COQUETTE: A DRAMA OF THE AMERICAN SOUTH
When the transition from silent to sound films took place, some stars rose, some fell. Among those who struggled with the coming of 'talkies' was Mary Pickford, who before sound had been America's Sweetheart (via Canada) and one of the great silent film stars of all time, known throughout the world. She was about the only person, male or female, to rival Charlie Chaplin in popularity. Pickford was the first major star to make the transition, her shrewd producer's mind knowing that despite her love for silent films knew they were coming to an end. Coquette, curiously, is not just interesting because it was Pickford's move from silence to sound. This is an early example of someone going for a radical change in persona.
The Girl With the Golden Curls had become a star primarily for playing children (a remarkable feat given she was a woman in her 30s). She was seen as this symbol of purity, spunk, sweetness, and Coquette showed a Pickford her fans couldn't imagine, what with her bobbed hair and wildly flirtatious manner. This would not be the last time a star took a role where they played against type, or that they would be rewarded with an Academy Award for this wild turnabout. However, Coquette as a film is a sheer disaster: stagey, clumsy, horrendously acted (even by Pickford), and so mind-numbingly dull and lifeless both the film and Pickford's performance will rank among the Academy Awards' worst choices.
Norma Besant (Pickford) is a total flittering flirt, going hither and yon from one man to another. Her father, Dr. John Besant (John St. Polis) is displeased with his daughter's wayward ways, but given she just teases without actually attaching herself to any real scandal, there's not much he can do on the subject. Dr. Besant prefers the solid Stanley (Matt Moore) for a son-in-law, and while Norma toys with him, she now has her eyes set on the newest hunk to come around these here parts, one Michael Jeffrey (John Mack Brown). He, however, is poor, hill country folk I think, while the Besants are from Southern aristocracy. Norma tells Michael she'll marry him once he gets established and can show Daddy he's a good egg.
We go from the Summer Dance on June 16, 1928, to the Autumn Dance on September 18, to find that Michael can't truly stay away from the divine Norma. For her part, while she is happy to do the Charleston and be the flapper she was born to be, Norma too finds Michael too hard to resist. Discovering he is hiding outside the Country Club, she goes to him and swears eternal love. However, Daddy Dearest won't go for this poor white trash a'courtin' his little honey-lamb, and is more outraged when we all discover they 'spent the night together'. There's an argument that ensues, with Michael swearing to take her away. Dr. Besant isn't about to let THAT happen, and up at Michael's shack, he lays dying of a gunshot wound.
Norma comforts him, pleading for him to stay with her and of the life they will lead together. However, it is all for naught, and now her father must stand trial for murder (I guess Islamists aren't the first to go for these 'honor killing' things, only Southerners at least killed the guy not the girl).
In any case, at trial Norma confesses to her wicked, wicked ways. She says she could not resist Michael's lovemaking. As it stands, while on the witness stand she sees the results of her actions, and Dr. Besant sees that he was wrong in what he did. Taking a page out of Chekov's belief that if you introduce a gun into the story, you should use it, Dr. Besant takes the honorable way out (because, well, courts usually leave bullets in guns used as prosecution exhibits). Norma, devastated by all that has happened, walks back home sadly, saying she has to help her not-so-little brother Jimmy (William Janney) with his math schoolwork.
Whether it was because this was her talking picture debut or because this film broke from her "little girl" image, I think in the long-run Pickford could simply not have made a worse choice in material than in Coquette. The mannerisms of silent films, coupled with the technical limitations of early sound films, seemed absolutely determined to make Pickford look more than ill-at-ease with the microphone. It made her look incompetent and almost ghoulish.
Unlike her previous films, Pickford could not rely on a sweet charm to carry her through. The hair and clothes styles marked her as a woman simply far too old-looking to play what is suppose to be a teenage to early twenties character with any sense of reality. That isn't a real deal-breaker, but her performance is. Pickford's Southern belle is so broad and mannered she make Rue McClanahan's Blanche Devereaux seem downright tame. Again and again her histrionics came across as if Pickford were either under the impression that Coquette was a comedy or a silent film. Throughout Coquette one sees that Pickford was finding the transition from silent to sound film acting a bit difficult since she is technically speaking but using her face and body to push her performance. Her overwrought reaction to Michael's death nowadays might elicit laughter rather than tears.
That isn't to say Pickford alone shares the blame for Coquette's failure. None of the actors did particularly well, being so dramatic it is in turns laughable and unbearable. Perhaps it is fitting therefore that Louise Beavers as their maid Julia is the only sensible character in the film. As a digression, it doesn't help in making Norma a sensible person when she not only acts like a child, but goes so far as to sit on Julia's lap! Of particular note in the 'really bad acting' department is Brown, who looks physically imposing and appealing but once he starts to shake his fists or do anything close to human actions, he is stiff throughout. As a corpse he's quite convincing though.
What really damns the film more is the technical flubs in it. It's so stagey, forcing everyone to stand in a particular spot to have the audio recorded. Stanley, for example, stands in the exact same spot that Jimmy was only a few minutes prior, which makes clear where the microphone was. Adding more chaos is in how the sets look just like sets, and how the transition from day to night looks strange, almost making it too dark to see. Finally, at the country club scene, the music is curiously so loud that the dialogue is all but drowned out, showing that filmmakers still hadn't found the right balance and making this really a hard film to watch.
However, Coquette would be a hard film to watch regardless of the clumsiness of early sound films. Badly acted (especially in what Pickford probably thought was one of her defining roles, down to a shocking Oscar win...and that was even before people thought the Oscars actually meant anything), Coquette is worth watching only to see just how difficult the transition from silent to sound was. Perhaps if Coquette had been a silent picture, it might have worked better. It still might have been a bit broad, but at least it would have spared us some really bad dialogue and dimwitted characters. It might also have allowed for a more artfully crafted film where they were not confined by the locked-in camera.
Coquette may have won Mary Pickford her desired Best Actress Oscar, but this film does not a legend become. To get a true taste of Mary Pickford's brilliance, try one of her silent films. The least said about Coquette in terms of Mary Pickford and the Academy Awards, the better. In this case, it is true: Silence IS Golden.