Saturday, June 02, 2012

Stormy Weather

When KC over at Classic Movies invited me to participate in the Mary Pickford Blogathon, I had to make a shameful admission. I'd never actually seen a Mary Pickford movie. I mean, I profess a knowledge of movies and haven't seen anything by the movies' first superstar? It embarrasses me to even write this. Oh, I've known about Mary Pickford. I knew that she was one of the founders of United Artists and that she and her second husband, Douglas Fairbanks invented the Hollywood celebrity power couple. I knew that she won the second Academy Award for Best Actress (for Coquette). I "knew" that she occasionally played children and that she was "The Girl with the Curls" and that she was "America's Sweetheart." I know all of this. And it's not like I have an aversion to silent movies. Not at all. But I still hadn't seen any of her movies.

And so, head hanging so as to hide my shame, I picked one of the available films at random. The movie I wound up with was Tess of the Storm Country (1914, directed by Edwin S. Porter), in which Pickford plays the titular daughter of a fisherman whose entire community of squatters is being squeezed out of their homes by the local land baron. Finding that he has no grounds to evict them, the baron conspires with the local government to outlaw net fishing, thus depriving the squatters of their livelihood. When they turn to poaching, Tess's father is arrested. It's up to Tess to save him from prison and the gallows. Having accomplished this, she then falls into a romance with the handsomest (and richest) man in town, who is attracted to her pluck, her perseverance, and her steel. But she has to fight for her man, because, well, she's totally from the wrong side of the tracks.

My initial reaction: Wow, this movie is primitive. That's unfair, I guess. Tess of the Storm Country is a hundred years old. It predates The Birth of a Nation by a year, after all (and it should be noted that Mary Pickford introduced D. W. Griffith to the Gish sisters). The language of cinema was still being invented when this was made and the movies hadn't yet started to send up fireworks. Its director, Edwin S. Porter, was an old hand at moviemaking by the time he shot this and he was already hidebound and nevermind that he's the reason that movies are no longer a slave to the proscenium stage. Parts of this play as if Porter never actually made The Great Train Robbery, bound by a stage set as it often is, but then the movie opens up to some spectacular outdoor set and all is forgiven. The camera never moves, though, or if it does, I never noticed it. The story itself is pure corn. It's a picaresque, of course. You could neatly bisect the film into two halves and have two independent dramatic stories. It's not an integrated narrative, but it arrives at a happy ending and that's all that matters.

(I'm being hard on Porter, by the way, who was still a visionary even when he made this, just not as a director: he plowed his money from his work at Famous Players--which evolved into Paramount Pictures--into his business making technical improvements to cameras and other movie equipment, including early iterations of talking pictures. FYI.)

This is the oldest movie I've ever written about. In a lot of ways, watching movies from this era is like watching an alien world. There's not a hint of modernity in this movie. I have to keep in mind that this was made the same year as the great Armory show in New York that brought modernist art movements like cubism and futurism into the mainstream, before the Great War was fought, before the country was electrified, before the Russian Revolution. Even five years later, after the Great War, the world was a very different place.

It was also made before the end of the Gilded Age, which, it must be said, informs the politics of this movie. You can see in this movie both the American struggle against plutocracy side by side with the notion that every American is a rich person waiting on his or her fortune to come along. Watching this movie reminds me of something that Alexis De Toqueville once wrote about America: "Americans never use the word 'peasant.'" There's a hint of red politics in the struggle between capital and worker in this movie, but there's also the Horatio Alger myth (though the distaff version where the poor girl has to marry money).

It's hard for me to divorce myself from the last hundred years of cinema and meet Tess of the Storm Country on its own terms, actually. The movie was a colossal hit in its day, successful enough to be remade three times. It's worth examining exactly why that is. It comes down to Mary Pickford herself. What you are seeing in Tess of the Storm Country is the invention of the movie star. I have to keep in mind that in the first decade of movies, actors normally didn't even receive credit. During her years with Griffith and at Biograph, less than half a decade before this film was made, Pickford was identifiable only as "The Girl with the Curls" to the general public. By contrast, Pickford's name is above the title on Tess of the Storm Country and appears on every single title card. There's absolutely no question about who the audience was paying to see here, and further, there's no question that it's Pickford who is the force that makes this film even remotely watchable, even across the gulf of time. Where her co-stars seem to be manques, capable only of "a bunch of dumb show," Pickford is the real deal. She seems to understand instinctively that film acting is different from stage acting, that she needn't pantomime so broadly that even the back row can understand her. There's subtlety and nuance in her performance that even the godawful "dialect" in the title cards can't erase, and this in a movie without close-ups.

So if KC's mission with the blogathon is to pique an interest in Mary Pickford's career, she's certainly succeeded with me. I mean, Pickford was a favorite of both Griffith and DeMille, and I'm curious to see what use those two made of her. And I'm curious to see how Coquette plays, given that that's the film for which she won the Oscar. But then, winning an Oscar was kind of inevitable, wasn't it? I mean, if only for the invention of the movie star itself.


Mykal Banta said...

Vulnavia: If at all interested, here's a guest post I did on the great woman at Silents and Talkies. I hate myself for this promotional nudge, but I love talking about Pickford. Her life and spirit were/are excedinlgy rare. As you say, "the real deal" indeed.

KC said...

I wonder if even Pickford really liked the 1914 version of "Tess". I feel like she couldn't have liked it that well if she remade it in 1922. I've seen that version, and I like it. I think your view of the 1914 version is shared by a lot of people--even those who love Pickford movies. Primitive is probably a good description. I'm curious to see it, but pretty much only as a basis for comparison. A lot changed between 1914 and 1922--and I've heard you can really see that when comparing the two. I'd be curious to see what you think of movies like Sparrows, The Poor Little Rich Girl and My Best Girl, because those are the flicks that tend to make people love her. If you didn't like those, then it really could be that Pickford isn't your cup of poison! I love that you went for it and dove into this blogathon! Your perspective was really interesting. Thanks so much for contributing.

Anonymous said...

Just to answer your comment: she had ALOT of affection for the original 1914 Tess; it was her favorite part to play, which is why she decided to remake it in the 20s, after film production became more "modern" (partly due to her own work in the late teens).

Her work between 1917 and 1919 is unrivaled. Or just 1918-1919. "Poor Little Rich Girl" and "Daddy Longlegs" along with "Stella Maris", "M'Liss", "Heart Of The Hills", "Amarilly Of Clothesline Alley", "The Hoodlum", "Johanna Enlists" (and many more)....all date from this period. To watch "Poor Little Rich Girl" is to see a major step in the history of motion pictures. Credit to this brilliant woman is way overdue.