One of the best-documented films among the pages of Mary Pickford scrapbooks and press clippings is Coquette, notable for being her first talking picture and earning her the Academy Award as 1929’s best actress. After co-founding the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 1927, Pickford set out to win one of the coveted gold statuettes that would soon be nicknamed Oscar. In the process, she would drastically alter her appearance and acting style while conquering her fear of the new sound technology.
Fifteen years before talkies shook up the industry, Mary was already anticipating the day when her voice would be recorded. “It will be wonderful if moving-picture plays with the voice, as Edison suggests, can be made practicable,” she told the Exhibitors’ Times in 1913. “But my voice! Oh, that worries me!” Despite her early theatrical experience, four years of mute acting in silent films had robbed Mary of confidence in her vocal ability. She feared her Canadian accent would be apparent in her R’s, which she felt were “too harsh,” and that she had what she called “a pipsqueak’s voice.”
When she took a break from pictures in 1913 and returned to the stage in A Good Little Devil, she was “frightened to death” about speaking in front of an audience, as she told George Pratt in a 1958 interview. One of her lines was “Since I lost my gold scissors” and she later recalled, “Every time I would say it I was so afraid I couldn’t say ‘scissors.’ … I thought, wouldn’t it be awful if I would open my mouth and no sound would come out?”
Pickford and the rest of Hollywood’s silent stars had little reason to worry about inadequate voices for the next decade and a half. It wasn’t until The Jazz Singer caused a sensation in 1927 that they began to have cause for concern, though most still considered talking pictures a short-lived fad. The famous quote “Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo” has been attributed to Mary, and as late as July of 1928 The Los Angeles Times was reporting her staunch refusal to trade in the familiar world of silence for sound. Yet by October of that year she had purchased the play Coquette and announced her intention to make it an “all-talking picture.”
A longing to break loose from her world-famous image may have been behind the sudden change of heart. “I wanted to be free of the shackles of curls and playing little girls and I thought that [sound] was one step toward it,” she later admitted. “When I found Hollywood in the throes of the talking-picture revolution, I realized that the time was opportune for the transition I had desired for years.” This transition would involve bobbing her trademark curls and playing a woman involved in a tragic love affair. In her determination to win the Academy Award, Mary even parted ways with her longtime cinematographer Charles Rosher because she feared his camera lens might be too gentle for the realism she strove to convey in Coquette. “I am going after the Oscar,” she later recalled telling him, “and I want to give a performance for a change.”
Before she could give that performance a voice test was required. At Paramount’s recording studio surrounded by experts, Mary was appalled at the sound of her own voice. “I was horribly shocked when I heard it,” she said. “It seemed to sound like a girl in her teens when I had expected deeper and more mature tones.” So unnerved was she during the first days of shooting Coquette that national papers reported “two physicians have been advising her constantly as a result of the strain before this unfamiliar sound apparatus.”
Despite the insecurity about her voice, Mary Pickford became the first major movie star to make the leap into talkies and Coquette became one of the first talkies to dispense with the custom of shooting a silent version as a back-up, to be shown in theaters not yet equipped for sound. At the April 1929 premiere she boldly announced she intended to make “nothing but all-talkers, since the talking picture is here to stay.” Mary knew that once the microphone was switched on, there was no switching it off.
Fortunately, reactions to the new talking America’s Sweetheart were overwhelmingly positive from critics and audiences. “None of Miss Pickford’s admirers will be disillusioned by hearing her voice,” a Mid-Week Pictorial reporter wrote. “She talks just as Mary Pickford ought to talk.” A publicity campaign was even built around Mary’s “perfect screen voice,” a feature that was heavily touted in posters, magazine ads and marquees nationwide, successfully drawing millions of curious movie fans into theaters.
Whether for the quality of her performance alone or because she wielded such clout in Hollywood, as some have claimed – or a bit of both – the world may never know. But Mary did win her sought-after Oscar in 1930, proving that as actress and producer she had what it took to rise above the obstacles of primitive early talkie technology and shine in the new medium. Nor would she stop there, as later scrapbook clippings show. Once the forward-thinking Pickford had conquered sound films, she went on to radio in the 1930s, and was soon looking even beyond radio. She told the San Francisco Call-Bulletin in 1934, “We shall progress much further in our world communication. There is a need of a common tongue for all peoples. We will have greater need of it when television comes, as it surely will and before long.”
Sources include Mary Pickford scrapbooks #34 and #49 at the Margaret Herrick Library, MPF scrapbook #1, various publications from the Media History Digital Library and a 1958 audio interview with George Pratt.