Forgotten Movie Stars: Constance Talmadge
All movie fans have Movie Boyfriends and Movie Girlfriends. It’s a natural thing given how the images of movie stars persist in our imaginations. My wife’s primary Movie Boyfriend is Daniel Craig. Good for her! He’s even still alive.
Unfortunately, all my Movie Girlfriends are dead. And perhaps the most dead is Constance Talmadge, and that’s not necessarily because she’s been dead the longest, but because she became a Movie Girlfriend of mine with her role as the Mountain Girl in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, the earliest such appearance of any of my Dead Movie Girlfriends.
Most people know of my frenzied fandom for Mary Pickford, but she’s not a Movie Girlfriend. She’s a monumental talent whose work I admire above most others, whose impact on the industry and American culture is incalculable, but she’s not a Movie Girlfriend. Perhaps she’s too exalted for such a label, but there you go. Constance Talmadge is my earliest, most dead Movie Girlfriend.
You can be forgiven if you don’t know who Constance Talmadge is. Not only did her career end with the end of silent films, but she never even tried to make a talkie, unlike her older sister Norma, the tragedienne, whose disastrous turns in the talkies New York Nights and DuBarry, Woman of Passion ended her career. But Talmadge, whose work leaned far more towards comedy than her sister’s did, was at least as big a star as far as I know, and her work in Intolerance really sticks out to me because of its jaunty modernity. Her energy, her carriage and her joy have always given me the impression of an actor who would have thrived had she been plucked out of time and inserted into the ‘40s or ‘50s. She even seems almost modern by the standards of today, a century later.
I went to L.A. this past summer to do research for my book at the Margaret Herrick Library and at UCLA and the sole touristy thing I did during my time there was to visit the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Among many thousands of others, mainly movie stars and what I assume are the Russian mob, are buried Constance and her sisters Norma and Natalie (who would appear in Our Hospitality alongside then-husband Buster Keaton). It was a peculiarly emotional moment. I wondered how many others had visited, looked up at those names and knew who they were.
Sadly, most of her films are lost. Fortunately, several that do exist are easily accessible on YouTube and can be seen below. And because January 1st marked the date when films released in 1923 go into the public domain, I’m hopeful her one extant film from that year - The Dangerous Maid - will soon be made available to the public since the Library of Congress holds a print there.