The Norma Talmadge Double Feature
Kino // Unrated // $29.95 // March 16, 2010
Review by John Sinnott | posted March 5, 2010
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The Movies:
Kino has put out a pair of DVDs featuring two of the Talmadge Sisters, Norma and Constance.  They were both big stars in the silent era and had their own production companies.  (Their middle sister, Natalie only appeared in a few films and was Buster Keaton's first wife.)  The two sister's stage personalities were polar opposites.  The blond and perky Constance was a comedienne while the brunette Norma was a tragic heroine.   Both sisters are largely forgotten today and many of their films are lost.  The ones that survive are rarely shown.  That's why it's such a treat that Kino has dug up a total of four films by these two silent stars and released them on a pair of discs.  (Click on the title to read my review of the Constance Talmadge Collection.)
The Norma Talmadge Collection includes Kiki, a romantic comedy costarring Ronald Coleman, and the more typical feature for the star, Within the Law, an interesting drama that includes a performance by Lew Cody.
Kiki (1926):  A young girl who makes her money selling newspapers on the street, Kiki (Norma Talmadge) fantasizes of making it in show business, especially in a show produced by the man of her dreams, Victor Renal (Ronald Colman).  When she discovers that a chorus girl was fired, Kiki uses her rent money to buy a nice outfit so that she'd look the part and sneaks into Renal's office.  Once there she obtains a letter of introduction from a dancer and singer sent over from a talent agency, and presents it to the boss who eventually hires her.

Though she has the voice of a nightingale, she's lacking experience and her big debut totally ruins the show.  This especially angers Paulette's (Gertrude Astor), the leading lady and Victor's love interest.  Kiki is naturally dismissed, but when he discovers that she's homeless, having been kicked out of her room for nonpayment of the rent, Victor allows the young girl to stay with him.  The rest is a madcap comedy that plays out rather well, if slightly predictably.
Norma Talmadge was mainly known for her dramatic roles, but she handles herself well (though not as good as her sister Constance would) in this wild comedy.  Her timing is good and her expressions are wonderful without being over the top or silly.  She brings a lot of vigor to the role and even manages to remain realistic in the more slapstick parts of the film, like the show's debut. 
The only real problem I had with Norma was that she looked way too old for the role.  She was 33 when this was filmed and she didn't really look like a young dancer.  This was especially apparent when she was placed next to the 20 year old, tall, lithe, girls in the chorus.  It looked like a game of "one of these things is not like the other" with Norma being shorter, older, and having a lot more padding in the back than the other dancers.  It's a small complaint though and not too difficult to overlook.
The movie was funny too, with a lot of comic antics nicely spaced to keep both the story moving and the audience laughing.  Kiki's 'paralysis' worked especially well.  Coleman did a very good job in his part (even stealing a few scenes from Norma), as did Marc McDermott who played the lecherous Baron Rapp.
Within the Law (1923):  Originally a Broadway play, the story had already been filmed twice before Norma Talmadge stared in it.  The movie would be remade several time after this one too, most notably in 1930 (as Paid) staring Joan Crawford.
Mary Turner (Norma Talmadge) is an honest girl who works for a living but barely earns enough to keep body and soul together.  She's convicted of stealing from the store where she works, a crime she didn't commit, and spends three years in prison.  While behind bars she swears she'll extract her lost years from the rich man who put her there. 

When she gets out, Mary can't find any 'decent' employment, being and ex-con.  Reaching the end of her rope she throws herself in the river, only to be rescued by Joe Garson (Lew Cody) "the cleverest con-man in New York."  Mary decides to join Joe's gang, which includes her friend from prison, Aggie (Eileen Percy), but she "intends to use the methods employed by the unscrupulous rich" and always stay within the law.  She sets her sights on the son of the department store owner who had her jailed.
This was a solid drama, though I found it a bit forgettable.  I have to admit that I found the message a little odd, especially for the times.  Mary can't get ahead by playing by the rules, but her quality of life goes up once she starts cheating, albeit legally.  So screw morality and what's right, and go after whatever you can get.  It didn't ruin the movie, far from it, the odd message made it more compelling to watch in a lot of ways.
I thought Norma overacted just a tad in a few scenes, especially when she was released for jail and contemplating suicide.  It wasn't over-the-top though and she generally gives a good performance.  Lew Cody, who would marry Mabel Normand a few years after this picture was made, was a bit wooden in his role, especially since he was supposed to be a confidence man.  Even so it was interesting to see him perform if only because of his famous soon to be wife.
The DVD:

These two films come on one single-sided DVD.
 These two films are accompanied by piano (and percussion in the case of Kiki) scores composed and performed by The Biograph Players (Kiki) and Makia Matsumura (Within the Law).  While I admit I prefer orchestral scores, these accompaniments were fine.  They were scene specific and though not as catchy as some scores, suited the movies well. I thought the Biograph Player's use of a drum set worked particularly well though. The added percussion filled the sound out and was also used to good comical effect in a few places. 
Both movies were restored by the Library of Congress, and look great.  The contrast is excellent the prints are generally clear and the detail is very good.  There are some occasional specks here and there, but they aren't distracting in the least.  A very good looking pair of silent gems.
The only extra is a photo gallery.
Final Thoughts:
Of the two recent Kino releases, I have to admit that I enjoyed the Constance Talmadge disc a bit more, though this one was good too.  Kiki was a fun comedy, but Within the Law was a bit forgettable.  Even so, both movies are good, and this is a rare chance to see movies from one of Hollywood's leading actresses of the 20's.  Recommended.

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