Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, and “The New York Hat” (1912)

I have the remarkable privilege of spending a great deal of my time just a hop away from the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. (Don’t worry Film Forum… you’ll always have my heart.) Just 3 bucks and a few streetcar stops brings me to one of the more remarkable film venues I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting. The physical space is stunning… not quite a movie palace of yore, but grand nonetheless. Of course, the real draw is the top notch programming. From debuts to special events and lectures, TIFF offers a wealth of movie going pleasures. So it was I found myself at the Bell Lightbox on a rainy Saturday morning for a lecture and screening event, Mary Pickford: From Actress to Icon.

To start I’ll say, I’m not the familiar with Pickford’s work. In general I feel that Pickford is not my cup of tea, though this is a knee jerk attitude on my part. When I have seen a Pickford movie, I’ve found it enjoyable if not astounding. Particularly, Sparrows (1926) is a nice little melodrama, with some dark overtones, starring a thoroughly charming Mary Pickford. Finding out that the actress was 34 years old at the time she played the child role of Molly was both intriguing and off-putting to me. During a trans-formative period in American history for women’s right, Mary Pickford played infantilized, young girls. I accepted this perception of Mary Pickford and dismissed her work as largely uninteresting to myself.

I was forced to live far beyond my years when just a child, now I have reversed the order and I intend to remain young indefinitely. – Mary Pickford

Saturday’s event at TIFF included two lectures from two cinema studies/history professors from the University of Toronto. Charlie Keil discussed the evolution acting in cinema and how Mary Pickford straddled the evolving techniques of the period. Rob King examined the star-as-personality that emerged in the nascent film industry of the mid-teens and twenties. While both topics are pivotal in any discussion of Pickford, Prof. King’s talk was particularly resonant with me and forced me to re-examine my own assumptions about Pickford, her work, and her place in history, both generally and specifically in film. At the very least, I realized that my thought about Pickford revolved almost exclusively around Pickford-as-personality rather than her actual work and impact. Most importantly, I gleaned a greater understanding of the tensions between Pickford’s public persona (often sentimental and Victorian, usually de-sexed and very young) and the power she wielded in dictating the terms of her own career and salary.

As is often the case, due to the limitations of both time and context, both talks were top line and broad, but (as is maybe not so often the case ) both Profs. Keil and King raised some fascinating points, ripe for further consideration and investigation. The highlight of the even was the screening of 3 short Biograph films featuring Pickford and directed by D.W. Griffith. The first, “Wilful Peggy” (1910) provided a vivid example of the “histrionic” style of cinema acting and also illustrated Pickford’s (somewhat overlooked?) skill as a comedic actress. The second film “An Arcadian Maid” exemplified the evolving “verisimiliar”  technique of cinema acting as discussed by Prof. Keil. Of the three shorts, this is the most Griffith, full of tragedy, pathos, and a nice young lady led astray by a dubious male. Spoiler alert, she is ultimately redeemed by the veracity of her own moral compass. But for me, the ultimate treat of this event was the screening of “The New York Hat” (1912).

Mary Pickford in The New York Hat (1912)

The “New York Hat” centers around Young Miss Mollie Goodhue, a motherless girl living in a structured and repressive small town. We learn that Molly’s mother has died in the opening sequence, via a letter to the Minister Bolton (Lionel Barrymore). She leaves a small endowment for Molly, to be kept secret from Mollie’s father Mr. Goodhue (Charles Hill Mailes), an obviously stern man who has “worked her to death.” We see Molly pining for some of the pleasurable and frivolous  things in life, particularly a new hat, which her Calvinist father denies her. When Minister Bolton becomes aware of Molly’s desires, he purchases “The New York Hat” that is causing a sensation at the milliner’s for her. Unfortunately, Molly’s wearing of the hat about town leads to a scandalous sensation, and Molly’s perceived affair with Minister Bolton becomes the subject of town gossip.

For a mere sixteen minutes of film, “The New York Hat” packs a considerable wallop. Mollie stands in the center of maelstrom of tensions engendered by repressive small, town life… the tension between public and private morality, the unresolved tensions between Mr. Goodhue and his deceased wife, the tensions between Minister Bolton and the omnipresent judgement of the towns people, the tensions between Mollie and her own peers. And while “The New York Hat” features a star-studded cast – aside from being directed by Griffith and scripted by Anita Loos, the Gish sisters, Mack Sennett, Mae March, Lionel Barrymore, and Jack Pickford all make appearances – Pickford’s Mollie is the only character allowed a full range of human emotions amidst a sea of character archetypes. When Mollie finally possesses the hat, Pickford, with only a hat and a mirror, runs Mollie through a dazzling gamut of emotions. First, we see her excitement and exhilaration that the hat is actually hers, and then we see her joy as she preens and primps in her fantastic hat. And then, most astonishingly, Mollie breaks down and sobs conveying a peculiar mish-mash of emotions that any of us who have ever longed for and attained discover when we realize the object we have invested with so much symbolic power is, well, just a hat.

Technically speaking, “The New York Hat” is a fairly standard silent movie circa 1912. Produced at a break neck pace, Biograph films don’t offer room for fancy film work and Griffith displays little of the mastery of visual vocabulary he will treat movie audiences to in just a few years. The shots are medium, and the camera is static. In this case, however, I don’t long for greater heights in film work, even as a contemporary viewer. Mollie is the subject of constant judgement from the ever watchful eyes of her stern father, the town gossips, and her superior and critical peers, and the static camera makes an excellent stand in for those eyes. As a viewer, you are both made complicit in the judgement of Mollie and elevated above the nosy and narrow minded townspeople by your sympathy for Mollie.

One other note… this screening of “The New York Hat” (and the other two Biograph shorts) included live musical accompaniment. I am a sucker for live music accompaniment to silent films, deeming it as an inroad to replicating a more “authentic” experience of silent movies and understanding this art form on it’s own terms. However, I’m often disappointed. Live musical accompaniment usually means an all new score that sometimes veers into the too contemporary, or includes a multi-piece orchestra which strikes a false note for me. I just don’t feel that store-front theaters in say, Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 1912, included multi-piece orchestras performing elaborate scores. At this screening, however, the accompaniment was perfect. A lone pianist provided music complementary to the emotional content of the action. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the name of the pianist, but kudos to her, whoever she is!

All three of the Biograph films screened at TIFF are available on DVD in various D.W. Griffith compilations. You can find more information about the availability at the wonderful Silent Era. But thanks to the magic of the interwebs, you can watch all 3 of these Biograph shorts on YouTube.

“The New York Hat” (1912)

“Wilful Peggy” (1910) – In two parts

“An Arcadian Maid” (1910)

About prettycleverfilmgal

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films. I often watch, consider, and write about movies when I should really be doing other things.

Posted on May 17, 2011, in My Reviews, Silent Film and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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