Director: Sam Taylor. Cast: Mary Pickford, John St. Polis, John Mack Brown, Matt Moore, William Janney, Louise Beavers, Henry Kolker, George Irving. Screenplay: John Grey & Allen McNeil and Sam Taylor (based on the play by George Abbott and Ann Preston Bridgers).

You know, as much as people complain about the violence and prurience and excessive sexuality in contemporary culture, I can't say that earlier movies offer reliable proof that things were always better. Different, sure, but no less sensational, no less amoral. Take Coquette; as Groucho Marx used to joke, please, take it. Mary Pickford won an Oscar for this film in what remains one of the most widely ridiculed victories in the Academy's history. Pickford was one of the founding members of the Academy and sat on its board the year she won, despite the commercial failure of the picture and the severe unpopularity of her performance in it.

I guess 1929 audiences knew a stinker when they saw one coming. There is very little to criticize in Coquette, because there is so little in it, period. Pickford twitters about in the role of Norma Besant; the first sign that this is antique material is that it actually hails from a time when Norma was a sexy, glamorous name: Norma Shearer, Norma the opera. These days, it sounds like somebody's grandmother (with apologies to all the Norma's out there, and to all the grandmothers). But a graceless name doesn't stop Norma from flitting hither and yon in a hilariously gaudy, flyaway tutu, receiving gentlemen callers, painting little circles of lipstick on the exact center of her mouth. Her father, a dead ringer for William Faulkner, seems to wish Norma would marry a totally boring character named Stanley who is the father's friend, and much too stolid for her. She prefers the attentions of Michael Jeffrey (John Mack Brown), a rough 'n' tumble type who's landed Norma's name in the papers after defending her reputation in a street scuffle.

The movie takes about 20 minutes to set up this fascinating, unheralded scenario wherein a silly girl prefers the wrong guy, who might actually be the right guy, because the "right" guy is so dully wrong, and her father is wrong about who is really right. A young and toothy actor called William Janney swims around a few scenes as Norma's brother Jimmy, scattering his punchlines with as little verve as possible, and Louise Beavers, that old sainted soul, endures another round as the cooking, sassing Mammy figure who gladly welcomes a weepy Norma into her lap and onto her bosom when romance, gosh durn it, just ain't going the way she'd like. Suddenly, the screenplay flat-foots the accelerator: Michael moves into the woods for six months to prove that he loves Norma, but then reappears to her when he shouldn't, which gets Dad mad, which makes him shoot Michael, killing him, putting Dad on trial, making Norma dangerously angry until she realizes her daughterly duty to lie on Dad's behalf. He decides to save her the trouble not only of perjury but of standard courtroom procedure, nestling into the witness stand to comfort her with a hug—all that testifyin', it's got her at her wit's end!—and then, so that everyone else can just move on with their lives, too, he takes his own life in the courtroom. With the original murder weapon, tagged as evidence and still loaded. Norma, putatively destroyed but not born yesterday, realizes this is a great opportunity for a ravaged, pained closeup, which Pickford almost blows entirely by looking downward for half the shot, her hat brim the very image of filial grief. You'd think with an operatic name, she'd at least get a great mad scene at the end, but instead, after 75 minutes of its own narrative dementia, the film opts for succinctness: Pickford resists one last pass from Stanley (girls are at their most luscious, I guess, when their dads have just shot one through the old kipper), and gliding home on the gaslamp streets with one of the great, MST3K-ready last lines in the early sound era: "I have to go help Jimmy with his algebra!"

What on earth is this thing? It was a play before someone (Pickford herself, I'd guess) anointed it as her first talkie. The director, Sam Taylor, was a Pickford favorite; he directed her in that version of The Taming of the Shrew with the immortal script credit, "by William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor." In charitable moments, one might recall that, with such a new format as the talking picture, maybe everyone is still getting used to where they're supposed to project and what they're supposed to be doing. Who has time for a story or a performance? The close-ups—Norma is Sad! Norma is Glad! Michael Very Angry!—are so blithely mismatched to the general blocking of each scene that they seem like a William Burroughs cut-up experiment way before its time. The whole thing is almost as funny as the sequences in Singin' in the Rain where Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen are struggling through their first sound flick. Except that film is supposed to be funny, and Hagen is supposed to be bad in it.

So, snark snark snark. Coquette is as bad as you've heard, and it's easy to feel superior and supercilious to. But taking it seriously in the only way possible, what does it mean that this play was ever written? A silly melodrama played very lightly, where the characters don't behave or make sense, they just do stuff. It's like a flip-book of tenuously connected scenes: just because Michael's a tough in Scene 3 doesn't mean he can't be a prince in Scene 4, and sure, Dad's heart can melt from its glacial indifference within a moment or two if that will create the right climate for a suicide climax, a real grabber for the audience. Coquette is early evidence that Hollywood already couldn't help looking at a love story and thinking of violence, or searching for an ending and electing on, why not, a courtroom showdown. The movie is a machine for producing three things: closeups and gowns for Mary Pickford (dubious as they are), two dead bodies for maximum storytelling interest, and the inevitable pretense that the Old South was a rarefied and mysterious place, full of concepts like Honor and Chastity (and, only obliquely, House Servitude) that are somehow supposed to make all this nonsense seem poetic, nostalgic, meaningful. An artistic medium has just been revolutionized, and this is what its biggest star elects to do with it? Hundreds of years of Anglo-American theater and this is as far as stage dramas had been required to progress?

There is so little percentage in kicking around a film that's 75 years old, whose middling actors are virtually all lost to history, and which nobody much liked to begin with. It's annoying to realize what popular cinema could have been had its most powerful impulses at a moment of technological reckoning been any less reactionary: the wasting of actresses, the bowdlerizing of history, and the underestimation of audiences are not new things. But then, let's take the positive approach—thank goodness all those Lubitsches and Cukors and Sternbergs and Capras and Gouldings arrived just in time to elevate the romantic film genre so far above this kind of inauspicious and unambitious first pass. Coquette only exists today because Pickford won her Oscar; otherwise, I'm sure the print would have been left to split and erode like most of the other films made in 1929. It exists now as a milestone, but not in the way Pickford might have liked. Wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and you can draw a straight line from Coquette to, say, Cold Mountain, and you can see how perverted our public sense of regional history and our appetites for screen drama have remained for three generations. On a better day, you can use Coquette as the innocuous benchmark by which Morocco and Dinner at Eight and Trouble in Paradise and It Happened One Night, all made in the ensuing five years, look even more like the miracles they are. They couldn't have come a moment too soon. And did you ever notice Mary Pickford wasn't asked to star in any of them? D

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress: Mary Pickford

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