The Talmadge GIrls is Anita Loos, of Gentleman Prefer Blondes fame, memoir of her time with the Talmadge sisters, Norma and Constance. The sisters were silent film stars. Anita wrote scripts for their films from 1916 to 1925. As she wrote in the first paragraph:
Back in the heyday of the silent film there were two stars of the first magnitude who happened to be sisters. Their careers flourished as long as dialogue was printed in subtitles.
Anita was also great friends with the sisters and their family, and they shopped, traveled, and cavorted together.
Once the cameras ceased to grind, the girls were free to enter into the luxurious life-style of upper-class Bohemia. Shopping took high-priority and enormous interest could be lavished on such activities as trying on hats, in those days when everyone wore one.
The jacket cover blurb implies that the book will be a light comedy like Gentleman Prefer Blondes, but it isn't. It's a dark comedy about two famous silent film actresses, who in Anita's view, ultimately wasted their lives.
Stage Mother and Poverty
Like many of the silent film stars (think Mary Pickford), the sisters had a very strong stage mother, Peg, who got them work, first as photographer's models then as silent film stars. Their father had abandoned them--he was an alcoholic--and Peg used her daughters to rescue the family from poverty.
Norma was the beauty.
Norma (Library of Congress)
And Constance, whom they called Dutch, was the clown.
Constance (Library of Congress)
And here's Anita.
Anita By Unknown photographer - Motion Picture Magazine (Feb-Jul 1920) at the Internet Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29706650
The sisters starred in countless silent films, most of them lost, and married many men. The films and the men they married were almost always orchestrated, or at least approved, by Peg.
Christmas--Rich or Poor
A particularly sad story of their poverty was one Christmas when their father, Fred, said he'd bring home hamburgers for Christmas dinner. The sisters waited and waited but he never returned. He'd drunk the money. Peg, to salvage the day for the girls, baked a casserole of half-price, broken saltine crackers mixed with sage and margarine.
As a bookend to this story, Anita tells of another Christmas when the girls were rich and famous. They had just arrived in New York on the Twentieth Century but it was past midnight and they had no tree. Dutch was able to buy one of the last trees from a street vendor but Peg "grumbled bitterly that there was nothing very glamorous about a naked tree."
A drugstore in Grand Central Station let them in because the clerk recognized Constance. They then pilfered the store for anything that looked like Christmas decorations, including slim silver objects. Needless to say, these Christmas ornaments didn't stay on the tree. It was decorated later by the hotel staff. And, the Christmas party they held the next day turned into a Hollywood bash, including William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, a Hungarian orchestra, and champagne.
I don't want either Christmas, do you?
All is Vanity
Near the end of the book, Anita writes how she wanted to move on from Hollywood--she wanted to be an intellectual. The sisters, however, had been brought up to think of only money and security. So when talking pictures came in and they went out, the sisters settled down to be wives of rich husbands.
But even before the girls retired, I deserted movies for other things, while they became short-term wives of a series of husbands ...
Sometimes being a writer can make you a harsh person because you constantly judge, analyze, and figure out how to make what you've experienced into your next piece. Some of that shows in how Anita writes about the sisters near the end of the book, when Constance has become an alcoholic and Dutch drug-addicted because of her severe arthritis. But what happened to the sisters is extremely sad and it happens so often to Hollywood stars--Mary Pickford, Hedi Lamarr, Joan Crawford. The famous became recluses, not able to go on without the limelight and adoration.
A Virtuous Vamp--a Screenplay
The best part of the book was a script that was included for a silent film called A Virtuous Vamp that Anita wrote for Constance. It wasn't called a script back then, it was called a continuity. I was excited to read it because I wanted to know how a screenwriter wrote what an actor was to pantomime in the silent film.
Well, there was a lot of text written for the actor to pantomime. I was surprised that the audience would understand the subtleties that were to be expressed through facial expressions and gestures. I enjoyed reading the script immensely and thought it was very funny--and very un-PC. The Talmadge sisters life wasn't wasted if they brought such funny and delightful fluff to the screen.
A flirtatious young woman takes a job in a busy office, where her presence is terribly disruptive. None of the men in the office can concentrate on their jobs while her charms are on display. Of course, she sets her eye on the one man who seems oblivious to her.
Here's a short snippet. The paragraphs in lowercase text indicated what was to be pantomimed and the paragraphs in uppercase with SP in front of them are the subtitles to be printed. Anita was considered one of the best writers of subtitles. According to the Women's Film Pioneers, Anita elevated subtitles to an art and incorporated humor into them.
The mother finally comes to and realizes what she has been carrying all the while, looks at the bicycle wheel and the garbage can and then to Gwen and says:
SP. "HAVE I BEEN CARRYING THESE THINGS ALL THE WAY FROM THE HOUSE?"
Gwen says yes, evidently she has. Mrs. Armitage shakes her head in despair, looks up at Gwen and says, "Whatever will become of us?" and begins to weep. Gwen puts her arm about her and comforts her. The mother then looks up at Gwen and says:
SP. "DO YOU REALIZE CHILD, THAT ALL WE HAVE IN THE WORLD IS A BICYCLE WHEEL AND A GARGAGE CAN?"
Gwen then holds out her mirror and says, "But we have a mirror," and then looks at Eddie who enters with his contribution, saying, "Look what I got." The mother takes it and looks at it.
The mother looks at it and shakes her head, and says:
SP. "YOUR FATHER'S FAMILY CREST! THAT WILL HELP A LOT."
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