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Upon its second year in operation, the Academy Awards were already coming face to face with their first scandal, when the Best Actress Oscar went to the least deserving of nominees, and Academy members started shouting favoritism.

Mary Pickford won the Oscar for Coquette, her first talking picture, that proved, if anything, that she was much better in silent films.  Pickford's main competition that year was Ruth Chatterton, expected to win the award for her role in Madame X, but it was rumored that Pickford had it worked into her contract for Coquette, that she would take home the big prize. After a huge success in films over the past fifteen years, the only female founding member of the Academy, earned what her biographer, Scott Eyman called 'the first lifetime achievement award'


 

Mary Pickford was born in Toronto in 1892, and with the help of an eager stage mom, went to work on the stage at the age of six.  With her mother and sister in tow, she made her way to Hollywood in 1908, and was discovered by D.W. Griffith for film.  

During the early days, Pickford became one of the first big stars.  Before actors were given credit, audiences started writing in, wanting to know who that 'adorable little girl' on the screen was.  Pickford became a sensation playing little girls in films like Poor Little Rich Girl and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. She was soon dubbed America's sweetheart,  and movie magazines of the day wrote endless stories of her fabled marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, and their grandiose home, Pickfair.  

In 1926, she became one of the founding members of United Artists, with her counterparts, Charlie Chaplin, husband Doug, and others.  Their own movie company allowed them control over their own work.  Later in the year, she became the only female founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which would create the Academy Awards.  

Meanwhile, the invention of sound on film in 1927 was turning Hollywood on its ear.  Within a year, movie houses were updating their screens to accommodate this new invention, studios were abandoning silent film productions altogether, looking to Broadway to obtain fresh scripts, and careers were being affected forever, as many of the big stars of silent film couldn't make the transition when their voices didn't match the persona that they had created in silent pictures.  Pickford was horrified by the results of her first sound test.  "That's not me!" she shrieked.  "That's a pipsqueak voice!  It's impossible.  I sound like I'm twelve or thirteen."

Pickford was among the big stars that everyone was paying close attention to when she planned to make her debut in talkies.  She bought the rights to Coquette, a play that Helen Hayes had made popular on the stage.  Coquette was the story of a flirtatious southern girl, who chooses to stand behind her father after he kills the man that she loves.   Mary was determined to make this project a success, and was quite vocal about her intentions of garnering the second Best Actress Oscar for it.  

On the set of the picture, she fired her director, and friend, Charles Rosher, when he yelled 'Cut' in the middle of one of her lines.  She didn't know at the time that a shadow had fallen across her face, as she was simply annoyed at being interrupted.  Slightly embarrassed by her behavior, she wrote him a letter saying, "I am determined to give a performance, and I have to cry a lot,"  she said.  "Tragedy is an ugly mask; I don't care how I look.  I'm going after the Oscar." 

Sound was still in its infancy, and productions were relying on overhead microphones that required that the actors remain in predetermined positions during a scene.  This was quite a change from the silent days, when the actor had the run of the set.  Sound was recorded on photographic equipment, not magnetic, as it became in just a few years.  Like photography, the sound had to be exposed and developed correctly.  In one incident, an unlucky soundman, Howard Campbell, was fired from United Artists when a daily wasn't ready for Mary's viewing.  

The end result was actually a success for Pickford, at least as far as audiences were concerned, earning considerable box office, but critics felt differently.  Coquette was typical of the early talkies, where the actors seemed too stiff, or too over the top.  Pickford seemed to be relying on an acting technique that would have worked better in silent films, or maybe the stage, with exaggerated gestures and dramatic facial expressions.  While Mary's voice seemed to fit the character to some extent, it had an impact on her career, as it seemed far too ordinary to match the screen persona that she had built over the past several years. 

Pickford went on to win the Oscar for her work, much to the surprise of others who felt that Ruth Chatterton was the shoe-in for Madame X.  "It was a creditable first try," said Photoplay.  "but few could be found who would agree with Academicians that it was last year's outstanding labor before the microphone."  

Despite the criticism, and despite grumbling from the audience who had seen it coming, Pickford took to the podium in tears, claiming, amidst her excitement, that she had forgotten her prepared speech.

 

 More

  

Pickford talks!  And a career goes down in flames!
Mary plays Norma, a southern girl who is quite popular with the boys.
Matt Moore plays Stanley Wentworth, one of Mary's many suitors.
Johnny Mack Brown plays Michael, yet another suitor, who feels he isn't up to the challenge of fitting in with her crowd.  Actually, Johnny was hired for the role based on his close resemblance to Buddy Rogers, Pickford's lover of the time.
Mary overhears her father giving Michael the boot.  Producers were not only concerned with Pickford's voice, but they also wondered if audiences would buy into a thirty seven year old woman playing a nineteen year old.
Mary intervenes when things get heated.  
Mary and Johnny plot a secret affair.
Mary's dad overhears and challenges Johnny to a duel to the death.
Mary is horrified that daddy and Johnny are going to this extreme.
Mary confides her grief to her mammy.
Mary pines for her dead lover.
Matt Moore must convince Mary to testify in favor of her father, lest he go to jail for murdering her lover.
 

Mary takes the stand in her fathers defense.

 

The district attorney brings Mary to tears. 

 
Mary's father, played by John St. Polis, steps in.
Mary is horrified when her father takes his life.
 

Coquette is available on VHS!

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