Monday, 11 June 2012

Phenomenal Mary Pickford… The Hoodlum (1919)

There’s been a great deal on Mary Pickford over recent weeks in this thing we may still call the blogosphere, chiefly as part of the excellent Pickford Blogathon run by Classic Movies.

I have to confess to knowing very little about this powerhouse of early silent film. Her fame pretty much matched that of Chaplin and she was arguably the most famous woman in cinema, if not the World, during the Great War and beyond.

I’d seen her act very intelligently in the Griffiths short, The New York Hat but had been put off further investigation by an impression that she acted “under her age” and in flimsy comedy-dramas that were of strictly "pop" appeal.

Well, once again, I was wrong and now it’s my turn to gush...

Mary Pickford was the most popular actress of this period because she was undoubtedly technically advanced and because she controlled the quality of her productions. She also looked the part and watching The Hoodlum from 1919, she projected an easy-going likeability that was no doubt the result of many years work in perfecting her craft but which also came from within. She was natural, relaxed and good looking - someone you could easily connect with.

Here the script is a bit wayward but it matters not because Mary holds it all together with a sureness of expression that is quite remarkable. She’s next-door naturalistic all the way through from the spoilt brat at the beginning to the street hustling dice player who wins over the Craigen Street locals and then the lover who stands up for the wronged man at the end.

Pickford had a comic touch that seemingly transcends common sense: she takes us with her with a nod and a wink of massive energetic eyes that convey almost unlimited emotional intelligence.

Mary plays Amy Burke the grand-daughter of the fearsome multi-millionaire Alexander Guthrie (Ralph Lewis) who lives in the lap of 5th Avenue luxury getting her way whenever she likes. She throws tantrums, tortures her poor cat and drives like a mad woman.

Her father (Dwight Crittendon) is absent, involved in some vague research down town where he lives amongst the poor people of Craigen Street documenting their living conditions and doing good work.

Grandpa Guthrie asks Amy to come travelling with him but she refuses wanting to spend more time with her father. This does not go down well and we see a space open up between the two as she heads for a new experience below her class.

Amy learns early on that she must blend in to preserve her father’s “life’s work” and not give the game away. She quickly transforms from a spoilt brat into a street wise, wise-cracking bowery babe, playing craps, dancing in the street and playing the local police for fools.

A mysterious stranger arrives to stay, Peter Cooper, who is quickly revealed to the audience as Guthrie in not very convincing disguise… He has come to observe his grand daughter and is appalled - what has happened to his princess?

But Amy is now part of this new society and helps to look after her neighbours…helping to stop the feud between two neighbours by setting up a mock fight for one to rescue the other, getting help for a sick mother unable to tend to her many children and generally pitching in using her energy for good.

She also takes a shine to a young man, John Graham (Kenneth Harlan) who is seemingly an impoverished painter but who is actually hiding a secret: he was wrongly found guilty of fraud and, after serving his time, is trying to gather evidence to regain his good name.

The man he holds responsible for his misfortune is one Alexander Guthrie …oh dear.

Amy begins to drag the bearded old man into events and, reluctantly at first, her Grandfather begins to see the benefit of giving and he sees that this experience has made Amy a better person. But things come to a head as Amy, finally learning John’s secret, helps him break into her Grandfather’s house to steal the ledger that will show his innocence.

Things go awry and they are caught by the police and then by Guthrie. Devastated by Amy’s seemingly criminal betrayal, he tells the police that he will deal with them. Amy tells him of John’s situation and then Guthrie is revealed to be the caring and generous Peter Cooper… There are more twists and turns than in a Regency play but everything works out in the end and we finish with Amy marrying John and heading off to happiness after one last comic flourish.

So…The Hoodlum is no earnest masterpiece of social commentary but it is a very entertaining film and you do care for the characters. A lot of this is down to Mary Pickford and her peculiar gift must have been to carry films no matter what the premise and the quality of script.

She just has it all within her range and you believe her. Whether you’d believe her as a 12 year old girl or even a boy is another matter but here she’s reasonably close to her age (26 at the time, playing maybe late teens?) and the setting is contemporary and realistic.

Craigen Street would have been a recognisable reality for most of the cinema audiences and Mary was someone they could easily identify with even after the opening scenes of comic tantrums. They would trust in her ability to become one of them and to reflect their lives on screen just as much as Chaplin.

I watched a VHS of the Milestone edition of The Hoodlum which features an vigorous score from Bonnie Janofsky. As you all probably know, Milestone have done much to maintain Pickford’s memory and are the leading source of her films on DVD. It’s a shame more films aren’t more readily available but visit the Milestone site and I challenge you to come away empty handed!

The titles alone say it all about the Pickford phenomenon, everyman adventures with laughs and uplifting endings... Amirilly of Clothes Line Alley, Tess of the Storm Country and Heart O' the Hills. We can kid ourselves that we've moved on but no one is more sophisticated than Mary Pickford. She helped invent film acting and works on levels that still move to this day.

There’s also a very good Mary Pickford documentary on YouTube, it’s the PBS film and narrated by the exemplary Laura Linney.

I know a bit more about Mary Pickford now and will watch more with interest. Can anyone recommend any good biographies?


  1. Welcome to the wonders of Mary Pickford! I continue to be blown away by her sheer camera appeal. I have read 2 good bios. The best is "Mary Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood" by Eileen Whitfield. Another good one is "America's Sweetheart" by Scott Eyman. Also, also, a great photo book about Mary and her art is "Mary Pickford Rediscovered" by Kevin Brownlow. Can you tell I adore Miss Mary?

  2. Thanks FC - the wonder of watching silent films is making a personal connection with the performers and Mary Pickford's is one of the strongest. She seems so easy and natural... very skilled and easy to love! Will check out the books - maybe Eileen first? Meanwhile I'm raiding the Milestone online store!

  3. Excellent as always. I too am only just getting a proper sense of Mary after coasting for years on awareness of her reputation alone.
    She's great, isn't she!

    1. Thanks Matthew - she is great and more than worthy of her reputation. It's good to have so much to catch up on!

  4. if you wait a bit, I think The Hoodlum is coming out on bluray sometime this year along with The Poor Little Rich Girl and Sparrows. The Hoodlum is one of my personal favorites from Mary's surviving filmography. My favorite scene is that fun comic bit where she falls down the slide in the basement and she tries to run away from the creepy gigantic rats.

    1. That scene is a hoot and I only worked out how they did it second time around! She manages to shift effortlessly from slapstick to serious. The Milestone website says "summer 2012" for the BluRay...can't wait!