Warner Archive Review: Mary Pickford’s ‘Coquette’

While the Warner Archive Collection’s Blu-ray releases get most of the attention these days, the label has still found plenty of rare movies to release on DVD only, even in its 10th year of existence. One release that surprisingly flew under the radar is the first ever DVD release of Coquette, Mary Pickford’s first talkie and the film that earned her the second Best Actress Oscar at the 1928/29 Academy Awards.

Mary Pickford (right) and John Mack Brown in Coquette.

While many of the early Best Actress winners are rather fascinating – from Janet Gaynor‘s heartbreaking performances in Sunrise and Street Angel, to Katharine Hepburn’s daring announcement of a new kind of acting in Morning Glory – Pickford’s performance in Coquette has been largely forgotten. Overshadowed by her monumental career in silent films, Coquette really does not present the “America’s Sweetheart” image that made her one of the biggest stars of her day.

Instead, Coquette is more in line with the stagey, static early talkies from 1929. Based on the stage play by George Abbott and Ann Preston Bridges, the 78-minute movie finds a 37-year-old Pickford playing the much younger Norma Besant, a wealthy Southern girl who likes to jump from bed to bed with men. She finally sets her heart on Michael Jeffery (Johnny Mack Brown), but her widowed father Dr. John M. Besant (John St. Polis) is opposed because Michael comes from a lower social class.

One night, they are seen going to Michael’s mother’s cabin by themselves, which Dr. Besant sees as a scandal. Believing he is defending his daughter’s honor, Dr. Besant kills Michael, setting up a dramatic court room scene where Norma is torn between saving her father from a death sentence and honoring her deceased lover.

Director Sam Taylor was better known for his work with Harold Lloyd, and tries his best to work within the confines of early sound technology. With the help of cinematographer Karl Struss, he manages to create some pretty good images and dramatic close-ups.

Whatever visual statement Struss and Taylor try to make with this film has to take a back seat to Pickford’s performance. They understand, as much as the audience does, that their biggest job here is to present her as well as possible and they succeed. That’s mostly because Pickford’s performance is genuinely good. In spots, it can be difficult to swallow her playing a young Southern Belle character, but she really shines during Michael’s deathbed scene and in the final moments in the courtroom. She really reaches into her silent past to convey something dialog cannot. If only her co-stars in this film were up to her level.

Mary Pickford in Coquette.

It is easy to see why Coquette easily slipped through the cracks, despite its status as an Oscar-winning film. The film is in rough shape, as made clear by Warner Archive’s DVD release. It does the film no favors to see it look rather blocky on a television as well. The soundtrack also leaves much to be desired, with the fake Southern accents making it even more difficult to understand the actors. You’ve got to raise the volume really high to get everything, and as usual, there are no subtitles on the disc.

There are no bonus features or trailers on the disc.

Coquette is a fascinating relic. While it is actually better than expected, the picture quality and lack of even a trailer makes it difficult to endorse at its full price. Mary Pickford fans should have this in their shopping cart the next time Warner Archive does a sale.

Thanks to Warner Archive for providing this disc to review! You can get it now at WBShop.com/WarnerArchive. All screenshots are taken right from the DVD.

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