Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Hoodlum (Pickford/First National, 1919)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

The film was The Hoodlum, a 1919 production by Mary Pickford for First National, the studio founded by a group of independent theatre owners worried that Adolph Zukor's Paramount company would buy up all the good theatre locations and leave anyone outside his chain unable to get any decent movies audiences would pay to see. So they pooled their resources, built a studio and successfully lured the two biggest stars in films at the time, Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, to work for them -- only to lose them again a year later when they, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (Pickford's fiance at the time -- they were dating but he was still extricating himself from his previous marriage to a woman named Edna, who was Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s mother) and D. W. Griffith organized the United Artists company. Chaplin's tenure with First National lasted five years and eight films (which for years were the most difficult to see of any of his output) but Pickford just stayed there a year and a half and left as soon as she fulfilled her three-picture contract, of which The Hoodlum was the second.

Written by Julie M. Lippman (story) and Bernard McConville (adaptation) and quite stylishly directed by Sidney Franklin -- one of the most underrated directors of classic Hollywood, probably because his best-known credits were theatrical adaptations (The Guardsman and The Barretts of Wimpole Street -- though when he made The Guardsman he kept his cameras in constant, almost vertiginous motion and moved both them and his actors so stylishly he made a movie out of a property that could quite easily have become "canned theatre") -- The Hoodlum (no relation whatsoever to the grim 1951 film noir of the same title that starred Lawrence Tierney) casts Pickford as Amy Burke, spoiled teenage daughter of multimillionaire tycoon (the titles actually call him a "croesus," in lower-case letters, leading Charles to wonder just how many people today would get that reference) Alexander Guthrie (Ralph Lewis).

The film opens with a business meeting between Guthrie and his board of directors in which Guthrie declaims his ruthless philosophy of business in terms one could well imagine Ayn Rand having written or Michael Douglas's character in the two Wall Street movies speaking, about how money is everything and every great business empire has been built on the bones of innocent people. The titles also tell us that Amy has inherited every bit of her grandfather's ruthlessness even though all she seems to do with it is take it out on the servants and, at one point, break into her granddad's business meeting to complain that her cat is acting up. (There's a flashback scene showing this in which the "cat" is, in most shots, a pretty obvious toy being worked by wires -- though there are enough close-ups of Pickford holding a real cat to make it surprisingly convincing.)

One thing a lot of people don't realize about Pickford -- who's generally thought of now as the beta version of Shirley Temple, playing annoyingly sappy stories about pre-pubescent girls even when she (unlike the genuinely pre-pubescent, at least during her peak career years, Temple) was an adult woman and a twice-married one at that -- is that she was one of the great slapstick comediennes; this film features a long scene in which she's driving a sports car to school at breakneck speed (she's late again) and being chased by two motorcycle cops, and when she's finally caught she blames it all on her chauffeur (he was along for the ride after she took the wheel from him) and gets off scot-free: a piece of perfectly timed slapstick fit to rank with the work of the acknowledged masters of silent comedy. Then Guthrie decides to take his granddaughter to Europe, only at the last minute Amy gets cold feet and decides she'd rather hang out with her father (Dwight Crittenden) -- since he's a Burke (John) rather than a Guthrie we presume that his wife/Amy's mother was Guthrie's daughter, though we aren't told what became of her (given that even in a movie as audaciously class-conscious as this one divorce was a no-no, I guess we're supposed to think that she's dead).

Anyway, John Burke is living in the slums of New York City researching a How the Other Half Lives-type book about them, and Amy moves in with him and is immediately a fish out of water who needs to break down her snooty upper-class pretensions (in an early scene her dad's cook, Nora -- played by an actress named Aggie Herring -- asks Amy to peel some potatoes for dinner, and Amy replies that such things are entirely below the decency of a Guthrie) to be accepted. Indeed, her dad tells her she has to "become one of them" -- and, in the film's most disappointing aspect, just after the title explaining this we see Amy dressed in the ghastly black outfit she will wear for most of the film, speaking her lines (via intertitle) in a Brooklyn accent and hanging out with Dish Lowry (Buddie Messenger) and other slum kids who look like they're making a Dead End Kids movie two decades early. Had the film shown more of this transformation rather than a simple jump cut bridged by a title, The Hoodlum would be an even stronger movie than it is, but even as it stands it's appealing.

Amy has a hate-at-first-sight meet-cute with William Turner (Kenneth Harlan), who turns out to be the man being discussed at that business meeting at the start who was framed for accounting maneuvers actually committed by Guthrie and his staff, served a year in prison and vows revenge; and later on a mysterious bearded stranger calling himself "Peter Cooper" moves into the third floor of the building where Amy and her dad live, and it turns out he's Alexander Guthrie himself, back home from his trip and keeping an eye on his granddaughter incognito (the film's title comes from a diary entry in which he uses the word "hoodlum" to express his shock and horror at what she's become). Eventually Amy arranges with William to break into her grandfather's house (William still has no idea who she is) and recover the secret second set of books which will prove that William was wrongfully convicted -- they're caught, but in the meantime Guthrie's time in the slums has worked a Scrooge-like conversion on him and he offers not to press charges if Turner will forgive him. When Turner replies that he will never forgive Alexander Guthrie, Guthrie says, "But will you forgive ... Peter Cooper?" He does, Turner and Amy marry and in a nicely timed comic scene they sneak out of their car and into another so they can go on their honeymoon without Guthrie and his entourage knowing where they are.

The Hoodlum
is one of those movies from the classic era that isn't great but does offer solid entertainment, and it seems to have birthed a thousand other films in its wake -- not only the Dead End series but especially The Devil Is a Sissy, from which (as Charles pointed out) it borrows at least two key plot elements: the spoiled rich kid who goes to live with his/her father in the slums and the faked "burglary" of the protagonist's own house. (There's another connection between the two movies: the same year he made The Devil Is a Sissy its star, Freddie Bartholomew, also remade one of Pickford's roles, the title character in Little Lord Fauntleroy -- a "trouser" role Pickford had accepted as long as she could also appear as Little Lord Fauntleroy's crippled mother.)

It's an engaging mix of comedy and drama Hollywood seemed more adept at in these early years than it does now, and though Pickford probably didn't regard it as one of her better movies it does serve as a showcase for her talents -- and I suspect it was an influence on Charlie Chaplin when he made The Kid the following year (there's even a shot from The Hoodlum copied almost exactly in The Kid, in which two characters lean their heads around the corner of a brick building on the lookout for the police); indeed, the slum scenes of The Kid may well have been shot on some of the same sets. The film is beautifully photographed by Charles Rosher, Pickford's favorite cameraman (whose remarkable talent allowed her to play children convincingly on screen even when she was really in her early 30's), and even the titles are quite artfully done -- notably one in which Amy hears a Jewish peddler on the street and her inability to understand what he's saying is conveyed to us by a title giving his line ... in Hebrew.