March 20, 2021
Coquette – U.S., 1929
Time has not been kind to Sam Taylor’s Coquette. The film opens with an exterior shot of a southern mansion, and as we peer inside, we see one of those ill-advised shots so frequently seen in old Hollywood of a black male lazily strumming on the guitar from one of the lower steps of the stairwell. As the day breaks, the camera focuses on a black maid preparing breakfast while decked out in clothes that suggests a film set in the antebellum South. That impression is reinforced by the sudden appearance of a young White teenager who proceeds to chastise the maid for not having his father’s coffee ready and then boasting to his father of having lit a fire in her with his insulting insinuations of idleness. So, yes, you could say the film has its foot in its mouth from the get-go.
Sadly, this is hardly the film’s most distinguishing feature. See, Coquette is based on George Abbot and Ann Preston Bridgers’s play of the same name, which ran in New York City from December 1927 to October 1928, and while none of the cast of Taylor’s adaptation seems to have appeared in the Broadway version, Taylor’s direction seems almost certain to have been inspired by that production. In fact, a common instruction to the cast appears to have been to lift your head and stare wistfully at the back of the room, despite the fact that the person you are talking to is directly to your right. Oh, and be sure to freeze in key positions with your face forward and arms on your hips. Dramatic effect, you know. It is as if they anticipated an ovation or laughter and wanted the commotion to die down before continuing. All perfectly acceptable on stage, but utterly distracting on camera.
Coquette takes place in an unnamed Southern state in the then present-day. We know this because at a dance, we see a bunch of young people bustin’ a move to the latest swing grooves. Early on in the film, we learn that Norma Besant, the daughter of a successful doctor named John Besant (John St. Polis), has acquired a reputation for being a bit of a “coquette” (flirt), which was apparently such an insult that the mere mention of the word is enough to start a physical altercation. The moniker is not entirely inaccurate, for there’s talk between the doctor and his son, Jimmy (William Janney), of her receiving the attention of at least fifteen young men. The problem is the double standard: There’s nothing wrong with that many young men pursuing the same woman, but shame on the woman for enjoying all that attention.
We meet Stanley Wentworth (Matt Moore), one of Norma’s suitors, early on the film. Stanley is kind, considerate, well-dressed, and apparently successful. He also gets along well with Norma’s father. Therefore, he must be rejected. It’s one of cinema’s golden rules: the irrational choice is always preferable to the rational. And so, Norma sets her sights on Michael Jeffrey (Johnny Mack Brown), an admittedly lethargic gentleman who breaks a date with her because he deems his attire not up to party standards. Somehow that appeals to Norma. When he learns that Norma returns his feelings, he vows to change his ways; to prove his love, he decides to take a job far away in the “hills” (in the mining industry perhaps), work and save for six months, and then return to marry Norma.
Bear in mind, these two have only been a couple for ten minutes, so for this sudden vow of change and commitment to work, the scene must establish the kind of connection that drew Romeo and Juliet together. And it is here that the film fails. Their conversation starts off understandably awkward, as Norma has to come to terms with her newly-discovered feelings, and Pickford plays this realization as well as she can, despite some extremely questionable staging and a few too many gestures from the silent era that proved hard to remove from her repertoire. No, the problem is Michael or rather the way the character has been written. It is hard to see what Norma would see in him. What’s needed are a few more scenes establishing their love; instead, after a confrontation with Norma’s father, the character leaves town, meaning that the entire relationship is based on a fifteen-minute conversation and followed by three months of separation. Perhaps he is an incredibly romantic letter writer.
Coquette is one of those films that diminishes in quality the more I think about it. There’s the annoying way that every scene featuring Jimmie has a variation of the sentence opener I like a girl who; Michael’s incessant eccentricities, which in one scene have him berating himself for not being strong enough to resist returning to see Norma; Michael’s supposedly thoughtful notion that he had better not be alone with Norma because he “can’t control himself”; and the film’s discomfort-inducing subtext regarding just who Norma loves more, her fiancé or her father.
Nevertheless, there is an unmistakable draw to Coquette. Pickford was always a powerhouse in front of the camera, and Coquette gives her some incredible emotional moments to tackle, all of which she nails memorably. St. Polis is also impressive. In what is essentially the Daddy Capulet role, he is controlling, yet caring; emotional, yet honorable, and it is clear that love is, if not the first, the second factor driving his decisions. Also, Moore impresses in the role of Stanley. It is clear that his motivation is making Norma happy, and when she chooses Michael, he does what he can to help it work out, while never completely concealing the heartbroken look in his eyes. And then there’s Louise Beavers. While the role is stereotypical and her wardrobe deeply troubling, Beavers does what she can to make the character more than it is. She roles her eyes at the absurdity of the son and never makes his and his father’s interpretation of her become the viewers’. And then there’s her masterstroke. In one scene, she sits Norma on her lap and gently listens as she details the sordid tale to her, just as a mother would to her daughter. It is an important reminder of the important role that African-American women have played throughout history.
Pickford won Best Actress for her work in Coquette, an award that raised eyebrows given the fact that her husband was president of the Academy and the process by which awards were determined at that time was hardly incorruptible. While her work is fine here, modern critics have often cited Jeanne Eagels work in The Letter as the true acting high mark of 1929. Having seen the two films, I would agree, but few people could say that Pickford wasn’t worthy of some form of recognition given her impact on films in the years before sound. If Coquette works, it is primarily because she creates a character that that we grow to root for. I was with Norma from her initial descent down the stairs until the credits rolled, and no amount of after-the-fact misgivings can change that. (on DVD from Warner Bros. Archive Collection)