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.
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
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
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.
plays Norma, a southern girl who is quite popular with the boys.
Moore plays Stanley Wentworth, one of Mary's many suitors.
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.
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.
intervenes when things get heated.
and Johnny plot a secret affair.
dad overhears and challenges Johnny to a duel to the death.
is horrified that daddy and Johnny are going to this extreme.
confides her grief to her mammy.
pines for her dead lover.
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,