September 21, 2017
Hoodlum, The – US, 1919
Mary Pickford had it. By it, I mean that practically indefinable set of qualities that propels someone to that rarefied status that many actors strive for but few achieve – that of the greats. The greats are spoken of with a certain reverence, they impress far after their time has passed, and their movies remain untouched by the erosion and depreciation that years of cinematic changes and the evolution of storytelling can have on them. And even when the films themselves are less than stellar, they are elevated by the mere presence of the star at their center. This is the case with Sidney Franklin’s 1919 film The Hoodlum.
In the film, Pickford plays Amy Guthrie, the pampered and temperamentally challenged granddaughter of Arthur Guthrie (Ralph Lewis), a rich and powerful businessman who believes in crushing his competition and using those in lower classes for his own nefarious purposes. There’s even a reference to framing an innocent man for a crime that his company committed. Guthrie soon invites Amy to go to Europe with him, yet despite her initial excitement – and the thrill of shopping for new travel accessories – she quickly sours on the idea, an act that shows how truly spoiled she is, for only those with a fractured sense of privilege would view such an opportunity as imposing hardship on them. Ultimately she decides to hang out with her father (T.D. Crittenden), a “sociological writer” penning what he refers to as his life’s work, on Craigen Street. Amy reasons that if it’s good enough for her father, it’s good enough for her. She is in for quite a rude awakening.
From here, The Hoodlum becomes a virtual depiction of culture shock. First, there’s rejection, then a quiet acceptance accompanied by an attempt to fit in, and finally full acceptance with a tinge of preference. Modern viewers will recognize the duck-out-of-water plot line and see its twists and turns coming a while away. The film devotes a great amount of time to showcasing Amy’s attempts to assimilate and, unfortunately, not enough time to showing her transformation. Craigen Street has its fair share of suffering and financial hardship, but The Hoodlum lumps all of their experiences into one heartbreaking example of a sickly mother and her impoverished children. And while the moment is startling and abruptly changes the tone of the film, it is also entirely simplistic and seems to suggest that if this one family is helped, the community’s worst suffering has been relieved. The film then quickly shifts from dealing with poverty to the restoration of a wrongly-convicted decent man’s good name.
As I watched The Hoodlum, I was somewhat uncomfortable with its handling of the residents of Craigen Street and Amy’s attempts to fit it. Was the film mocking them through Amy’s use of their vernacular and habits, or was it being respectful by depicting her being like “one of them”? Early on, I sensed it was the former; later on, I adopted the latter view. I was also a bit bothered by the character of Amy’s father. Practically a non-entity in the film – he takes Amy to Craigen Street and subsequently disappears – he seems to be living there for purely selfish reasons. He doesn’t appear to be trying to draw attention to the plight of the poor or influence the actions of the local government. He just wants to write a great story, and he even chastises Amy for putting his efforts at risk. It is telling that we never see him talking to his neighbors or interacting with the local children. Instead, we see him sitting in a mosquito net eating dinner, an image that implies a rather sheltered and cut-off existence. His actions bring to mind the worst examples of “slumming it.”
It would be easy, therefore, to find fault with The Hoodlum, and while I indeed have my misgivings, they seem almost insignificant. This is Pickford’s film, and her energetic presence and stirring looks at the camera make such reservations seem petty. Her performance is a grand showcase of her range – from the pouting young lady we see if the film’s opening scenes to the fun bad-kid character she adopts later on to the mature adult who ultimately chooses right over family. We see her go full circle. In between are some amazing moments. In one, she engages in a Chaplin-esque dance with a man with an umbrella, moving unnoticed in step to avoid the rain; in another, she looks at a family in need, and we see the full expression of her realization of just how much suffering exists outside the guarded walls of her grandfather’s estate. True, the film all too often chooses comedy over drama and some of its characters turn decent on a dime, yet Pickford makes up for it. She does it all, but this is not surprising. After all, she is Mary Pickford. (on DVD as part of the Mary Pickford: Rags & Riches Collection)
3 and a half stars