The Norma Talmadge Double Feature: (Kiki / Within the Law)
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From World War I until the Great Depression, the most famous sisters in the entertainment world were the Brooklyn-raised Talmadges: Norma, Natalie and Constance. Norma, the eldest, was a dramatic actress of great talent and restraint, and revered by a public that could identify with the brave, tragic heroine through a myriad of melodramas and tragedies. Appearing in vehicles with exceedingly high production values and helmed by some of Hollywood s finest directors, Norma developed into one of the screen s greatest actresses, and by 1920 had eclipsed Mary Pickford as the top worldwide female box-office attraction. KIKI showcases Norma in a rare comedic performance. A high-spirited Parisian gamine is determined to become a chorus girl and win the heart of the Follies manager (Ronald Colman) even if it means performing some rather unladylike stunts. Set and photographed in New York City, WITHIN THE LAW follows a shopgirl who is unjustly accused of stealing, and then sent to jail. She plots revenge against her former employer, using Rich Men s legal tricks, yet staying within the law.
KIKI U.S. 1926 B&W 96 Min. 1.33:1 Directed by Clarence Brown Produced by Norma Talmadge Screenplay by Hanns Kräly Based on the play by André Picard With Norma Talmadge, Ronald Colman, Gertrude Astor, George K. Arthur Music performed by The Biograph Players
WITHIN THE LAW U.S. 1923 B&W 105 Min. 1.33:1 Directed by Frank Lloyd Produced by Norma Talmadge Screenplay by Frances Marion Based on the play by Bayard Veiller With Norma Talmadge, Lew Cody, DeWitt Jennings, Lionel Belmore, Ward Crane Music composed and performed by Makia Matsumura
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Norma's talents in "Kiki" are complemented by the artful skills of director Clarence Brown and art director William Cameron Menzies, whose flair for style and beauty is evident in the French setting, interior designs and costumes. As a struggling working girl in Paris, Kiki uses her charm, determination and wit to not only become a chorus girl, but to get the man who runs the show, even though he has a fashionable blonde fiancée. There are witty intertitles and a good romantic comedy story enhanced by Norma's lively and temperamental character as she interacts with co-star Ronald Colman, making every scene a visual pleasure and simply fun to watch. The accompanying music by The Biograph Players is very suitable and enjoyable as well.
For a completely different change of pace, the opening scenes of "Within the Law" already set a somber note as we find Norma in a prison awaiting sentencing for a shoplifting crime she did not commit. The music is immediately striking and fitting to the mood and scenes, and considerable tension builds up in the first twenty minutes already as Norma suffers terrible injustice and swears to take her revenge on her merciless former employer. After a three-year prison sentence, she finds that she can no longer make an honest living because of her past, and joins a con-artist couple in making full use of the "rich man's law", using loopholes and tricks while technically always staying within the law. She soon progresses to the point of being engaged to the son of the former employer who ruined her life by sending her to prison, but things become more complicated. Jack Mulhall plays the son who falls in love with Norma's character, unaware of her past, and Eileen Percy, who was also a popular silent film star in nearly 70 movies, is particularly good as the tough-talking and gum-chewing friend. Based on a play, it was adapted by Frances Marion, who wrote a number of very successful and highly-praised screenplays during the silent era, and direction is by Frank Lloyd, whose career continued to blossom in the sound era, directing several Oscar-nominated actors. The intertitles read very well and are also beautiful to behold due to the artistic pictures and embellishments on many of the title cards. Overall, both movies are pleasing, delightful and very satisfying to watch, making modern-day viewers aware of yet another long-forgotten talent of the silent era worthy of renewed interest and appreciation.
Kiki is very well restored in spite of the fact that it was reconstructed by the Library of Congress from incomplete English and French prints. A real gem and this must be treasured.
Within the law (1923)
This is a drama directed by Frank Lloyd and screenplay by Frances Marion is based on the play of Bayard Veiller. When Mary Turner is sent to prison for a crime she did not commit, she vows upon her release to take vengeance on those who wronged her. This movie was remade as Paid in 1930 starring Joan Crawford, and in 1939 with Ruth Hussey. The first version is the best.
The KIKI storyline I was already familiar with from the 1931 Mary Pickford remake which I thoroughly enjoyed but this version is clearly better. Norma, who was known as a dramatic actress, shines in her comedic role as a French chorus girl out to snag her producer played by a young and dapper Ronald Colman. The most remarkable thing here and in the dramatic second film, WITHIN THE LAW where she plays a falsely imprisoned woman out for revenge, is the sumptuousness of the sets and the quality of the cinematography. The fact that she had Clarence Brown (FLESH AND THE DEVIL) and Frank Lloyd (MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY) as her directors shows the kind of clout she must have had. WITHIN THE LAW also gives us a rare opportunity to see Lew Cody who would later become Mabel Normand's husband. These Library of Congress preservations look quite good and the musical accompaniment compliments the action nicely. Hopefully more of Norma's films will come to light and we can see more of this shamefully forgotten actress.