A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Coquette (Sam Taylor, 1929)

Is Mary Pickford's performance in Coquette the worst ever to win a best actress Oscar? It's certainly a bad performance, full of cute mannerisms and telegraphed emotions, along with a terrible attempt at a Southern accent. At 37, Pickford was about 20 years too old to play the flirtatious young Norma Besant, a fact that becomes especially clear when she sits on the lap of Louise Beavers, who plays her "mammy," the black servant who raised her -- Beavers was ten years younger than Pickford. But this was Pickford's first talkie after 20 years in silent films in which she become the movies' first superstar, and unlike some silent stars, she demonstrates a perfectly fine speaking voice. Still, after three more features that did only passable box office, she took the hint and retired. The main problem with Coquette is not Pickford but the creakiness of the vehicle, which had been a stage hit for Helen Hayes. The melodrama, about a flirtatious girl whose carelessness brings about disaster for both the man she loves (Johnny Mack Brown) and her father (John St. Polis) who objects to their love, is stagebound, largely because of the limitations of early sound technology, but also because screenwriter-director Sam Taylor had not made a sound film before. Pickford appears game throughout, and she's certainly a better actor than Brown or St. Polis, not to mention the callow William Janney, who plays Pickford's younger brother. In one scene Janney wears one of the most eye-offending outfits ever seen on-screen: a plaid sweater tucked into deep-pleated striped pants. My retinas have yet to recover. It's very possible that Pickford's performance stood out against the others that are in Academy records as under consideration (there were no official nominations that year): Ruth Chatterton in Madame X (Lionel Barrymore), Betty Compson in The Barker (George Fitzmaurice), Jeanne Eagels in The Letter (Jean de Limur), Corinne Griffith in The Divine Lady (Frank Lloyd), and Bessie Love in The Broadway Melody (Harry Beaumont). I've been unable to see the performances by Chatterton and Compson, but my pick so far would be Eagels.

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