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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

G.F.E.M. - The Hoodlum (1919)

Okay, okay.  I know the Hoodlum is not nearly as good as many of the other great silent comedies or dramas of film history.  I know it’s not even one of Mary Pickford’s greatest roles, but it is, undeniably, a great, great film.  The reason I chose The Hoodlum to open my Greatest Films Ever Made list is it goes back to the beginning, into the early days of cinema, and it stars the very first movie star.

Mary Pickford grew up on hard times, and acts of desperation are scattered through her early career.  I can only assume that she pulled a special something from inside her when she took this role.  The film follows a spoiled rich girl who is ultimately forced to live in crushing poverty by her father, who is concerned with her behavior.  It was a lesson from which she would grow and change.  The early days and nights in this hard-knocks neighborhood are tough for her, but over time she adapts and even becomes somewhat of a tough gal.

The Hoodlum was almost lost, and if it weren’t for the restorative efforts by the talented folks at the Mary Pickford Institute (yeah, she has her own friggin’ institute!) we may have never had the opportunity to experience her in one of her most radiant roles.  It’s not as well known, or even quite as good, as some of her more popular movies such as Less Than Dust from a few years before, but when you see it, I believe the Hoodlum shows Pickford as her most radiant. 

The transformation of Pickford’s character in this film just show how great of an actress Mary Pickford was.  But you may not know that, early in her career, she didn’t just show promise as a film actor, she invented acting as we know it today.  Due to the technical limitations of film at the time, it was difficult to express emotion and convey it in a way that the audience could recognize it.  Therefore, instead of using facial expressions, they used often exaggerated body language: hands in front of the face and wide eyes for shock or surprise, forearm to forehead for grief, arms in the air for frustration, hands at the chest for admiration or thanks, ect.

This wouldn’t do for Mary Pickford, who took a far more subtle, and thus more effective, approach.  Pickford’s lovely face and her gentle nature on screen (she was actually quite tough and even a little pushy in real life, a result of her early desperation in poverty), and she dared to act with her eyes, her mouth, and simpler movements.  She pushed the art of acting far beyond the flailing that was so common during the silent era.  In her earlier roles people were drawn to her radiance.  Her bright-eyes, and soft smile made her so famous, and as a result, she became the first real star of the still-new medium of film.  She earned, at the time, the equivalent of more than $10,000 a week by today’s dollars, and she was able to move her family out of disparity.

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