Learning from old movies

GROSS is my first Substack thing. It’s film reviews, which I hope are funny and interesting and unpretentious.

Logo for Substack newsletter Gross, with an image from The word 'GROSS' in an old-fashioned gothic face is at the left-hand end and a still from 1917 Mary Pickford film The Poor Little Rich Girl at the right-hand end

It’s also my personal low-effort way to learn about the whole span of cinema history. I’m watching every top-grossing film since 1913 and writing them up in a Substack newsletter.

I’ve been doing it for a couple of months now. It’s my Saturday morning treat (like when I was nine or something). I’ve learnt a few things:

  • If I’m honest I was expecting the early part of the journey to be a bit tiresome. I expected to encounter a lot of fairly primitive storytelling from back at the beginning – flat scenes, static cameras, theatrical mugging. This did not happen. Almost everything I’ve watched so far has been in some way impressive or interesting or beautiful – ambitious works, full of love for the form.
  • I expected that for some of these films I wouldn’t find much to say, that they might be entertaining, even beautiful, but not particularly interesting. Also not true. Every one of them has been a jewel of history, culture, politics and technology. Every one brings with it a mind-expanding context, even the really teeth-grindingly awful ones. This horrible, callous 1920 Cecil B. DeMille picture, for instance, tells us so much about morality in the twenties, advances in movie-making tech and about the fate of the big silent stars as sound arrived.
  • I’m also learning about the complex and influential stars of the period – Mary Pickford (the first America’s sweetheart), Mabel Normand (the greatest movie comic you’ve never heard of), Gloria Swanson (the star everyone just called ‘Gloria’) and about the emerging grammar of performance and stardom.
  • I’m surprising myself every week with just how technologically advanced these movies were, just how bold and creative the technicians and creatives behind them were. The jaw-dropping electronic surveillance storyline in 1913’s Traffic in Souls, the vastly ambitious underwater tech developed for 1916’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the imaginative play with light and dark in 1917’s The Poor Little Rich Girl. Nothing here is small or unambitious – everything is grand and overreaching.
Black and white film stills of Mabel Normand, film comic and director of the silent era and Vladimir Lenin, revolutionary and leader of the Soviet state
Mabel Normand and Vladimir Lenin, together at last

Anyway, sign up on Substack and you’ll receive updates about once a week and you can log in to the website to read all the earlier posts. It’s all going to be free until there’s some kind of audience breakthrough or until I develop a spine. Please tell the film fans in your life about GROSS.

  • I’m relying on a couple of lists of top-grossing films for this exercise. This one and this one. Neither is very reliable (and they seem to disagree) but I think that’s okay. The stakes are low.
  • Here’s a Letterboxd list, where I’m logging all the movies I watch.

A fairytale, a comedy, a fantasy – and a Disney princess 20 years before Snow White

Mary Pickford was famed for playing childlike parts, flighty young women with spirit. In 1917’s The Poor Little Rich Girl, she broke new ground by playing an actual child.

I’m watching every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913. You can get these chronological reviews in your inbox over here.


An animated GIF of silent movie actor Mary Pickford covering her mouth as she giggles in the 1917 film The Poor Little Rich Girl

Pickford turned 24 a month after the film was released but in The Poor Little Rich Girl she plays a child – to the perfect satisfaction of the rapturous audiences who made this one of the top-grossing movies of 1917.

The actual top movie of the year was Cleopatra, a huge Theda Bara historical romance that apparently cost half a million dollars to make (about the same as 1916 blockbuster 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) but it’s apparently lost, which is kind of heartbreaking.

Here, we’ve already encountered the on-screen energy and the off-screen business mind of the amazing Mary Pickford – in 1914’s Tess of the Storm Country. We know that by the time of this movie she’d already been a big star for years – since before actors were even named in the credits, in fact – and was essentially an exec on everything she was in, with huge influence over every decision. She’d weary of playing these childlike roles but she was a very pragmatic businesswoman and played essentially the same plucky adolescent until well into her thirties, by which time she was a very rich movie executive.

As in Tess of the Storm Country, Pickford dominates every scene she’s in (other actors must have had mixed feelings about joining any Pickford production – knowing they’d be definitively overshadowed but with a decent chance of a hit). In this film, directed by Frenchman Maurice Tourneur, the overshadowed roles are terrific. They have a real fairytale charm – carefully-crafted storybook archetypes: funny, sinister, cruel, playful, stern.

There are some lovely street urchins, a charming organ grinder, various prickly and supercilious servants, some authentically remote and aristocratic grown-ups. There’s no wooden line-reading here, no static theatricality. In one scene, a dozen servants, in all the costumes of a great house – chef, maid, gardener, butler, chauffeur – enter a scene in a kind of pantomine procession, snaking around the furniture in a way that’ll make you giggle. In another, those urchins party riotously in the house’s fancy garden – a place of shadows and narrow pathways and low-hanging trees – street kids but also nymphs at play.

Still from 1917 fairy tale film The Poor Little Rich Girl. May Pickford, playing a child, a tall man in a top hat, a crystal ball, a person dressed as a donkey
From the dream sequence

Pickford’s Gwendolyn spends essentially the whole of the second act in a kind of coma (for she has been drugged). The resulting dream sequence is delightful – full of proper childhood dread plus also angels and wooded glades and staircases and top hats and crystal balls and other lovely things – double-exposures and back projections are convincingly magical. She’s accompanied by a friendly plumber from real life (he keeps a length of pipe over his shoulder as a reminder) and they encounter a group of hilarious bears, a splendid pantomime donkey, two of the nasty servants who’ve been punished, one with huge ears and one with an extra scary face on the back of her head. You’ll want to watch it all again.

The movie’s visual style is spookily like a Disney film from twenty years later. Walt was 16 when this movie was released. Presumably at this point he was busy soaking up the surreal, fairytale aesthetic of this and other (mostly French?) films. Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo – they’re all brought to mind in the magical interiors, the light and dark of the big house and garden, the (multiple) dream scenes and in the innocence and waywardness of our ‘princess’. The director’s artful play with shadow – and with bizarre imagery – must have run in the family – Jacques Tourneur, his son, was also a brilliant stylist of light – he made the 1942 Cat People and I Walk With a Zombie.

When Gwendolyn regains consciousness and is finally released from her confinement in her family’s fancy home in the city (it’s another archetype so we don’t know where it is but it’s basically a Park Avenue mansion styled as a fairytale castle) to the countryside, audiences must have breathed a big sigh – the atmosphere lightens, the light floods in. It’s a joy (and there’s lots of fun in the mud, tree climbing and so on).

Mary Pickford was in hundreds of films – sometimes shooting two or three per week. I’m no expert but I haven’t seen a weak one yet. They must exist but there’s obviously something about this actress that makes it almost impossible to make a bad film with her in it – and her contribution is always essentially the same: generosity, vivacity, charm. Pickford was screen gold of the kind any studio would treasure.

A cheesy romance, a seaside class-war, a vehicle for the biggest female star of the time

The actual top film of 1914 was an epic 23-part serial called The Million Dollar Mystery, which it turns out is lost (how do you lose 46 reels of smash hit movie history, I find myself wondering?). So, I watched the second-highest-grossing film of that year instead.

Black and white photo of actor Mary Pickford, sad and barefoot, sitting on the floor of her shanty home in the 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country

You’ll definitely like Tess of the Storm Country, but only because of absolutely magnetic Mary Pickford – in feisty waif mode, right at the centre of it – owning the whole thing really. She’s surrounded in this cheesy melodrama by many big slabs of men, implausible blocks of motion picture timber – all tragically rendered exactly identical (apart from their hats) by Pickford’s brilliance.

Three male characters from 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country, including, at right, the film's villain, a miserable capitalist called Deacon Elias Graves, who is joyfully reading the text of a law he's just had passed that will make life harder for the landless squatters on his beach-front land

They are either utterly unconvincing landless fishermen or slightly-more-convincing heartless landowners. The miserable, small-town capitalists involved live in the big house above the beach and resent the presence of the squatters below. The film was shot in Santa Monica and Del Mar, so this could literally be the house that Robert De Niro seemed so unattached to in Heat.

Robert De Niro, in silhouette, looks out of over the ocean from his modernist apartment in Michael Mann's film Heat

Of course, this big house is really a classic bourgeois pile, with a columned entrance and a carriage drive, indicating prosperity and respectability (surely demolished and replaced a dozen times since). It menacingly overlooks the strand where the fisherfolk’s makeshift camp cowers.

Two hefty gamekeepers holding a gun menace a fisherman they've detained on a rocky beach

Doing the actual menacing, down there in the lower, realm close to the sea, are various thugs in heavy suits – they are gamekeepers – circulating authentically, armed and dangerous, on the beach and in the squatters’ camp. In the exalted upper section of the narrative swooning ladies in hats and some callow students are also present. The intermixing of these two realms becomes a plot point.

The Great Train Robbery’s famous final shot

Tess of the Storm Country was directed by Edwin S Porter, a veteran who’d made his name with the extraordinary The Great Train Robbery. Pickford, who by this time was already essentially co-directing the films she was in, was unhappy with his old-fashioned ways. The Great Train Robbery was the absolute state of the art when it came out. But that was over ten years earlier and the haphazard, static, flat scene-making we see here was already very out-of-date.

The story is flat too, based on a best-selling news-stand romance by Grace Miller White. Pickford apparently disliked the crudity of this standard-issue morality tale – featuring the staples of the era’s melodramas: dignity in poverty, illegitimacy and extra-marital sex, love between classes, murder and a wrongly-convicted man. Hypocricy in authority also makes an appearance. She recognised a hit when she saw one, though, and signed on without further objection.

TV mobster Tony Soprano smokes a cigar in his swimming pool. He looks menacingly at the camera
Conflicted plutocrat

In movies of this period the wealthy could still be depicted as unproblematically wicked. These are not the ‘complicated’ villains of later eras, nor the conflicted plutocrats or tormented mobsters of post-depression or neoliberal America. These are simply capitalist thieves, exploiters of the vulnerable. In this film (as in others of the period) our principle villain, the head of the wealthy family at the top of cliffs, literally whips Pickford’s character Tessibel.

Tessibel Skinner (Mary Pickford) collapses, whipped by wicked businessman Elias Graves (William Walters). A distressed woman enters from the rear to try to stop him

It’s wooden but sometimes it’s actually clumsy too. There’s an arresting scene where Pickford sics a (very old and gentle-looking) dog on one of her gentleman harassers. She sends the dog off out of the left-side of the frame and, bewilderingly, it arrives, barely slathering, at its victim’s location also out of the left-side of the frame. Pickford then sets off by the same filmically impossible route, arriving in time to steal her pursuer’s gun and depart, with the dog, out of the right-side of the frame.

Inter-title from 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country reads, in dialect: "I know we ain't married, Ben, but yer ain't never kissed our baby since he cum."

The film was a massive hit, yielding many times its $10,000 budget. Pickford told a biographer it was “the beginning of my career.” She’d been making films for five or six years, including 75 for D.W. Griffith, so this is meaningful. It was one of the first movies to be made in the emerging Hollywood creative complex and the beaches are all Californian. The community described, though, is somewhere on the New England coast or perhaps even in the old country – the hokey dialect in the intertitles is something between West Country English and Newfoundland Irish. Or something.