Saturday, 25 May 2013

Atypical Talmadge… Kiki (1926)

"…the greatest pantomimist that ever drew breath. She was a natural-born comic; you could turn on a scene with her and she`d go on for five minutes without stopping or repeating herself." Clarence Brown

By the mid-twenties Norma Talmadge could do what she wanted. She could pick her roles and this light comedy directed by the masterful Mr Brown was obviously something she and producer husband Joseph M. Schenck selected as a fun challenge. Indeed, she was quoted in the publicity as saying: “I never mad a picture I liked better.”

The results, though well-reviewed, are alleged to have confused her fan base or at least the part most addicted to light melodrama. Yet, it’s hard to imagine someone of Norma Talmadge’s versatility getting typecast but the Variety review of April 1926 gave a hint of the reaction: “…most peculiar of all is Miss Talmadge in the title part. She is not a comedienne and never has been; she is too large and too tall for the part. But with all these things against her, she gives a creditable and amusing performance…”

Norma Talmadge and Ronald Coleman
Kiki was based on a highly-successful stage play by David Belasco which, in turn was based upon a 1920 novel of the same name by André Picard. A light comedy showing the adventures of the somewhat prickly heroine and her attempts to make it on stage and with the theatre owner… it flashed by against a backdrop of sniggers and laughter from myself and teenage daughter (bless you Beth you are so patient…and you’ll watch anything*).

I must admit to not finding Norma “too large” nor too tall… although she's probably a little too mature to be a "waif" (Mary Pickford was even older for the 1931 remake). Once you adjust though, she is genuinely funny and I’m surprised that this film could ever have been considered anything resembling a flop – can you be “too tall” for comedy?! Norma T is one of the most consistently rewarding performers of the silent era and one whose technique feels timeless. She played other roles for laughs – The Social Secretary stands out – and clearly relished the chance to do something different.

Kiki gets the boot
Here she could easily have been taking a part in a Morcambe and Wise stage spectacular or Miss Congeniality (1 or 2…), as she falls out of step with the other chorus girls and gets booted back centre stage every time she tries to re-join them. There’s also an amazing section when she feigns catatonia with her body seemingly rigid and only capable of being manipulated by others… how she manages to keep a straight arm, leg and face is beyond me.

It’s not high art but it is (still) funny and Norma delivers.

Kiki is little more than a street girl dreaming of her big break on stage, she hangs around with her fellow paper seller, a young kid Pierr (Frankie Darro) and both live on their wits near the local theatre run by the dashing Victor Renal (the dashing… Ronald Colman).

A chance comes when one of the chorus is fired and Kiki steals the place of the intended replacement. She can sing but she can’t keep step and her first night ends in disaster as she is kicked around the stage and tramples on the star Paulette (a wonderfully grumpy Gertrude Astor).

Gertrude Astor and Ronald Coleman
She’s called to Renal’s office to be fired but he can’t shake her off before Paulette – who is also his girlfriend - arrives. Kiki is revealed and Paulette storms off in the huffiest huff – Astor is a hoot.

Renal takes Kiki to dinner where they are joined by Paulette and  his old friend Baron Rapp (Marc Macdermott). A battle of wills ensues between the two women and Kiki drinks rather too much champagne… Renal drags her away from the scene and ends up taking her home as she – having used her rent to buy a dress for the audition – has nowhere to live.

Great set design too...
Thus begins Kiki’s time at Renal’s house where she uses every trick she can think up to prolong her stay. This includes burning all of Paulette’s letters imploring Venal to take her back and an on-going battle with his man servant, Adolphe (George K. Arthur)…

Will Kiki succeed in fighting for Venal or will the wily Paulette win out? When Kiki pulls out a knife you’re not sure but…

Comedy catalepsy
So many romantic comedies followed this route that the story does have a familiar feel but Kiki is maybe a bit more street smart and a slightly nastier, heroine than Doris Day or Sandra Bullock might make.
Clarence Brown directs throughout with assured dexterity, a lovely dolly shot of the assembled show girls at the start, resembling his table-top camera voyage in The Eagle.

I watched the Kino DVD which comes with a second feature, Within the Law (1922) which may well be more typical Talmadge fare but it’ll have to go some to match Kiki for entertainment. Not a great film but a good one and it is lovely to see a Norma Talmadge film in decent quality. And, as the Variety reviewer concluded: “…no other actress on the stage or screen has played such varied roles with unmistakable skill and ability.”

Norma and Marc Macdermott
The feature is superbly supported by a new score from The Biograph Players who throw in a nice bit of Eric Satie for Norma’s catatonic tour-de-force!

I pulled the Variety quotes from Greta de Groat’s excellent site on Norma Talmadge which I recommend to all. Greta also played a part in the Kino DVD and is to be commended for helping to revive the memory of one of the true silent greats!

*I made Beth watch substantial portions of Greed when she was just a scrap…she’s never looked back (although she prefers James McAvoy to John Gilbert).

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