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
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
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
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.