Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Let Me Entertain You: Mary Pickford as Kiki

(My apologetically late contribution to the Mary Pickford Blogathon at Classic Movies

I feel a bit of a fraud taking part in a Mary Pickford blogathon. 

Though I wrote the entry on her in the book 501 Movie Stars, I'll confess to you today that I’ve only seen two of her movies, and neither, really, on account of her presence in them. 
She was never a star who particularly attracted me; instead I took the lazy route and just absorbed her influence, as if she was one of those heavily-laden star presences for whom a general awareness of their reputation and relevance in film history is not merely as good as actually seeing them at work, but even oddly equivalent to it.

As I wrote in my Movietone Cameos review of Kiki, of which this article is an expansion: 
 “… 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.” 

The only film of hers I have seen other than the one I will be discussing here is The Little American, and that only because I am an obsessive De Mille collector. But of course, seeing it gave me enough of the authentic Mary to realise that here is another vast chunk of screen history with which I am quite unforgivably unfamiliar, and that Pickford herself is yet another of those silent screen icons who don’t let you down; those like Valentino and Bow and Brooks and Chaplin, who somehow – despite the one-dimensional potency of their enduring image – manage to surprise you every time with the subtlety and grace of their talent. 
Useful to me, too, to finally obtain a clear picture of the ‘authentic’ Mary, the image that the Pickford of Kiki is in revolt against, even if I somewhat skewed the picture by seeing Kiki first.

Kiki, of course, was a grand experiment, a bold venture, and a calculated effort to rewrite Hollywood legend while its ink was still wet. 
Though it is far from true to claim that she never took adult roles in her heyday, by far Mary’s 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. 

The clean slate of talking cinema gave her the opportunity to go for broke, perhaps knowing in her heart even then that she could always bow out and live off the mystique and the residuals. 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
Everybody who loves pre-Code, who is addicted to its unique atmosphere, must be tempted, at least, by Kiki. It's one of those films that you can't help imagining when you hear of it, all the time knowing that you nonetheless can't imagine it: you have to see it. (And then see it again, to make sure.) Even now, I fear, not many have made the trip, since its reputation continues to languish in relative obscurity, when so many others that were once forgotten to all but a handful of us (Madam Satan, for instance) are now widely appreciated cult classics. 
Hard to say whether it would be more interesting to watch it with the fuller grasp of Pickford’s prior career that I still do not possess; obviously to do so would better duplicate the effect it must have had on the stunned audiences of 1931, unable to read its dissent from formula as anything but provocation, even violation. 
But I think I got the point, when I hadn’t even got The Little American under my belt. It is obvious from Pickford’s first appearance that she is trying to do three impossible things before breakfast: to still be cute, to be genuinely sexy too, and to be both in a radically new context. And yet, it doesn't feel like an invitation - more like a command. Therein lies its fascination, the seeds of its failure and, for some of us, the source of the very particular pleasure it offers.

I first met Kiki in the pages of Alexander Walker’s excellent book Sex in the Movies. When I was first encountering the hidden splendours of pre-Code (and even ten years ago, they really were vastly more hidden than now) Walker’s book did much to enhance my appetite for discovery. And there, in the photographic section in the middle of the book, were four photos of Mary. 
The caption under the first reads: “Mary Pickford as she is remembered: an aura of back lighting and innocence, pendant ringlets, angelic posy and soulful gaze.”
A second image follows, showing the same angelic face, this time in a cute Scotch bonnet, as Little Annie Rooney. 
Then comes the third picture; very different. Here, Pickford is dressed in a man’s evening suit and top hat, but the effect is not stylishly arousing, as when Dietrich drags up; this is a little girl in fancy dress, too naive, seemingly, as well as too feminine to be dressed in such a fashion. The top hat is perched at a jaunty angle, and the face, puckering up for a kiss, is unrelaxed; the coquettishness forced, the carefree pose hardened into statuary through sheer exertion.
The caption, as if we needed to be told: “Mary Pickford as she tried to be: the excitable French chorus girl in her last film but one, Kiki.” 
The final still shows Kiki in action, reclining on a sofa, her legs on display, looking at a magazine, with the exact same rigid kiss on her lips. It was a performance, Walker tells us, with “all the signs of desperation”, and he reminds us that a contemporary reviewer deemed it “the biggest mistake Mary Pickford ever made in her career.” 

But is it, really? By which I mean, is it to us, now? 
Even if it were irredeemably bad, it would obviously be of enormous historic interest. But I can’t imagine anyone who loves this kind of stuff not having a good time – or at least a captivated one – in Kiki’s company. 
Kiki is a feisty, sexy French chorus girl causing romantic strife; and Kiki is a zippy pre-Code comedy romance, with Busby Berkeley-designed dance routines. It’s strange; the film, and the character, are oddly synonymous with their primary functions: Kiki herself comes at the other characters and the world in which she is placed with total confidence, unyielding insistence, and a complete refusal to accept or even notice that there may be people who do not find her all-conqueringly adorable. And the movie, and thus Pickford herself, go for the audience in the same way; rather than try and ingratiate herself, and win them over by degrees, the new Mary flings herself into the stalls and wriggles. 
There is such total confidence here it is almost terrible to reflect that the effort ended in summary rejection, but then how could it not? Part of the point of Kiki is that she’s annoying, and Pickford delivers a shrill, boisterous, exhausting performance, boundlessly energetic but wrongly pitched either for farce or romantic comedy, at times bordering almost on the grotesque. 

Comments like the above in my original review of the movie wrongly (but understandably) gave the impression that I don’t like the performance or the film, and nothing could be further from the truth. But at the same time, it is obvious why it went over so badly at the time. Pickford simply gives you no rest from the character, and that character is alternately wildly enthusiastic, petulant, sullen, horny, opportunistic, self-pitying and hyper-kinetic. She falls on her behind a few times, on one occasion into an orchestra drum. Her French accent is sheer murder. And she does quite a bit of provocative undressing, for us and for Reginald Denny, standing in for us, fresh from Madam Satan
As if dictating our own response he is at first infuriated, then enchanted by her. She wears him down, and she wears us down: it’s up to you whether you want to roll over or just run away. In the end, personally, I was seduced. I feel weak admitting it, because it’s probably the least subtle, most contrived job of cinematic seduction ever attempted, and I think we can be proud of our grandparents that they resisted back in 1931. But how could I, with so much here to tempt me? 
You can't ever quite look away. And there’s no point denying 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. 
So while I can perfectly understand audiences, women especially, getting nothing at all out of this exasperating performance, I must confess that I’ve long since gone over to Denny’s side. I have fallen for this absurd creature. I’ve seen the film several times since my first encounter with it, and each time I notice more of Pickford herself, rather than Kiki: the woman who is really there, not the illusion she presents. 
This is the woman who defined the very concept of star screen presence as surely as Chaplin did, in a situation exactly analogous to his when he made City Lights, and while his response to the new, unwanted world of talking cinema had more lasting effect, her gesture is surely the braver. 
Remember at all times when watching the film what it really is – not some trifle about a chorus girl, but an effort by an adored star to completely rewrite her contract with the audience, and to do so in the most extreme of ways, despite the abundant evidence she had been given of their unyielding resistance to reinvention. Is it bravery, or desperation, or even, perhaps, a knowingly climactic fury that animates Kiki’s absurd poses, her fluttering eyelashes, the fleshy sacrificial offering she makes of her loose limbs and powdered cheeks? 
Whatever the answer to that question, this is star quality of a rare intensity; and it's impossible to ignore it, even when you are in danger of being bludgeoned to death by it.