Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The NFR Project #41: 'Tess of the Storm Country' (1914)

Mary Pickford, as Tess, steals milk for a dying infant in 'Tess of the Storm Country.'
Tess of the Storm Country
Dir: Edwin S. Porter
Prod: Adolf Zukor (uncred.)
Scr: B.P. Schulberg
Phot: Edwin S. Porter
Premiere: March 30, 1914
80 min.

She was America’s sweetheart and the most powerful woman in Hollywood history. Mary Pickford rose to stardom on the strength of her impish, beguiling persona, becoming one of the most recognizable faces in the world. Tess of the Storm Country, her first of 52 feature films, cements her screen image – the plucky, waiflike heroine who overcomes all manner of obstacles to achieve happiness.

She was born Gladys Smith, and started performing on stage at the age of 7. She worked her way to Broadway, then dabbled in film until finally devoting herself to it in 1913. Shew went west, becoming Hollywood’s first feature-film star.

Tess is a melodrama, a romance of cross-class attractions, illegitimate children, and misunderstandings. Pickford’s character is not a child, but not a woman, either – she plays off both her winsomeness and feistiness as she self-sacrificingly struggles through over an hour of little tragedies. She was the heroic and decent underdog, and audiences loved and identified with her. 

After this film, she was rightly considered “the most popular girl in the world.” Six years later, she would marry Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and the two would become the film industry’s first “power couple.”

America’s first film stars were primarily women – Florence Lawrence, Pearl White, Mabel Normand, and then Pickford. She was a great performer, and possessed keen intelligence, managerial ability, and business sense to boot. The nascent studio system had just begun promoting prominent actors, and Pickford grabbed that mechanism and used it to her advantage. A master promoter, she used her worldwide popularity to score pay raises and creative control.

Soon she was producing all of her films, writing some of them as well. She successfully resisted “block-booking” policies that paired her films with inferior ones for distribution. She co-founded United Artists, helped to found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Motion Picture Relief Fund.

A staunch protector of her film image, Mary remade the film in 1922, as she loved the character and could give the story better production values. It was just as successful as its first incarnation.

The fatal flaw in her popularity was that Pickford's fans would not accept her maturation. As she grew older, she attempted more sophisticated and complex roles, but the public rejected her. She continued as a mogul for decades, living quietly and drinking copiously. 

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’

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