Saturday 17 February 2007

Coquette (1929) Sam Taylor

Someone's sitting outside Dr J M Besant's house at the opening of this film, singing Liza Jane, and that seemed a little strange given that Coquette stars Mary Pickford and thus really ought to be a silent film. She made 248 movies and this is perhaps the first of only five that have sound. It's good to hear her voice and it's not too surprising that she sounds more than a little like Billie Burke without quite so much wavering. Anyway, it's 1929, so the sound is awful and the action static. It took another year or two for this new technology to mature enough to be viable at more than very close range.

Pickford had played fourteen year olds for years but realised that at 38 there was no way she could get away with it in a sound film. So she picked this one, where she plays the coquette of the title, Norma Besant, happily chasing after about anything that has two legs to twist them all around her little finger. Pickford won an Oscar for her work and that's hard to justify on anything other than the basis of career recognition or sheer nepotism, as this was only the second year of Academy Awards and she was married to the former president of the Academy, Douglas Fairbanks. I haven't seen any of the films that provided her competition, but this was the 1928-9 awards and thus the previous year's Victor Sjöström film The Wind was eligible. I wasn't as impressed with that film as I expected to be but Lillian Gish was as awesome as I'm discovering she always was. Pickford isn't as bad as I've read but she seriously pales in comparison.

The male lead is future western star Johnny Mack Brown, playing Michael Jeffery, who Norma goes moon faced over. He's no southern gentleman, so her father wants him to never see her again but that's quite probably why she wants him so much in the first place. He half accedes to her dad's demands, disappearing off into the mountains or somewhere for six months, only to turn back up and carry on being as annoying as he was to start with. Unfortunately he's as much a waste of space as almost everyone else in the cast, both in acting performances and as characters. He's bad but John St Polis and William Janney are both truly awful, as Norma's father and brother respectively. The only exception to this rule is Louise Beavers, who didn't know how to be anything less than fine, but of course she's not given anything of substance to do because she was a black woman and it's 1929.

All in all, this is another perfect example of how Hollywood really struggled to cope with sound. The entire history of film can be summed up reasonably simply: it began with a few notable pioneers, matured in multiple locations in 1920, grew throughout the decade until the great years of 1927 and 1928, floundered around in 1929 with the advent of sound, started to get it 1930 by transcribing some decent stagebound work, hired new faces for 1931, ran riot throughout the innovative precode era, got safe in 1934 but still blossomed into the classic Hollywood we know and love, and on from there. This is 1929, so it's painfully overacted second rate stage material, with a silent star on the way out, a bunch of stage actors who should have stayed on stage, and only sound going for it. To be fair, it seems worse now than it probaby was at the time, as what appear as cliches now weren't cliches at the time, but that doesn't help much.

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