Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Perhaps I was too hard on Helen Hunt

By Edward Copeland
Earlier this year when we conducted our survey of the worst Oscar choices for best actress, I was surprised that Mary Pickford's win for Coquette managed to make the top 10 because I figured if an Oscar fanatic such as myself hadn't managed to see it, few others would have either. Thanks to TCM's annual 31 Days of Oscar, I managed to record Coquette and I finally got around to watching it. I have to think if more people such as myself had seen it, Pickford's atrocious performance in an even worse film would have landed even higher.

To say this 1929 film is creaky is to do a disservice to creaky films that are at least still watchable. This awful Southern melodrama concerns Norma Besant (Pickford), the daughter of well-to-do Southern doctor (John St. Polis) whose preoccupation with social image leads him to frown on the budding romance between Norma and Michael Jeffery (John Mack Brown).

Dr. Besant doesn't think Michael is worthy of his daughter or his family and demands an end to the forbidden romance. Of course, it's hard to keep lovers apart so I'm going to spoil the rest for you in the hopes you never have to endure this mess.

Dr. Besant goes out to confront Michael and ends up shooting him to death, making Norma torn between telling the truth of what happened or lying to say the shooting was justified in order to save her father.

Of course, in the courtroom, Dr. Besant can't stand to see his daughter torment herself by lying so he tells the judge to ignore her testimony and confesses everything before grabbing the pistol from the exhibit table (which for some reason is still loaded in the middle of the courtroom) and killing himself.

Pickford's silent beginnings are quite evident as every movement is overwrought and flamboyant and her wandering accent is laughable. However, she's hardly alone. Everyone in the cast is subpar, especially William Janney as her brother Jimmy who I swear looks in one scene as if he's reading from a Teleprompter.

Still, Pickford is the star and she's the one who picked up the second best actress Oscar ever, the first for a performance in a talkie. Of course, all the nominations were "unofficial" for 1928-29 and I've only seen Bessie Love in the awful best picture winner The Broadway Melody. I'll give the other unofficial nominees — Ruth Chatterton (Madame X), Betty Compson (Carrie), Jeanne Eagles (The Letter) and Corinne Griffith (The Divine Lady) — the benefit of the doubt and say that surely one of them had to be better than Pickford and Love.

I will give Coquette one minor bit of praise: director Sam Taylor's final shot of Norma leaving the courthouse as each passing street light illuminates when she passes was quite nice.

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one can never be too hard on helen hunt
Yes, Pickford is awful. She lobbied for it, and invited the five members of The Academy over for tea at Pickfair to cinch the deal (she is credited as being the person to introduce the concept of The Oscar Campaign).

One question - my two print sources (David Sheward & Mason Wiley/Damien Bona) list the actress' competition from 1928/29 as consisting of Love, Chatterton, Eagels and Betty Compson for The Barker as opposed to the film you cited (I can't find a film called Carrie in her filmography). Nowhere in those sources is Corinne Griffith listed as having been nominated for The Divine Lady, although I see that IMDB claims that she was. I'm curious to know whether she was in fact nominated or not, since my print sources make no mention of her. I realize since the nominations were "unofficial" at the time, it's difficult to know for certain.
I didn't have any of my books handing, so I just went with the Academy had listed in their database. Of course, in 1928-29, they say all nominations were unofficial anyway because they only announced winners.
I hate to rag on sweet Mary, who could be so charming in her silent movies, but yes, her performance in "Coquette" stinks to the heavens. Her accent alone would have qualified her for the bottom 10 list. I think perhaps she also realized she had lost it since she retired in short order. The kindest thing is just to say that "Coquette" is very, very dated and urge people to forget that Miss Pickford ever attempted talkies (from what I've heard her attempt at "The Taming of the Shrew" with then husband Douglas Fairbanks is not much of an improvement).
Ooh! Now I just have to watch this hot mess!
I discovered Mary Pickford about four years ago and since then I have seen any of her films I can find. She can do no wrong with me and I love watching her in Coquette. I especially love her scenes after the major tragedy of the film occurs. Not only do I enjoy every film I have seen her in but I always enjoy getting a feel for the years her films were made. I had no problem with her southern dialect. Back in 1929 actors got Oscars for more then one film they did in that given year. In 1929 Pickford also apeared as Kate in the first talkie of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. As Kate I never saw her more beautiful. Gorgeous! Mary Pickford deserved the Oscar she received in 1929!
While it is true that in some of the early years, actors would be nominated for multiple films, they'd still end up winning for a single one (as the year George Arliss won for Disraeli) but 1928-29 was not one of those years. Pickford was only nominated for Coquette. Pickford, like many, was a victim of her time -- someone who did well in silents, but didn't transfer well to sound. That's why she retired soon afterward. Here is the link to the official Academy database on her nomination for that year (though they considered them all unofficial anyway).
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