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Case Number 07959: Small Claims Court

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Heart O' The Hills

Image Entertainment // 1919 // 78 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Aaron Bossig (Retired) // November 3rd, 2005

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All Rise...

Judge Aaron Bossig studied silent movies for three years. Then he turned off the "Mute" feature.

The Charge

In the heart of the Kentucky mountains dwells a primitive and picturesque people. Often misunderstood are these simple mountain folk, for theirs is a quaint humor, an elemental courage, and a stern code of justice.

The Case

Critiquing a film of this vintage is like analyzing a child's painting. Anything impressive or encouraging seems to be the mark of a prodigy. If something seems silly or poorly done, we simply dismiss it as inexperience or experimentation. A film such as this can stand with no fair objection, as its artists had precious little to compare it to. When Heart O' the Hills was made, there was no Syd Field formula or method acting. The film industry had just barely advanced past selling two-reel "scenarios" as features. Movies such as Heart O' the Hills were Hollywood's first ventures into full-length features, thus advancing cinema from being a pedestrian distraction to a legitimate art form.

History credits Mary Pickford as being the first major Hollywood star. Truth be told, she essentially invented the idea of a Hollywood starlet. Mary had gone from being a stage performer to writing her own movies (short sketches, then known as "scenarios") to creating her own production company, all the while enjoying treatment akin to royalty and making unfathomable amounts of money. Her career shaped the very boundaries of what filmmaking success could bring, and what potential a talented actress could achieve. In many ways, it's possible to say that no actress since has had more influence than did Mary Pickford at the height of her popularity.

Heart O' The Hills is typical of the type of film Pickford was famous for. In it, she played an adolescent girl on the verge of womanhood. Her character is a lower-class girl, resourceful and beautiful. She aspires to more, but will not better herself at the expense of her proud upbringing. She starts off the film at age 13, and by the end, she's an adult. It was Mary's unique beauty that made her convincing, and her credibility with child roles became her trademark. Similarly, in M'Liss, Mary Pickford portrays a rude young girl who decides to better herself by going to school. Again, Mary's charm sells her as a little girl, and she excels at portraying independent women.

In 1919, women didn't get much more independent than this. Pickford plays Mavis Hawn, a young girl who has sworn to find and punish the man who killed her father. We, the audience, are introduced to this girl by watching her rifle practice. Not content to merely shoot well, Mavis expects to hit her target from the back of a moving horse—not the mark of a girl who plans on letting others take care of her. Along the way, she finds herself having to defend her land from scheming city folk. Oddly enough, her boyfriend seems to be a meek and timid individual. That's not an accident. It was decided early in production to give most of the scenes to the female lead, so that Mary could be the protagonist.

It's easy to see why Heart O' the Hills is the primary feature in this collection. Mary's talents are very apparent in every frame she's in. Her pantomime is graceful: she exaggerates just enough to compensate for the lack of sound but otherwise is gentle and convincing. Although there are quite a bit of spoken lines in the movie, not all of them are written on interstitial cards. Still, the cast has enough talent to communicate those lines to the audience just the same. The musical score is fantastic. A gentle fiddle tune carries most of the movie, and is able to switch from a jolly beat to a somber tone at a moment's notice. M'Liss, while impressive in its own right, doesn't show off Pickford's talents quite as well.

While movies have always championed love stories and the successes of common people, there are many ways in which Heart O' The Hills will be very different from contemporary films. First and foremost, the structure is different. Whereas modern films are usually divided into three acts and focus on the protagonist overcoming one major conflict, movies of the silent era placed much more emphasis on the greater story. A silent movie makes extra effort to tie up all the loose ends and ensure that all the characters are treated to a happy ending. This is one reason the stories will end years after they began: the audience wants to see that the characters grew and matured.

As a film, detached from its historical context, Heart O' The Hills does not age well. The interstitial dialogue will frustrate modern audiences. The film is set in the mountains of Kentucky, and the characters have a Southern drawl, which is written phonetically. It's supposed to communicate an accent across a medium that has no voice, but it's a very stereotypical and dumbed-down accent. Frankly, it makes any given script from The Beverly Hillbillies sound like the finer works of Robert Frost. It's a view of rural southerners that comes across as plain insulting.

Like the film itself, the technical aspects of this DVD have to be given much leeway because of their age. Yes, the print is in bad shape, full of scratches and dirt, looking just plain terrible by modern standards. Yet, when you factor in that the movie is nearly 80 years old, it's suddenly surprising that it looks even that good. Somewhat less forgivable, but still understandable, is a heavy amount of digital artifacting. Lots of blockiness and poor compression can be seen throughout the film, particularly in the interstitial cards. While the effect is certainly distracting, I'd like to point out that MPEG-2 compression (the standard used for all DVD Video) is at its best with a clean print. Something in this condition puts the compression at a huge disadvantage.

Although the films themselves have aged poorly, the DVD set provides two galleries of stills featuring spectacular black-and-white photos of Mary Pickford and her colleagues. These photos are sharp enough to convey the charm Mary was famous for. You'll also find a few vintage advertisements for the films themselves.

The verdict on Heart O' the Hills has already been delivered by Judge History.
This court will not dare hold Ms. Pickford in double jeopardy. May she rest in peace.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Image Entertainment
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 1919
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Classic
• Silent Films

Distinguishing Marks

• Stills Galleries
• Historical Notes

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