Thursday, February 10, 2011

Film Reviews: Coquette & It's A Pleasure

"Coquette" **** (out of ****)

With the 83rd annual Academy Awards coming up I thought it would be interesting to write about some of the early Oscar winners. Last year, for instance, I dedicated the month to reviewing a couple of "Best Picture" winners. This year however I've been slightly distracted with other things and sadly haven't been writing on here as frequently as I once use to.

This leads us to "Coquette" (1929). Directed by Sam Taylor and starring silent screen superstar Mary Pickford, making her sound picture debut, it is the story of a love that cannot be (a la Romeo & Juliet or "Pretty in Pink" (1986) if your prefer).

"Coquette" has an unfortunate reputation. Many people believe the film is a disappointment. Normally I would attribute that attitude to an unknowing younger generation, which quite simply, sometimes finds it difficult to appreciate classic films (lets be honest). But, while perhaps there is a bit of that going on, it is not the full story. "Coquette" was dismissed upon its inital release. Too bad I say. I've seen "Coquette" several times and I must say I think it is an emotional, heartfelt tearjerker.

I've written about Mary Pickford on here before. I reviewed her in the fairy-tale romantic silent film "Suds" (1920). Pickford, whom sadly isn't as well remembered today, was a major figure in the early history of cinema. I would put her name alongside Lillian Gish, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo and Louise Brooks as the foremost silent screen actresses. She is best known for her performance in the title role "Pollyanna" (1920). She was a sweet, naive girl known for her curly hair. At one time she was given the nickname "America's Sweetheart". She also had a good business head. She was one of the founders of United Artist (along with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and husband Douglas Fairbanks).

By the time "Coquette" was made Pickford was an older woman and wanted to erase the "good girl" image which had brought her fame. Naturally audiences didn't approve. This is nothing new. Even today we see this happen when stars try to make a career transition. Viewers like their movie stars to always remain the same. "Coquette" was going to signify something new. Gone were the curls. This time Pickford was going to play a young coquette (flirt in today's lingo). The kind of woman with many admirers who feels nothing for the men in return, but, appreciates all the attention. Lots of people feel this kind of role wasn't suited for Pickford. Better to let Bow or Brooks handle these kind of characters. But I think Pickford pulls it off quite nicely.

Pickford plays Norma Besant, daughter of Dr. Besant (John St. Polis), a wealthy, well-respected southern gentlemen. His wife has passed away and now he must raise Norma and his son, Jimmy (William Janney). He doesn't seem to mind Norma's flirty ways but would prefer if she would marry another southern gentlemen, like Stanley Wentworth (Matt Moore). Instead Norma has fallen for a poor, working class boy, Michael Jeffrey (Johnny Mack Brown). Her father will not allow this. Their difference in social rank is too much to overcome. Dr. Besant is convince Michael Jeffrey is only interested in the family fortune not Norma. So he forbids Norma from ever seeing Michael.

"Coquette" suffers from the same type of problems most early talking pictures suffered from. Staged, wooden performances, as actors try to hit their marks so the microphone will pick up their voice. Johnny Mack Brown has a high squeaky voice, oddly enough he would later have success in westerns. And William Janney is over-acting to levels never reached before. Still, the film seems sincere in its emotions. And while this story of forbidden love may come off as predictable to some viewers I was pulled into the story.

Besides Pickford I was most impressed with Matt Moore. His character is the kind of everyman, the kind of character most men can see themselves in. He genuinely loves Norma. And while she is too busy look elsewhere, we know Stanley will always wait for her. There are scenes in this film when, through simple gestures, we can see his heart break. No exaggerated moments of acting. Just a simple tilt of the head. A distant look in his eyes. A shrug of the shoulders. His actions speak volumes. He doesn't have to say a word. We know precisely what he is thinking and how he feels.

The most famous scene in the movie comes at the end. It is a courtroom scene. Norma is put in a difficult position. Betray her family or praise her love for Michael. Either way, her actions will have serious consequences. Again, some viewers may find the situation overly dramatic but I was caught up in the emotions of the situation.

"Coquette" was the only movie Mary Pickford ever won an Oscar for. Years later the win is looked upon as a "sympathy" Oscar. Her win is suppose to represent her lifetime in movies. Others say politics were at play. Pickford, as I said, was married to Douglas Fairbanks, the Academy's first president. Was there pressure put on voters to let Pickford win? Maybe, maybe not. Who can say? In the end I'm glad Pickford won. I think she gives a very good performance.

As for director Sam Taylor, it is a little odd to see him direct a melodrama. Taylor had a close association with comedian Harold Lloyd. Taylor directed such pictures as "The Freshmen" (1925) and "The Cat's Paw" (1934). He directed the terrific silent romantic comedy "Exit Smiling" (1926), the John Barrymore picture "Temptest" (1928) and "My Best Girl" (1927) also with Mary Pickford. His final film as director was for the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Nothing But Trouble" (1944). Taylor knew comedy, but, here he proves he knew drama too.

Despite popular opinion I'd say give "Coquette" a chance. The movie is only available on VHS (for now). Hopefully that will change soon. Too many great movies have not been put on DVD and too many people have completely rejected VHS not understanding there are so many films which haven't been put on DVD. You still need your VCR! Don't throw them away!

"It's A Pleasure" *** (out of ****)

"It's A Pleasure" (1945) is a much different film, in tone, than "Coquette". This is a Sonja Henie vehicle, but, I wouldn't be so quick as to describe it as a musical. There is lots of figure skating but no singing. However, don't let that stop you from seeing this picture. In some ways it is the best showcase of Henie's skating ability.

Sonja Henie was a gold medalist Olympic skater. For reasons I've never been quite sure of, she decided she wanted to become a movie actress. She wasn't a great actress but 20th Century Fox signed her up. Knowing her limited range Henie correctly kept things simple. Every one of her films revolved around her playing a figure skater. Either by hobby or profession. The movies were generally musicals or light-hearted romance diversions. And it all paid off. For a time Henie was popular. Her films were box-office successes. But, just as quickly as fame came her way, so it went away. "It's A Pleasure" was her first non-Fox movie, RKO released the film upon its initial release.

I've written about Henie before. I reviewed her last 20th Century Fox musical, "Wintertime" (1943) and "Sun Valley Serenade" (1941). Both movies are worth watching. So are "My Lucky Star" (1938) and "Happy Landing" (1938). "My Lucky Star" features a wonderful "Alice in Wonderland" ice-skating interpretation.

In "It's A Pleasure" Henie plays Chris Linden, an ice-skater who works between hockey games, during half-time, dancing on ice. She is in love with hockey star, Don Martin (Michael O' Shea). Don is a drinker and a bit of a tough guy. When he punches a referee for a call he doesn't like, Don is suspended from hockey. What to do? Chris tries to get him a job in her figure skating show, which is run by Don's buddy, Buzz Fletcher (Bill Johnson).

The movie soon takes a turn as Chris and Don get married and vow never to separate, both professionally and personally. But things become difficult when Don's drinking gets in the way and Buzz's wife, Gale (Marie McDonald) has the eye for Don. The film is not too subtle about what is going on between the two of them(!).

When you take out the songs and dancing and leave the romance behind for a moment, "It's A Pleasure" is a good vehicle for Henie's figure skating. It plays a prominent part in the story and she has at least three good showcases to demonstrate her talent. I can't say the same about movies like "Sun Valley Serenade".

The movie was directed by William A. Seiter. Known primarily for musicals and comedies, he directed a few good ones. He was behind the Fred Astaire/Rita Hayworth musical "You Were Never Lovelier" (1942), the Marx Brothers comedy, "Room Service" (1938), the Laurel & Hardy comedy, "Sons of the Desert" (1933) a pair of Wheeler & Woolsey comedies; "Diplomaniacs" (1933) and "Peach-O-Reno" (1931), two of their best. Plus, he directed Loretta Young in the comedy "Three Blind Mice (1938), Alice Faye in "Sally, Irene and Mary" (1938) and the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical "Roberta" (1935). He wasn't a great director, but he was lucky enough to work with such talented people. Many at the beginning of their careers.

"It's A Pleasure" is a predictable, harmless piece of Hollywood entertainment. It is not a great film but Sonja Henie has a certain charm to her which makes the movie watchable. We like her and therefore are willing to watch the movie. It doesn't go into great dramatic depths with these characters or their story. But it does enough to keep us watching.

Check out the terrific production number for the Brazilian song "Tico-Tico" as Henie skates to it. This is before Carmen Miranda sang it in the film "Copacabana" (1947).

I wonder if this movie was in any way an inspiration for the comedy "Cutting Edge" (1993) about a hockey player who faces suspension and teams up with a figure skater.