The Talmadge Sisters: Silent Film Royalty

Natalie, Constance and Norma

Today is the birthday of Constance Talmadge (1898-1973), the youngest of a silent movie acting clan that also included sisters Norma (1894-1957) and Natalie (1896-1969). Raised in poverty by their single mother Peg (their alcoholic father having abandoned them), the girls grew up in Brooklyn, New York.When Norma the oldest got hired to model for illustrated slides for nickelodeons, Peg went into overdrive, pushing the girls into the pictures, controlling their lives, determined to make a pile of money in the process.

In 1909, Norma (thought also to be the most beautiful of the three) was cast in her first role at Brooklyn-based Vitagraph StudiosThe Household Pest. While there she appeared in films with John Bunny, Maurice Costello (A Tale of Two Cities), et al. By 1914,  Constance had followed Norma to Vitagraph. It was Constance who first moved out to Hollywood, where she appeared in D.W. Grifffith’s Intolerance (1916). Constance was regarded as “the funny one”, appearing in several comedies written especially for her by Anita Loos, including The Matrimaniac with Douglas Fairbanks.

Constance got Norma hired at D.W. Griffith’s division at Triangle, where one of her highlights was The Social Secretary (1916), another Emerson/Anita Loos picture. That year, Norma married Joseph Schenck, who set her up with her own studio.

Schenck also produced Fatty Arbuckle’s Comique pictures, featuring Buster Keaton. When Arbuckle went over to Paramount in 1920, Keaton took over. This is how he met Natalie, the youngest Talmadge sister, who worked as a secretary at the studio, and occasionally played small roles. She would becomes Keaton’s wife, the mother of his two sons, and his co-star in Our Hospitality (1923). This was to be Natalie’s last film. Still with Buster (and Schenck) in the family, the whole clan together constituted a major Hollywood dynasty throughout the 1920s. With the coming of sound, Constance and Norma retired. Natalie divorced Buster. Norma divorced Schenck and later married Georgie Jessel. Constance had no less than four husbands.

For more on silent film please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc

One comment

  1. Like Colleen Moore, Constance Talmadge’s work is ripe for rediscovery. Both were every bit as talented comedic actresses as their better-known contemporaries Marion Davies and Clara Bow.


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