Kiki (1931) **
Mary Pickford is an oddity in film history, in that she occupies as sure a place in the pantheon of silent screen icons as Charlie Chaplin or Rudolph Valentino but almost entirely by virtue of her physical image (of radiant, blonde-ringletted purity), her nickname (‘America’s Sweetheart’) and her reputation as both high-ranking Hollywood royalty and shrewd businesswoman.
Her films seem almost incidental, rarely revived and not widely available to the home collector. Not that she would have minded overmuch: she once expressed the bizarre wish that they all be destroyed at her death.
This may be due to the fact that her career ended rather unspectacularly in the early years of sound. She had tired of it, and of the peculiar restrictions her screen image imposed upon her, choosing to retire quietly in 1933. Though it is far from true to claim that she never took adult roles in her heyday, by far her greatest successes were those in which she played children: Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1918) or Daddy Long Legs (1919). She played twelve year-old Little Annie Rooney (1925) at the age of thirty-two. The same year she invited the readers of a film magazine to suggest new parts they would like to see her play, only to receive suggestions like Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland.
She made four talkies, all of them provocative departures from formula; she seemed intent upon forcing a new, more modern screen image on her public against their will. The first, Coquette (1929), was a women’s picture ending in tragedy, with Pickford not only speaking for the first time but also sporting a modern short hairstyle. The film was praised critically – Pickford won the best actress Oscar – but audiences didn’t want Mary without her curls.
And they certainly didn't want Kiki.
Kiki is supposedly a feisty, sexy French chorus girl causing romantic strife in this zippy pre-Code comedy romance, with Busby Berkeley-designed dance routines. It is a shrill, boisterous, exhausting performance, boundlessly energetic but wrongly pitched either for farce or romantic comedy, at times bordering almost on the grotesque.
There's a scene where she falls off the stage into a drum in the orchestra pit (as Chaplin would later do in Limelight) and, it's hard to say why, but there's just something a bit unpleasant about the way she plays it. She's sort of saying, "Aren't I hilarious and adorable and sexy all in one dynamic five-foot package?'
She falls on her behind a few times, in fact, and does quite a bit of provocative undressing; and the plot would have us accept that Reginald Denny (fresh from the peerless Madam Satan) is at first infuriated, but finally enchanted by her. She wears him down, and she wears us down.
Yet you can't ever quite look away. Pickford and the camera just seem to have an understanding with each other; even in a performance this preposterous, Pickford the artist is totally in control of her effects.
And while I can perfectly understand audiences, women especially, getting nothing at all out of this exasperating performance, I must confess that by the end I was coming round to seeing Denny's point of view, accepting in theory at least how a man could fall for this absurd creature.
This is star quality of a rare intensity; it's impossible to ignore it, even when you are in danger of being bludgeoned to death by it.