The analogy game is one fraught with peril. While comparisons can be illuminating, there's always the temptation to go too far. For example, in his fine book on pre-Code actresses, "Complicated Women," Mick LaSalle, trying to explain the popularity of such women among youth of their time, analogizes them to 1960s British rock bands:
"Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer became the Beatles and the (Rolling) Stones, respectively. Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow became, one could say, the Who and Led Zeppelin -- with Marlene Dietrich becoming, say, the Animals."
LaSalle then adds, "Obviously, this analogy has snapped" (too bad -- who were the pre-Code equivalent of the Searchers? Gerry and the Pacemakers? Freddie and the Dreamers?). So, here's another analogy question, one that at least is in a film vs. film context: Who was the Carole Lombard of the silents?
You're likely thinking to yourself, "Wouldn't it be Carole Lombard (shown above in Mack Sennett's "The Campus Vamp")?" Not in the way I'm envisioning the question. Sure, Lombard made quite a few silent films, but how many ot them were features with her in the leading role? More specifically, how many of them were vehicles for the type of energetic romantic comedy she came to symbolize?
The answer? None. The silent comedies Carole made for Sennett were part of an ensemble, and two-reelers at that. So perhaps the question should be rephrased as this: "Who in the silent era presaged Carole Lombard as a romantic comic actress?"
According to one esteemed writer and film historian, the answer could well be an actress whose first name was Constance, and whose sister was also a star of note. Constance Bennett, you say? Nope, although she did have some success in mid-twenties silents. (She left the film scene for a few years, and upon returning to the business in 1929, it was her previous silent fame that led Pathe to sign her...which, as we have previously noted, led to the dismissal of the similarly blonde Lombard and her friend Diane Ellis.)
The "Constance" here referred to by Jeanine Basinger in her thorough book, "Silent Stars," is largely forgotten today -- partly because she never made a talking picture, partly because many of the films she did make are now considered lost. Her name? Constance Talmadge.
In the late teens and early 1920s, two of American film's top actresses were Constance Talmadge and her older sister, Norma. (If there was any sibling rivalry, it was all good-natured; they were not Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine by any stretch of the imagination.) Norma was a petite brunette who specialized in drama, while Constance was a tall blonde (5'6", considered statuesque in those days) whose forte was comedy. What kind of comedy? She defined it in a 1920 interview:
“Although no less than sixty manuscripts are submitted to me every week, it is exceedingly difficult to get exactly the kind of comedy I especially want. I want comedies of manners, comedies that are funny because they delight one’s sense of what is ridiculously human in the way of little everyday commonplace foibles and frailties -– subtle comedies, not comedies of the slapstick variety.”
So she obviously wasn't treading on Mabel Normand's turf.
Talmadge, born on April 19 with uncertainty as to the year (most believe it to be 1897, although supposedly the year 1896 is listed on her passport), began making films in 1914. Two years later, she made the movie she's probably best known for today, but one atypical of her career. It's D.W. Griffith's epic, "Intolerance," in which she plays the vivacious "Mountain Girl" in the Babylon sequence; she even drives a chariot. (In 1919, Griffith added new footage to the Babylon segment, this time giving Constance's character a happy ending, unlike her death in the original. Released on its own as a solo story, this new version was also popular.)
In 1916, Talmadge co-starred with Douglas Fairbanks in one of his comedies "The Matrimaniac," which is part of Flicker Alley's 5-DVD set of early Fairbanks ((http://www.flickeralley.com/fa_fairbanks01.html). Unfortunately, it turned out to be their only on-screen teaming.
By the late teens, Talmadge -- now aligned with Norma's husband, Joseph Schenck -- had graduated to starring roles, making several comedies a year. As Basinger writes, "Constance Talmadge made a name for herself by being very good at deftly handling material that was never meant to be anything but fun."
One of them was this 1919 comedy-drama for Lewis Selznick (David and Myron's father), "Who Cares?"
Her leading man in this and several other films was the original Harrison Ford, no relation to the current actor of the same name.
Talmadge, nicknamed "Dutch," was a fun-loving sort who, like Lombard, took her craft seriously but didn't apply the same standards to her life away from the screen. In 1920, she and good friend Dorothy Gish (the comedy-oriented Gish sister) ran off and had a double elopement, although neither marriage lasted all that long. Speaking of marriages, here are the three Talmadge sisters -- middle sibling Natalie (who never achieved much success on screen, but did marry Buster Keaton), Constance and Norma, the eldest -- attending a wedding in the early 1920s:
Guided by their mother Peg, the Talmadges were always careful about their money. Constance and Norma invested in real estate, including a San Diego development that has streets named after them. Constance would marry four times, none producing children, and was in a heated relationship with Irving Thalberg before Norma Shearer came on the scene. He reportedly wanted to marry Constance, but his mother disapproved of the relationship. Had it happened, Hollywood history might have changed considerably.
By the mid-twenties, Constance was still popular, but a new type of comedic actress had emerged -- the flapper, personified by Colleen Moore and Clara Bow. Talmadge belonged to a slightly older generation, so while Moore and Bow may have respectively epitomized "Flaming Youth" and "This Plastic Age," Constance was doing the comparatively restrained (and deliciously-titled) "The Duchess Of Buffalo":
This 1926 comedy, where Talmadge plays an American dancer caught up in royal intrigue in pre-revolutionary Russia, was issued on DVD a few years ago by Grapevine Video.
Cosntance Talmadge was also among the first stars to have hand and footprints immortalized at Sid Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard...although she walked across her block, giving her five footprints:
The block is still there today, although few, if any, moviegoers or tourists probably recognize her name.
But times were changing, and Talmadge's stature as a star was waning. The arrival of talking films was the final blow. Sister Norma made a handful of talkies and then retired; Constance didn't even go that far. I've never heard her voice, but contemporary sources say it was accented with the tones of her native Brooklyn -- and while that didn't hurt Bow in the transition to sound, Constance apparently figured it wasn't worth the bother.
After retiring, Talmadge lived fairly quietly, resisting offers to return to the screen. She was a nurse during World War II, and continued such work after the war. Near the end of her life, she battled alcoholism in her final years and died in November 1973, outliving Norma by 16 years.
I have learned that Constance Talmadge met Carole Lombard, and here's photographic proof -- a pic of them together with Clark Gable at a party on June 7, 1933:
I've never seen any comparisons with Talmadge made during Lombard's lifetime. But given Constance's popularity in the teens and twenties, I think it safe to say that Carole saw at least some of her films, and perhaps was influenced by her comedic persona. In the biography "Screwball," Larry Swindell writes that in the late teens, Jane Peters told her family she wanted to be a movie star "like Constance Talmadge or Mary Miles Minter." (Minter was the star whose career fizzled after she was implicated in the 1922 death of director William Desmond Taylor.)
Personally, I'm not that familiar with Talmadge's work; the only film of hers I've seen is "Intolerance," which would be like having only seen Lombard in, say, "The Eagle And The Hawk." (Oops, another analogy.) But based upon what I've read, Constance Talmadge is a worthy subject for future viewing research. If only Turner Classic Movies would show some of her films on its "Silent Sunday Nights"...