Running Time: 76 mins.                      Rating: xx Stars/5 Stars

MPAA Rating: NR

Director: Sam Taylor

Genre: Drama

Country: USA

Language: English

Distributor: United Artists

Cast: Mary Pickford, Johnny Mack Brown, Matt Moore, John St. Polis, Louise Beavers

Like a fly in amber, one may study why a bad film is so bad.

Many, many years ago, in a universe far, far away, film criticism was bound on one side by studio style, and on the other by cycle, or what we would call today, ‘genre’. History was rendered chronologically, year by year. Early talkies like COQUETTE (1929) were dismissed as stagy because of the primitive sound equipment available during the transition to sound. The dynamic photography and fluid narrative of late silent cinema was sacrificed. SINGING IN THE RAIN satirizes this period, which was also known for the fall of gigantic movie stars who couldn’t, for one reason or another, make the transition to sound. Some later research mentioned that a lot of writers headed to Hollywood, initially playwrights and later journalists. But first came the plays, avidly bought up by the moguls as sure fire hits because now people living in any town large enough to have a movie theater (virtually everywhere) could see a Broadway play with real stars. This was a founding cornerstone of the film business – Adolf Zukor’s company had been called Famous Players Film Company whose slogan was “Famous Players in Famous Plays”. The idea of sound naturally lent itself to the hit plays of the era.

Today, with film archives, cable TV, videotapes and DVDs not to mention restoration projects, what was once taken on faith can now be examined by scholars and all.

What has never been mentioned in connection to the poor quality and subsequent unpopularity of these films was the mediocre to awful Broadway plays of the era. Even before Broadway became the realm of vulgar and witless tourists, New Yorkers supported real junk. Viz: COQUETTE. As presented on the American stage starring the First Lady of the American Stage, Mrs. Helen Mellon herself, COQUETTE has one idea which is played out with a singular relentlessness to the exclusion of any sub plot, social consciousness, moral or ethical controversy, nuance, humor or reflection. It’s a heliocentric world and the leading actress is the sun. Everyone else navigating the stage exists to serve the queen bee. It’s left to her to strike this pose and that, as the audience would want to respond to each change in the facts of her emotional environment are manipulated.

Of course this is all play-acting. Nothing is meant to resemble actual human behavior. In one short stretch, COQUETTE’s father murders her fiancée who dies pitifully in her arms and her father blows his brains out with a pistol in front of her after eliciting condemning court testimony. She seems none the worse for wear, maybe a touch wistful (its in the stage directions?). A real person may become a mite nervous but I guess in those days when a relative went ‘funny’ they were just quietly placed somewhere out of sight.

This wasn’t real life, this was a night out. Sure there was Ibsen and O’Neill but this wasn’t that. The funny thing was that because of the change in economic conditions which happened almost simultaneously with the change over to sound what flew with the uncritical Broadway audience in the ‘20s became so inconsequential that it was no longer an evening out. It was so beside the point.

In COQUETTE, sub-titled ” A Play of the American South”, we deal with stock characters in stock situations. Father is a gent of the old school who throws a most unsuitable suitor for his daughter’s hand out of his house and bids him to never darken his daughter again. The suitor, played by Alabama All-American football player Johnny Mack Brown we have to take on faith is disadvantaged in class, to wit: he doesn’t own a suitable suit of evening clothes for the seasonal country club balls. Imagine if he’d been black?

He pledges to overcome his disadvantages by taking an unspecified job ‘in the mountains’ where he’d make enough money to get married to her and buy a house. If you gotta ask how come these more liberally munificent jobs seems to exist outside the town, ‘in the mountains’, this play ain’t fer the likes of you all.

COQUETTE is compromised on a visit to COQUETTE at a country club ball and earnestly wants to make this all right by marring her. Dad reacts to the joyful news by plugging him. COQUETTE in court tells a story in euphemisms which adds up to her being raped and her father acting under “the unwritten law”, suh. Dad tells her to tell the truth and blows out his brains.

That’s the play a simple straight line, no deviation, no nothing else. Act One Father disapproves of daughter’s boyfriend, Act Two he is on trial for killing him. Even though it was filmed on a sound stage it seems as if great designer William Cameron Menzies has just cleverly redressed one set to look like the living room of the mansion, the country club and most disturbing of all, the courtroom.

And then we’re done.

Savagely bad, it made a million bucks when that meant something and won Mary Pickford a Best Actress Oscar, the dubiousness of which is on view for all to see. The disappointment with these early talkies would become screamingly clear a year later when picture after picture would fail. The stars would be replaced and the business reinvigorated by more sophisticated techniques and stories.

In short, it was a steep learning curve and COQUETTE is at the very beginning of the curve so it is important as a historical document only. It is a filmed play complete with a phantom proscenium. It misses being a chore to watch because of its short running time, but it still is a time waster. Unless you are the type who likes to mix their idol worship with necrophilia. Then, this truly is your meat.

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