Norma Talmadge: How Men Strike Me, or, Hire a Stunt Coordinator for Heaven’s Sake!

One of the things I like best about silent films and particularly silent films of the 1910s is that many cinematic tricks were not yet invented and so real towns were burned, real ships were launched and real locations were used. That being said, this 1919 article credited to Norma Talmadge gave me pause as she talked about being beaten onscreen.

Talmadge talks about the stunts she undergoes in her films– she was often cast as a woman from the wrong side of the tracks– but, good heavens, they couldn’t invent stunt coordinators fast enough to suit me!

Have I ever been struck by a man? Yes, many times. I have been choked until I could scarcely draw my breath and have been beaten by club and strap and whip almost times without number. Of course, the men who did it drew fairly large-sized salaries for striking me and they generally had good excuse, for as a faithless wife or a disobedient child I probably merited punishment. (Editor’s Note: Yipes!)

Oh! of course this always happened at the studio. It was part of my business of making pictures. An actress who takes up pictures as a career must not be squeamish, and if the director feels that a woman must be struck in order to make the picture realistic she must be game and take the blow.

Dramatic picture actresses are not called upon to take the rough-and-tumble handling that the makers of comedy pictures inflict upon each other, but every once-in-a-while one goes home from the studio with black and blue arms and an aching back just the same. Every care is exerted by Director and players to protect the lady of the story, but now and then she must take a full dose of rough treatment. If an actor is called upon to strike a woman the camera is generally placed at an angle so that a slap will look like a hard blow and the actor endeavors to hold his punch so as not to inflict pain. But sometimes all his care will not prevent a blow that hurts like everything. 

In “The Safety Curtain” I played the role of Puck, a dancer who is married to Vulcan, a brutal hulk of a man — a stage strong man. He beats his wife on the slightest provocation. In one part of the action Mr. Randolph, who enacted the role, had to beat me with a heavy leather belt. As he was a big, powerful person of athletic build I worried quite a bit about this scene and felt sure I was in for more or less pain. The morning we were to do the scene he came to me and said:

“Now don’t you worry Miss Talmadge; I won’t hurt you a bit. I’ll show you how I am going to do it.”

He struck me over the shoulders with the belt and it did hurt like everything. I don’t believe he realized how strong he was. So we rehearsed it several times, but it always hurt if the blow was struck so that it would register. Finally by padding my shoulders with newspapers I was able to take the blow without much pain.

(See? That’s what I’m on about! Why weren’t her shoulders padded from the start? And why did the director, Sidney Franklin, feel that a real blow needed to be seen at all?)

In “De Luxe Annie,” Mr. Eugene O’Brien as Jimmy, had a scene where he both beat and choked me. We rehearsed this at some length, but it could not be toned down until it didn’t hurt, and I simply had to go through with it and stand the pain, Mr. O’Brien being as careful as he could be without marring the picture.

For the last five or six pictures I have been compelled to receive blows and I am in hopes that the next production will be so constructed that the scenario will make perfect gentlemen of all the players and not compel them to strike a lady.

Well, that was most distressing and I hope Talmadge wasn’t hurt too badly. I think compelling an actress to take a beating like that shows a lack of imagination on the part of the writers, directors and cinematographers. There are ways of building terror without forcing your lead performers to endure beatings.

Now I have a surprise for you. Lately, every 1910s film we have discussed has been missing or unavailable for viewing.

Well, The Safety Curtain is available for online viewing courtesy of EYE! De Luxe Annie is not available for viewing right now but it is preserved safe and sound by the Library of Congress.

(All clippings courtesy of the Media History Digital Library.)


  1. Shari Polikoff

    Wasn’t there an actress who sustained a permanent back injury from a stunt? And Natalie Wood, as a child, had her wrist badly injured in the flood scene in ‘The Green Promise.’
    Also, what about more modern films for which the actors diet drastically or stuff themselves to alter their weight, when their appearance could probably be suggested by artful wardrobing? I’m thinking of Elizabeth Taylor, for example, fattening herself for ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      I think what annoys me so much about these particular anecdotes is how unnecessary Talmadge’s pain was in most cases. They could have done a lot with silhouettes and smart editing (as many other 1910s films did) and saved the poor woman some pain.

  2. Marie Roget

    And here, at first blush and before reading the subtitle, I’d thought Talmadge was going to describe various types of men and her opinions of them personality-wise. Good Lord!!!

    Even with stunt coordinators, stunt doubles, fight choreographing, pulling punches, padding, etc. it is still startlingly easy to get hurt. I remember speaking to a stunt guy at a New Year’s Eve party years ago with bruises all down one side of his neck. His explanation: I zigged when I should have zagged.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      It’s true! There was a Korean historical show I saw in which the crew went to China for some location shooting and hired a Chinese stuntman to fight their lead actor in gladiator combat. Unfortunately, there was a language barrier and the stuntman kept being told to swipe left when he should have swiped right and vice versa. The poor man clearly felt terrible and the lead actor was looking a little punch drunk after a few takes.

      In the case of Anders Randolph particularly, though, I cannot imagine what everyone was thinking letting a huge guy like that smack Norma with a strap sans padding.

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