Monday, April 13, 2015

1928/1929: Mary Pickford for Coquette

In Mary Pickford's first talking picture, she plays a flirtatious Southern belle who has most of the young gentlemen in town wrapped around her finger. But then she falls for a lower class so-called scoundrel, despite her father's strong objections, and eventually she must choose between the man she loves and the father she adores.

It might be just because it's such an early talkie, but I didn't think this movie was very good. It took a while for people to completely figure out how to record the sounds they wanted in the film without recording sounds they didn't want, so by today's standards it's laughable from a technical standpoint. Yes, a lot of the lines are hard to hear, and some scenes are kind of awkward because camera movement was limited, but I was kind of expecting that, and I don't think that's why I didn't like it. Honestly, I thought the performances were kind of terrible, Pickford's included.

For one thing, everybody had a really bad Southern accent, and Mary Pickford's was probably the worst. In real life she was Canadian, which is kind of the opposite of Southern, so I guess that makes sense. She also had a really obnoxious, squeaky voice. I'm not sure if that's how she actually talked, or if she was putting it on as part of her accent, or if it was just the early sound recording, but it's difficult to focus on what she's saying when you can hardly bear to listen to the way she says it. And then there were the overly dramatic faces and over-the-top gestures that worked really well in silent films, but just seemed ridiculous when combined with actual talking. There were a couple of times throughout the film when it actually started to get watchable, but invariably someone would mess it up by getting too melodramatic. Most of the time I felt like I was watching The Dueling Cavalier from Singin' in the Rain, and I kept waiting for the sound to get out of sync. To be fair, Pickford did have a few minutes of really good acting, but overall her performance was less than impressive.

Before watching this movie, I had read that Pickford only won this Oscar because she was one of the Academy's founding members, and because she kept inviting the judges over to her mansion for tea. I don't know how accurate that is, but I can definitely see why people don't think she deserved the award for this performance. However, I'm not too upset about it because I feel like she deserved to win for something. Pickford was a legendary silent film star, and, together with her husband Douglas Fairbanks, was part of one of Hollywood's first power couples. Her first film was made in 1909, and twenty years later, Coquette became her 246th. Since by then she was one of the few actresses to actually have control over her own films, it was presumably her own idea to jump on the talkie bandwagon with this film. Unfortunately, that marked the beginning of the end of Pickford's career. She was one of the many silent film stars who failed to successfully make the transition into talking pictures, which is probably at least partially due to how weird her voice sounded in this film. But if the Academy Awards had started a few years sooner, she probably would have won Best Actress for at least one of her silent films. Granted, I wasn't there, but it seems to me that her winning this was probably a combination of her status, her lobbying, and the Academy making up for missing out on her earlier performances. I guess there are worse reasons for winning an Oscar.

Since she stopped making films only a few years later, Pickford was never nominated for another Academy Award, but she did win an Honorary Oscar in 1976. Next up is Norma Shearer, another Canadian silent film star.

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