- Mary Pickford Films on DVD
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In the early 1990s, it was nearly impossible to view the films of Mary Pickford outside a motion picture archive. Public screenings were rare, and local video stores and libraries rarely stocked the handful of Pickford titles released by Kino, Grapevine, and Blackhawk. Today, much has changed, due to the growing DVD market, revived public interest, and the efforts of Milestone Film and Video.
In 1999, riding on the success of its theatrical tour of Pickford films, Milestone (in collaboration with the Mary Pickford Institute and Timeline Films) released the first of eleven Pickford DVDs to date. Fifteen features, four shorts, and several clips of actuality footage are now easily accessible. The latest of these include Heart O' the Hills (1919), Suds (1920), and Through the Back Door (1922).
Heart O' the Hills, the best of the three new DVD releases, is perfectly paired with M'liss (1918), a bonus feature. In many ways the films overlap: each takes place in a poor rural area, and each involves a murder of a parent, [End Page 148] a trial, and mountain justice. Tensions unfold between rich and poor, and between the learned and the untaught. Each features a rough-and-tumble teenage girl who rides horses, knows how to handle weapons, and enjoys terrorizing townsfolk. And though Pickford's two protagonists have little knowledge of proper social behavior, they are morally respectable.
Pickford made her career portraying young women on the verge of adulthood who were often unruly, willful, even violent. This signature had already surfaced in films such as Tess of the Storm Country (1914/1922), Fanchon the Cricket and Rags (both 1915), as well as Biographs such as Wilful Peggy (1910) and Lena and the Geese (1912). Remarkably, Pickford had even played M'liss before. The School Teacher and the Waif (1912), a D. W. Griffith one-reeler, is based, like the 1918 feature, on Bret Harte's 1863 novelette M'liss. It's a shame Milestone did not include the one-reeler as an extra on the DVD, as it is not currently available.
In Heart O' the Hills, Pickford plays Mavis Hawn, a poor Kentucky mountain girl who lives with her abusive mother in a rundown shack. An unknown assailant has recently murdered her father, and Mavis swears to avenge his death. After a number of scenes highlighting her skill with a rifle, the viewer has no doubt that she is up to the task. In the interim, Mavis has been busy threatening city folks who have come to the mountains with plans to con locals out of their land. Two men from the city, one a southerner the other a northerner, have teamed up with local bad guy, Steve Honeycutt, to inspect the soon-to-be spoils. Mavis verbally confronts the intruders, then uses her gun to let them know they're not welcome. It is remarkable that the five-foot tall Pickford had the ability, with or without a rifle, to appear genuinely intimidating.
The situation reaches a boiling point when Mavis's mother, played by Claire McDowell, marries Steve and lets him sell the family's land. Mavis incites the local men to rise up and scare off the poachers. In one of the most striking scenes in the film, she dons a white sheet and hood and joins a group of nightriders to intimidate the northern city slicker. The man is killed and Mavis is put on trial for his murder, only to be set free due to a lack of evidence. The scene, filmed as a comic moment, seems disturbing today, as jurors, many of whom are Mavis's fellow nightriders, stand up one by one taking credit for the murder. Years later, justice finally prevails when the man who murdered her father is killed. Mavis, now grown up and educated, throws over a wealthy suitor (John Gilbert) for a life in the hills...