Night of Romance (1924), and Her Sister from Paris (1925).
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 who will be accompanying the Talmadge sisters’ movies – and discussing their craft – are Bruce Loeb, Stuart Oderman, Judith Rosenberg, and The Biograph Players: Edward Hupton, Joe Kerr, and John Francis.
Glamorous love martyr Norma Talmadge
From the mid-1910s to the late 1920s, the Talmadge sisters – 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 since 1916 to powerhouse film executive Joseph M. Schenck (1878–1961), 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 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, the light-hearted Kiki, co-starring future Best Actor Oscar winner Ronald Colman (A Double Life, 1947), was a departure for Norma Talmadge, 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 feel as modern today as they did eight or nine decades ago, as can be attested in Sidney Franklin’s sparkling Lubitschesque 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 Viennese wife pretends to be her more exciting and worldly Paris-based sister in order to win back the affections of novelist/husband Ronald Colman (who can also be seen in both Her Night of Romance and, as mentioned further up, Kiki).
The Talmadge sisters’ post-stardom years
Following two decades in front of the camera, Norma Talmadge left films at age 36 after the 1930 box office disappointment Dubarry Woman of Passion.
Rumors about her voice being inadequate seem to be untrue. Other issues were apparently at work, including her impending divorce from Joseph M. Schenck, which would be finalized in 1934.
Largely forgotten, but still a very rich woman, the former silent era superstar suffered a fatal stroke at age 63 on Christmas Eve 1957 in Las Vegas.
But forgotten or not, Norma Talmadge has a special place in the history of Hollywood – the Los Angeles suburb, that is. Hers were – accidentally – the first footprints immortalized in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.
Unlike Norma, who did appear in a couple of talkies, Constance Talmadge – by then a wealthy woman – abandoned films without bothering to star in a single sound production. 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.
Not trendy = unworthy of attention
Appallingly, both Talmadge sisters – along with most of the silent era’s immense and diverse acting talent pool – have been all but ignored by the vast majority of film scholars, who have opted instead 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 names.
When it comes to the Talmadge sisters, such disregard is particularly galling as a relatively large number of their – woman-centered – 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 further below the Donnell Media Center’s Talmadge Sisters schedule and additional film/scoring info.
The Talmadge Sisters: Separate careers
 The Talmadge sisters never shared the screen as co-stars, though both were seen in Lloyd Ingraham’s 1916 mystery drama The Missing Links. Norma Talmadge was the star; Constance Talmadge had a supporting role.
Besides, if the IMDb is to be trusted, Constance had a cameo in Bruce Mitchell’s 1915 romantic comedy Captivating Mary Carstairs, toplining Norma. And both were featured in Van Dyke Brooke’s 1914 comedy short The Peacemaker.
Lastly, both Talmadge sisters had cameos as themselves in Alfred E. Green’s 1924 comedy In Hollywood with Potash and Perlmutter.
The Talmadge Sisters remade
- Starring another silent era icon, Mary Pickford, Kiki was remade in 1931. Sam Taylor directed; popular silent era actor 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 Norma Talmadge silent 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.
- 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, A Woman of Affairs, Anna Christie, Romance, Inspiration, Anna Karenina, Conquest) and the studio’s other top stars, among them Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler, Joan Crawford, William Haines, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn.
From 1933–1945, Clarence Brown was married to silent film star Alice Joyce (The Green Goddess, Sorrell and Son).
The Talmadge sisters’ movies: ‘Meet the Music Makers’ schedule
The information below – regarding both the Talmadge sisters’ movies and their musical accompanists – is from the Donnell Media Center “Meet the Music Makers” press release.
The Program is subject to last-minute changes or cancellation.
‘Her Night of Romance’
The Talmadge Sisters: Wednesday, Feb. 7, at 2:30 p.m.
Bruce Loeb will play for the film.
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.
‘The Dangerous Maid’
The Talmadge Sisters: Wednesday, Feb. 14, at 2:30 p.m.
Stuart Oderman will play for the film.
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.
‘Her Sister from Paris’
The Talmadge Sisters: Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 2:30 p.m.
Judith Rosenberg will play for the film.
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.
The Talmadge Sisters: Wednesday, Feb. 28, at 2:30 p.m.
The Biograph Players (Edward Hupton, Joe Kerr, John Francis) will play for the film.
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.
More on the Talmadge sisters
More Alt Film Guide articles about the Talmadge sisters:
- Norma Talmadge & Constance Talmadge.
- Norma Talmadge at the Donnell Media Center.
- Lost Movie.
- Kareem Abdul Jabbar on TCM.
Donnell Library Center website.
Library of Congress website.
The Talmadge sisters’ publicity photos, plus image of Constance Talmadge in Her Sister from Paris: Courtesy of the Joseph Yranski Collection.
“The Talmadge Sisters Norma & Constance: Silent Era Stars Are Back!” last updated in March 2019.