This is my contribution to the Mary Pickford Blogathon, hosted by one of the Monkey's favorite bloggers, KC of Classic Movies.
Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley was the second of five movies Mary Pickford made in 1918, and the first after the spectacular achievement of Stella Maris. Here, Pickford mines a familiar vein—the collision of the upper and lower classes told through the eyes of a spirited girl from the wrong side of the tracks—this time played mostly for comedy. Although not as iconic as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or The Poor Little Rich Girl, Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley is a prime example of Pickford's lasting appeal.
Adapted from Belle K. Miniates's novel by Pickford's friend and favorite screenwriter, the legendary Frances Marion, Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley is the story of Amarilly Jenkins, "a debutante" of the tenement slum known as "Clothes Line Alley." To support her brothers and sisters, Amarilly takes a job selling cigarettes in a dive bar and winds up falling for a rich, handsome swell out slumming with his rich, handsome pals. The comedy turns on Amarilly's battles with his snobbish family, with our Mary getting the best of them before finally realizing what she really wants in life.
Throughout her career, Pickford excelled at light comedy and Amarilly is no exception, turning a ride on the back of a motorcycle, a tumble through a doorway on the threshold of her first kiss, and her enthusiasm for a barroom brawl into nice bits of humor. But it was mostly her bright, searching eyes, her shy, knowing smile, and, above all, her plucky, indomitable spirit that made her so adorable. In fact, if one word could sum up Pickford's extraordinary appeal during the era, "plucky" would be it.
As you might expect from a film written by Marion, the social observations are tart and biting without overwhelming the comedy. The rich are alternately portrayed as stuffy, lifeless bores and perfumed, pampered bums. Amarilly's love interest (Norman Kerry) is an effete drunk who ducks his work and his family with equal abandon. His best friend is a deadbeat trust fund baby who hogs the guest room and never picks up a check. And his mother is a pompous dowager who founds a charity that actively despises the objects of its care.
The resulting study of American social mobility is more Pygmalion than Cinderella and ends with a twist that thumbs its nose at both literary conventions. I quite can't tell if the film's politics are progressive or reactionary—maybe a bit of both—but no matter: Amarilly's happiness is the only item on the bipartisan agenda.
To direct Amarilly, Pickford chose Marshall Neilan, who had overseen the hugely successful Stella Maris. This time around, Neilan required none of the special effects or camera tricks that made Pickford's dual role in Stella Maris possible, but his direction is a solid example of the classical Hollywood style then emerging. The pacing is nimble and assured, the acting solid, and the camera work as light on its feet as the story itself.
One shot in particular, that of Amarilly's steady boyfriend finding the new guy's top hat on the landing outside her door—when compared with, say, Mack Sennett's rather obvious and by then painfully dated park bench sex comedies—shows just how far the movies had come in the space of a couple of years.
Look also for the way Neilan composes shots contrasting the worlds of the wealthy and the poor. In the former, Amarilly's beau is lost in vast expanses of sterile marble; in the latter, Amarilly's loving family is tucked into a warm, snug room. Neilan further underscores the divide by often framing Amarilly standing in doorways and perched on window sills, literally and symbolically straddling two worlds. Neilan's notions about poverty may be sentimental, but he's making his argument visually, cinematically, rather than spelling everything out with clumsy intertitles.
Despite the chronic alcoholism that made him unreliable and eventually ended his career, Pickford adored Neilan. "[T]o my way of thinking, he was the best director ever, better than the great D.W. Griffith."
The admiration was mutual. "She has something," Neilan said, "that irrespective of looks or age or anything else, will live on. She has personality."
Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley premiered on March 11, 1918, and to the surprise of no one, became one of the biggest hits of the year.
"Mary Pickford," wrote Motion Picture Magazine, "has gone to an entirely different well of characterization for Amarilly and drawn up as full a pitcher of success as in the renowned Stella Maris."
After Amarilly, Pickford continued to play plucky young girls in films such as Daddy-Long-Legs, Pollyanna, Tess of the Storm Country and Sparrows. The range of her roles was narrow and often fit the star like a straightjacket. "I'm sick of Cinderella parts," she once admitted, "of wearing rags and tatters. I want to wear smart clothes and play the lover." But fed-up or not, Pickford was not one to trifle with the expectations of a fan base that had made her the most powerful woman in the history of Hollywood.
"I am a servant of the people," she said, "and I have never forgotten that."
Only after the advent of sound made further little girl roles impossible did Pickford finally abandon the "Little Mary" persona for good. And as she feared, her audience abandoned her as well.