Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mary Pickford and "The New York Hat" (1912)

This is my contribution to the Mary Pickford Blogathon, honoring one of the world’s greatest movie stars and hosted by KC at Classic Movies. Click here for all of the entries about America’s Sweetheart.


Before Mary Pickford took the leap to feature films and pursued her stardom in earnest, she made one last film for D.w. Griffith at American Biograph called "The New York Hat," and it was one of her very best. Mary and Griffith had a productive, but contentious, relationship. From the very beginning in 1909, it was clear that Mary, in those early days of anonymous motion picture performers, had star quality. Alternately referred to as "The Girl With The Curls" and "The Biograph Girl" (after the first Biograph Girl, Florence Lawrence, had left Griffith for her own stardom), the public demanded to know her true identity. This did not sit well with Griffith, who liked to keep his actors working anonymously as an ensemble with the director as star. Nevertheless, they made 98 films in their on-again-off-again relationship of four years. After her final departure, it was said that Griffith needed two Gishes (Lillian and Dorothy) to take the place of one Pickford.


However he may have felt about her departure from the Biograph troupe, Griffith gave her a mighty send-off. Written by the budding giant, Anita Loos, “The New York Hat,” in just 16 minutes or so, manages to perfectly showcase the talent and appeal of Mary Pickford and to cover topics close to Griffith’s heart.

The story starts as Mary's mother lies dying. At her side are her husband, Mary and the minister (played by an incredibly young looking 34 year old Lionel Barrymore). While many of the players act in the grand manner of the earliest films (which feature the large gestures and facial expressions of the stage), Mary is always understated and natural. Her sobbing at her mother’s deathbed could have been filmed yesterday, it is that realistic. Unbeknownst to Mary’s father, the dying mother has left some money for her daughter and has entrusted it to the minister to buy for her the occasional frivolity that she knows the stern father will deny her.

Poor little Mary dreams of fancy finery, but is the poorest dressed girl in town. Griffith detested small-town and small-minded gossips and here he has a field day with the ladies of the town who eye her up and down and make fun of her shabby clothes. When a wildly expensive ($10) and fashionably flamboyant New York hat goes on display at the local millinery shop, it is coveted by all of the ladies, Mary included. The minister, who spies Mary's hungry glances at the hat, remembers her mother's dying wish. He decides to buy Mary the hat and make her dreams come true.

After staring longingly at the hat in the shop window, Mary goes home and dreams of the beautiful “village sensation.” Griffith knew her strengths and wisely shot her in medium frame. She uses her hair, her face, her hands and her body to tell the story, but it is with a casual charm rather than a ferocious intensity that would better be served by a close-up. When she wakes up, she is disappointed that it was only a dream, but her disappointment soon turns to excitement when, joy of joys, the hat is delivered to her home, courtesy of the minister.

Mary is such an artist that you can’t wait for her to wear her beautiful hat and show it off to the village peahens. Triumphantly, she wears it to church, but is met with jealousy and gossip. They had all seen the minister buy the hat. The fact that Mary is wearing it must mean that they are having an affair. Scandal ensues!!!!

As the gossip spreads faster than a rabbit on methamphetamine, Mary’s father gets wind of this and not only berates his daughter, but tears up her hat. Mary cries, not just for her reputation, but for the destruction of her beautiful bonnet. Such a girl! Mary skillfully plays this scene, breaking our hearts at her father's unjust accusation and making us smile,too, at her despair over his destruction of her beautiful hat.

While the self-righteous gossip brigade and Mary’s father descend upon the minister to condemn him, he whips out the dying trust of Mary’s mother:
My Beloved Pastor: My husband worked me to death, but I have managed to save a little sum. Take it, and from time to time buy my daughter the bits of finery she has always been denied. But tell no one.
Mollified, but unreformed, the gossips quickly disperse and Mary is left with the minister and her father. Apparently, the man of the cloth has been keeping more than a brotherly eye on the girl and whispers a proposal of marriage. If anyone thinks that Mary Pickford is an antique who just played little girls, this scene should dispel such notions.  At 20 years old, she artfully creates a girl who is becoming a woman with womanly charms. Filmed 100 years ago, Mary Pickford's performance is modern, immediate, fresh and natural.

As an aside, I was privileged to see Mary Pickford in "A Little Princess" on the big screen recently. By then, her persona of the little girl had been firmly fixed. Of course, she was magical, but it made me wonder what path her career would have taken if that little girl was allowed to blossom into a woman.


Mary Pickford's fame is legendary and lasting, but she is much more than a powerful businesswoman and a groundbreaking star. America's Sweetheart is a perfect artist in perfect command of her art.


"The New York Hat" is one of Mary Pickford's and D.W. Griffith's finest short films. Besides seeing these two fine artists do what they do best, enjoy an equally charming Lionel Barrymore (really, is this Mr. Potter?), and see if you can spot Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Jack Pickford, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron and Mack Sennet (all part of Griffith's stock company) in the background.









26 comments:

Peter Bikulcs said...

A wonderful post and pictures of a cool looking actress,thanks!I need some of her movies in my movie collection and I think I'll add some Mary pickford films.

FlickChick said...

Peter - Mary is beyond wonderful. You can't believe how her star power still shines after so many decades.

Caftan Woman said...

"The New York Hat" sounds like a real charmer.

I appreciated your look at Mary's art. It is only the last couple of years that I have come to appreciate Mary Pickford for more than her name. Better late to the party than to have missed it.

Diane said...

I thought that post was very interesting. I came late to Mary and now I see that she was pure art. Thank you Flick Chick you are always opening my eyes to seeing these old films in a new way.

Dawn said...

Wonderful post on the silent film, "The New York Hat", which sounds like a very cute silent movie that does not lose it's charm over time. Love the classic stars, Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore and the Gish Sisters.

FlickChick said...

Caftan Woman - oh, it is, and a pretty good version is available on YouTube. So glad you finally got around to Mary. As they say - there is something about Mary!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Diane. Mary Pickford is just a name in a history book to many, but she is a vibrant and wonderful actress who is a joy to watch.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Dawn. The film is delightful and, at 16 minutes, is a fun way to while away a quick break in the day.

silverscreenings said...

Thanks for reviewing this movie. If I lived in 1912, I might want that hat too!

FlickChick said...

Silverscreenings - well, it certainly was big! And on little Mary, it looked divine.

KC said...

That photo at the top is beautiful! I love New York Hat. It's my favorite of Mary's Biograph movies. Though she never fails to be sympathetic, she really grabs my heart in this one. I was just destroyed the first time I saw that hat being ripped apart! You did a wonderful job describing her subtle work in this role. Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon.

McSkillz said...

This is also one of my favorite biograph shorts that Pickford and Griffith did. I also like "Female of the Species"(1912), "Friends"(1912), Willful Peggy(1910) and Mender of Nets(1912) which featured both her and Mabel Normand. What always interested me about The New York Hat was that piece of dark cloth she would hold in her hand as she walked down the street. I'm not sure if that was some piece of expensive fabric she carried to try and fit in with the other women or what.

FlickChick said...

KC - thanks so much for hosting! I always jump at a chance to champion Mary.

FlickChick said...

McSkillz - I know - I wonder about that, too. I was thinking maybe it would be gloves?

Christian Esquevin said...

FlickChick-thanks for introducing me to this marvelous Mary Pickford silent film. She was such a great lady and a model of the well-loved early movie star. I'll look forward to your other blogathon entries.

Martin Turnbull (the Garden of Allah novels) said...

Your posts are always so interesting. I've heard about this movie for years but never really knew much about it. It's a testament to Pickford's power that we still find her wonderful and interesting after all this time. Thanks for posting!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Christian. Yes - blogathon season is upon us!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Martin. You are so right - it is a testament to her greatness. As some guy named Will Shakespeare said about some other queen, "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale; Her infinite variety."

Judy said...

I haven't seen this as yet, but definitely want to, especially as it also features Lionel Barrymore. I will get along to Youtube very soon! Enjoyed your review a lot.

FlickChick said...

Judy - thank you so much. At 16 minutes, it's a short treat, but fun to see everyone so darn young.

Page said...

FlickChick,
I haven't seen this short in years! I do remember liking it very much however but then again I might be biased since I don't recall a short or feature length film of hers that I don't like. You can certainly see why audiences the world over adored her. She was cute as a button even in her 'rags'!

You've given us some really interesting background here and I look forward to seeing this short again hoping to spot all of the actors, director you've mentioned.

I loved your contribution to the Pickford Blogathon!
Page

John/24Frames said...

One of my favorite Griffith shorts and as you say one of their best. Excellent choice and a great job!

ClassicBecky said...

FlickChick, you've created a great interest for me to see this movie. I'm going to try it on YouTube. Your article is a lovely tribute to Mary, but I'm glad to see your wicked self peek through -- "...faster than a rabbit on methamphetamine." Love it!

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Page. I was so happy about this blogathon because there can never be too much Mary.

FlickChick said...

Thank you so much, John.

FlickChick said...

Oh, gee, thanks, Becky. I hope you do get to see the film and that you enjoy it.