Norma Talmadge changed things up by playing a wild French showgirl who will do anything to land Ronald Colman. This is a slapstick rom-com with plenty of laughs.
I am also reviewing the 1931 version starring Mary Pickford and Reginald Denny. Click here to skip to the talkie.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Oui, oui, Kiki
Popular wisdom will tell you that acting sisters of the silent era needed to be differentiated by genre. Lillian Gish did drama, Dorothy Gish did comedy. Norma Talmadge did drama, Constance Talmadge did comedy.
The truth is a little more complicated. Norma Talmadge, our main focus today, was a comedy veteran and put out multiple funny titles during her early days at Vitagraph co-starring early greats like Flora Finch. It’s true that she took on more serious roles but there was often an element of humor in them, even in darker tales like The Devil’s Needle. So, the decision to cast her as the title character in the comedy hit Kiki was not as big a leap as many reviews try to claim.
I am probably going to get in trouble for this but here goes: Dorothy Gish was a better dramatic actress than Lillian Gish and Norma Talmadge was a better comedic actress than Constance Talmadge. I enjoy Constance’s earlier work but by the 1920s, she had developed an annoying habit of mugging for the camera rather than focusing on her performance. It’s the silent era equivalent of laughing at one’s own jokes. Norma plays her part in Kiki broadly but this is a broad farce. You never get the impression that Norma is making funny faces and waiting for the rimshot, she inhabits the character in all her eccentricity.
Based on a French play by André Picard, Kiki was adapted for the American stage by David Belasco as a vehicle for Lenore Ulric. Ulric was funny and charming in Tiger Rose and I am curious about her take on the character but that will always be the problem of stage vs. film. The reviews of the time lavished praise on her and her performance but that’s not really the same as seeing her firsthand.
But today we’re all about Norma Talmadge and the 1926 movie version of the play, so let’s dive in.
The film opens with Kiki (Talmadge) selling newspapers in front of a theater. She has a bit of a crush on the manager of the revue, Victor Renal (Ronald Colman), viewing him as a true gentleman. Her young friend, Pierre (Frankie Darro), encourages Kiki to try out for a role in the revue because she has better pipes than any of the women working there currently.
Kiki spends her rent money on some swell rags, including the iconic question mark hat that was seen as the character’s signature from at least the Belasco days. (I would love to know how Kiki was costumed in French productions.) Armed with her new wardrobe, Kiki marches in—and is just as quickly thrown own. No auditions without letters of recommendation.
Kiki manages to get inside with some help from Pierre and when another dancer mistakes her for a secretary and hands over her own letter of recommendation, Kiki soon finds herself auditioning in front of Victor Renal himself.
Now Victor has a few problems of his own. He is absolutely mad in love with Paulette (Gertrude Astor), the star of the revue. She, however, is stepping out on the side and she’s a bit of a bully in the relationship.
Kiki’s singing is enough to win her a place in the revue but her inexperience onstage leads her to falling out of line with the other chorus girls and accidentally ruining Paulette’s big act. (Sexy hussars were a thing in the twenties, apparently.) While trying to pull Kiki off the stage, Paulette tears off her skirt, Victor tries to interfere and is slapped for his troubles. So, Victor and Paulette are broken up and Kiki is fired.
While trying to get her job back, Kiki accidentally breaks Paulette and Victor up again just as they are on the verge of reconciliation. With dinner reservations already set, Kiki playfully invites herself along and Victor realizes that she’s not bad looking once she takes off that silly hat.
Paulette shows up at the restaurant too accompanied by the wealthy Baron Rapp (Marc McDermott), who immediately takes a fancy to Kiki. Hoping to humiliate her rival, Paulette tricks Kiki into downing glass after glass of champagne but everything backfires when Victor volunteers to take her home. The problem? Her rent money went for clothes, she has no home to go back to. Victor doesn’t seem terribly put out and immediately volunteers to take her to his place. And this is where things get really interesting.
Kiki is something of an anti-Sheik. The kidnapping-as-romance trope was extremely popular in the 1920s with handsome leading men making off with the women of their dreams. While it was directly spoofed with a gender flip in She’s a Sheik, Kiki takes a lighter hand to the parody.
Victor takes a tipsy and homeless Kiki to his apartment and offers her more alcohol before going in for a kiss. Kiki rebuffs him, barricades herself in his bedroom and starts a days-long occupation of his home, terrorizing his valet (George K. Arthur), hiding her underwear where Victor expects to find handkerchiefs and generally dominating the situation. The 1922 satirical novel The Shriek imagined a very similar situation with Lady Verbeena Mayonnaise holding her would-be kidnapper prisoner with her hatpin and forcing him to eat toast and marmalade.
This plot twist in Kiki will, obviously, play very well for modern audiences but it was certainly amusing to silent era moviegoers who would have been familiar with these clichés from firsthand experience.
Victor doesn’t know what to do with his beautiful squatter and so he buys her clothing and jewelry and never has a handkerchief available when he needs one. And yet when Baron Rapp cheerfully offers to take Kiki off his hands, Victor hesitates. Could it be love? Or at least Stockholm Syndrome?
I am a bit baffled by Kiki. It’s a charming film with a big name in classic film circles (Colman) and lots of humor that should have the audience in stitches. So why hasn’t it done for Norma Talmadge what the release of Show People and The Patsy have done for Marion Davies? Is the fiction that Norma only made soggy melodramas really that compelling? Or perhaps there’s some kind of vendetta against the sisters because Natalie Talmadge had an unpleasant divorce from Buster Keaton? (This actually has come up numerous times whenever the Talmadges are mentioned which is… weird. Stop it.)
Whatever the reason for not seeing it until now, run, do not walk, and get yourself a copy of Kiki. It showcases Norma Talmadge in all her glory as a comedienne. (The Devil’s Needle is my pick as your introduction to her dramatic talents.) Director Clarence Brown stated that Talmadge was a naturally funny woman and could improvise humorous situations endlessly if given even the most basic prompt. Seeing her in action in Kiki, I believe it.
There are all sorts of delightful little bits in the film that Talmadge carries off with aplomb. Kiki’s funny little back-of-the-heels walk, her rebellious hat feather, her gigantic powder puff that she keeps in her tiny purse, her humorous duel with Victor’s servant… But the showstopper of the picture and the best showcase for Talmadge’s physical talents is the grand finale. (Spoiler, obviously.)
Victor is on the verge of going back to Paulette and another leading lady might have been a noble idiot and stepped aside but not Kiki. After some knifeplay, she collapses on the ground, stiff as a board. The doctor is called and diagnoses her with a rare condition that could last years. Throughout the scene, various characters lift Talmadge by the feet, separate her frozen fingers and even lay her across the arms of the chair and she remains stiff and stationary.
While I am certain that she was aided by hidden assisting devices and clever camera tricks, the kind of physical control required to pull off such a scene is immense and it is easily one of the zaniest comedy sequences in silent film. (I am dying to see Lenore Ulric’s version of these scenes.)
And even better, when Kiki reveals that she truly loves Victor, Talmadge gets a chance to showcase those dramatic chops as she pleads her case. Who could resist?
Not Ronald Colman, who had just completed a two-time stint as Constance Talmadge’s leading man in Her Sister from Paris and Her Night of Romance. His name is likely a draw for many viewers of Kiki and he does fine in the role but never doubt for a moment that this is Talmadge’s show. Well, Talmadge and Astor. Gertrude Astor is rather underrated as a comic but she is absolutely splendid as the horrendous Paulette.
Her character is introduces having her fingers kissed by a tenor while she is embracing Victor, one of those sassy touches that silent films carried off so well. And Astor’s height serves the story well as it humorously puts petite Kiki and statuesque Paulette in a kind of showgirl David and Goliath situation.
Finally, George K. Arthur, shockingly enough, was not annoying in this picture, so we did well there too. (I have… issues with Arthur.) And the set design by William Cameron Menzies is suitably splendid with vaulted ceilings and all kinds of opulent flourishes.
Kiki is a peppy rom-com with considerable sass and it’s a darn shame that it isn’t more famous. If you’ve been wondering what the big deal with Norma Talmadge was, you won’t find a better introduction.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Kino. Their edition is the beautiful restoration by the Library of Congress with a fine, toe-tapping score by the Biograph Players. Great picture, great release.
Silents vs. Talkies
The Talkie Challenger: Kiki (1931)
With talkies officially the order of the day, Mary Pickford was having trouble with her follow-up to her Oscar-winning performance in Coquette and her double act with Douglas Fairbanks in The Taming of the Shrew. She had shorn her famous curls prior to the former and stated that she experienced an enormous sense of freedom because she felt shackled to playing juvenile parts as long as that iconic hairdo was intact.
But the aborted picture Forever Yours dampened her enthusiasm and for the first time in years, Pickford opted to allow someone else to produce a Mary Pickford picture. Producer Joseph Schenck’s marriage to Norma Talmadge was on the rocks but he still owned the rights to Kiki.
On the surface, it may have seemed like a scandalous bit of casting against type but Kiki was not so very far from the waifs and street urchins who had made Mary Pickford a household name. Her little girl characters tended to be more spice than sugar and Kiki was merely a way to incorporate that persona into a grownup world.
Just as Norma Talmadge had played comedy early in her career, Pickford had played adult ladies, including at least one role coded as a prostitute. She had also attempted to play more grownup and sexy parts later but Rosita was a personal disappointment for reasons few understand.
When Kiki is mentioned, it is often framed through the lens of “Wow, look how old Mary Pickford is here! Middle-aged, yup, yup.” And I am afraid that many of these opinions are written by women. If thirty-nine equals “old crone” in your eyes, maybe, just maybe you are part of Hollywood’s ageism problem, mm-kay? Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore pranced around shirtless after turning forty and I have never seen the hand-wringing that always seems to accompany the sight of Mary Pickford’s Kiki shorts.
In any case, Pickford was in peak physical condition for Kiki because if she hadn’t been, the famous “stiff as a board” comedy sequence would have been impossible to film.
As was always the case with Pickford productions of this period, only the best personnel were hired. Busby Berkeley choreographed the dance number, William Cameron Menzies was back to design the sets and Sam Taylor, who had done so well by Pickford in My Best Girl, was the director.
The plot of the ’31 Kiki is very close to the ’26 so I won’t be writing a full synopsis but I will be pointing out two major areas where the films diverge.
First, we are never shown Kiki’s life outside the theater. While the first act of the silent established Kiki’s humble lifestyle and her desire to perform on the stage, the talkie skips all that and simply starts with Kiki already being a showgirl.
Second, Kiki squatting in Victor’s house does not last for days and weeks. I am not sure if this was due to censorship concerns, though I would have thought that establishing that Victor was sleeping on the weird, round couch would have been enough in a Pre-Code picture.
There’s a third change that is minor but I suppose makes a slight difference if you squint: Victor and Paulette are not on-again off-again sweethearts, they are legal exes.
The film opens with Kiki being fired from the revue and trying to convince Victor (Reginald Denny this time) to hire her back. While she begs, her handbag opens revealing newspaper clippings of Victor, which comes off as more creepy than charming, I am afraid. And from there, we jump right into the picture’s second-biggest setpiece, the dance scene in which Kiki messes up her co-performers and manages to lose her pants. (Sexy hussars gave way to sexy tuxedos in the 1930s, apparently.)
The problem with this sequence is that nobody is making any effort to dance around Kiki. For much of the performance, they continue to blindly follow their choreography instead of compensating for the joker in the deck the way real performers would. (In contrast, the famously and intentionally inept Mistake Waltz ballet choreography features dancers tapping one another on the shoulder, pushing one another out of the way and generally trying to save the performance, which only makes the mistakes funnier. Unsurprisingly, some sections remind me very much of the silent Kiki.)
In the silent, everything moves at a faster pace with Kiki ping-ponging around the stage and falling into other dancers before they can react while the stage manager tries desperately to whisk her out of sight. The talkie Kiki’s slower pace ruins the humor of a scene that requires anarchic frenzy for it to work. We are given time to wonder why nobody seems to be doing anything about this strange dancer. Busby Berkeley or no Busby Berkeley, the choreography should have been second to the humor.
Further, while the silent Kiki was working her first show and was confused by conflicting instructions from all the people trying to get her off the stage, talkie Kiki was allegedly an experienced dancer and just comes across as a bit dim.
As for losing her trousers… It’s treated like the worst fate that could possibly befall a showgirl. But a follies show generally involved the showing of legs and Kiki’s satin underwear wasn’t nearly as short as some of those outfits. The silent correctly treated it as an insult when Paulette snatched Kiki’s skirt but not a horrifically embarrassing incident. So, with no real stakes and nobody acting like a normal human being, the big setpiece of the picture fails. (Paulette is played by Margaret Livingston in the talkie.)
The other problem is that Kiki’s antics on the stage were popular with the audience (all those curtain calls) and while Paulette was ticked off, she was the only one. Nobody else, Victor included, seemed to particularly mind. Kiki basically Springtime for Hitlered the whole show and the audience ate it up with a spoon. An impresario worth his salt would have seen that he had another Fanny Brice on his hands. Again, the silent showing us the horrified reactions of the behind-the-scenes crew and its zippy pace prevent this from being an issue.
Pickford pulls off the frozen stiff scene with considerable skill, though there is less gleeful playing with her frozen limbs. Still, Pickford is game and manages to whole thing, down to balancing herself across the arms of the chair, thus once again proving that she was one of the finest physical comics in the business. It’s the aftermath of this scene that doesn’t work.
While the silent gave Victor and Kiki a romantic moment of realization after the kiss, the talkie bizarrely has Mary Pickford tumble around the room whooping like Daffy Duck. I know I said that I like Pickford’s physical comedy but this is supposed to be the emotional high point of the picture, the moment when all of the romantic tension results in declarations of love. It is not the time for a Looney Tunes audition. (You can see a clip of the scene here.)
The key issue is that when a character engages in eccentric or bizarre behavior outside the norms established for the film, the audience must be given some basis for understanding why this is happening. Nobody wonders why Wile E. Coyote keeps blowing himself up because the cartoonish reality of the series makes it plausible but in the more realistic world of Kiki, a Frenchwoman acting like Daffy Duck requires a bit more explanation.
A good example of eccentric behavior done right can be found in The House in Trubnaya. The heroine, a naïve country girl, has been overwhelmed by the sheer size of Moscow and her enthusiastic personality and hard-working nature have been established by humorous scenes in which she does her chores. So it is perfectly understandable that she would become caught up in a stage play, leave her seat, attack the villain, grab the flag and sing revolutionary songs on the stage.
In contrast, the 1931 film had its entire runtime to establish its norms and an explanation for why Kiki is Kiki and it just kind of had her do stuff with no attempt to establish an inner world for her or to make the audience understand and empathize with her, which I think we’re entitled to if the leading lady wishes to WHOOHOOHOO!
I am also not sure why Mary Pickford kept casting herself in talkies that required accents. She was coached in the proper Gallic inflection but her accent just sounds fake and it’s especially odd because the setting of the film was moved out of France so everyone else uses their normal accents. Why not just leave it in France and have nobody put on an accent? It certainly would not have been the only Hollywood picture to do so.
(The Scarlet Empress played around with accents and audience perception by having the German characters speak English with German accents and the Russians speak English with broad American ones.)
There’s a fun little business where Pickford removes a broken bra from her loud dotted blouse but for the most part, her performance is not as rich in the little comedy details as Talmadge’s. The bizarre changes in tone mean that Kiki is never really allowed to establish a persona.
I will say that I think Reginald Denny is a better Victor than Ronald Colman. Despite his dishonorable intentions toward Kiki, he comes off as more naïve, which works a bit better in the finale when he decides that he will care for her during her “illness.” I just wish the screenplay had been better. To be honest, what I really wish is that Denny and Pickford had made a rom-com together in the silent era. (Denny was wonderful in the genre, as Oh Doctor! and Skinner’s Dress Suit prove.)
And therein lies the problem: everyone in this picture seems to be acting for a different film. Pickford and Margaret Livingston are playing as broad as can be while Denny and the rest of the male cast are in rom-com mode. Nobody seems to understand the underlying appeal of the story, the character or the subversion of tropes.
Kiki isn’t the worst movie in the world and with some better planning it might even have worked as a Mary Pickford vehicle but there are too many missteps, large and small, for it to be called a success.
And the winner is…
In the end, the silent Kiki works because it’s about Kiki, period. The talkie Kiki is about her pursuit of Victor, which isn’t an unforgivable sin but definitely is a less interesting way to center the picture, especially considering that Pickford’s physical comedy talent would have been better served by less romance and more comedy in the rom-com.
Further, the talkie lacks any real stakes. In the silent, Kiki has used her rent money to buy herself some fancy togs so she can shoot her shot on the stage. We don’t really know anything about the life of talkie Kiki other than she is a gamine and we don’t know why we should care if she succeeds on the stage or not other than the fact that she is played by Mary Pickford.
I think that Norma Talmadge and Mary Pickford were equally talented but they’re like singers with different vocal ranges and Pickford is essentially a soprano in a contralto part. With a bad French accent.
Availability: There are smeary, warbling prints available for the public domain market. While the picture has flaws, I would love to see something prettier released so we can enjoy the visuals and properly hear the dialogue.
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