Obscure Films: “The Hoodlum”

Typically, there’s a mere handful of Mary Pickford films that get discussed regularly, Stella Maris (1918), Sparrows (1926,) and Daddy-Long-Legs (1919) usually reaching the top of the list. But happily for us, Pickford was one of the hardest working women in Hollywoodland and left behind a generous filmography to explore. Seek and you shall find a number of gems–such as the quirky light comedy The Hoodlum (1919).

Pickford plays Amy, the spoiled rotten granddaughter of a wealthy businessman. Her grandfather wants to take her abroad, but she suddenly decides she’d rather be with her father, a sociologist who’s studying life in the slums of New York. Since he’s writing a book about the slums, he takes Amy from her usual servants-and-silver life on Fifth Avenue to stay with him in the crowded, claustrophobic inner city tenements.

Amy’s shocked by conditions there at first (she imagines herself sitting forlornly in a pigsty surrounded by hogs). She’s snooty to the friendly neighbor girls and downright bratty toward the cook. But her father advises her to be more open minded: “Treat them as your equals–become one of them…”

Inspired, she decides to adapt wholeheartedly to slum life, transforming herself into a  the “hoodlum” of the title. She pals around with a small gang of children, shooting craps and using slangy lingo with the best of them. (Count me as curious about her distinctive “hoodlum” outfit of striped dress, big-beaded necklace and flamboyant little hat!)  When her grandfather hears what his precious girl is up to, he’s outraged and decides to head to the slums in disguise to witness the spectacle for himself.

Yes, the plot is strange. But what does it matter, so long as it stars Pickford? Always delightful, she gives her fans a little bit of everything in this film. We see her both elegantly dressed and in eclectic street clothes, throwing tantrums and having tender moments, doing slapstick and witnessing scenes of almost unbearable sadness. The Hoodlum is a light comedy, but it has pathos that Pickford can carry off with complete sincerity. It isn’t subtle, but you don’t feel that she’s trying too hard. It works. Maybe it’s because we sense that she respects her audience.

She respects the subjects in her films, too. Describing the plot makes it sound almost insulting–a rich girl “going slumming?” Trying to talk with street lingo? Really? But the spirit of The Hoodlum is very different. Pickford was a champion of the poor, having experienced it as a child when her family was constantly on the road. The overwhelming but good-natured Irish, Jewish, Italian, etc. residents of the slum are in clear contrast to Amy, who starts out unable to see her new neighbors as anything but dirty and ill-mannered. When a couple of girls offer to become friends, she responds with a sniff: “I am utterly fatigued. You will oblige me by leaving.”  Amy has to allow herself to soften before she’s able to appreciate her neighbors for who they are.

Mary hoodlum with irishwoman

Motion Picture News, 1919.

You could say that The Hoodlum is basically setup for Pickford to play one of the tomboyish little toughs she was famous for. And you’d totally be right…to a point. Pickford was clearly very concerned about artistry and producing an authentic-looking world for her “hoodlum” to run around in. The “New York slums” were entirely Hollywood sets, crafted with amazing detail. (I wonder which set designer spent time crafting just the right kind of debris to litter the streets, and if he went out and studied street litter for inspiration!) In keeping with most Pickford films, the lighting is perfection, especially in the night scenes where Amy is trying to find refuge from the pouring rain.

Mary hoodlum set photoplay '19

The set with Mary at the top right and a pianist adding mood music on ground level, Photoplay, 1919.

And there’s realism that would make Eric von Stroheim envious in the scenes where Amy’s faced with the worst miseries of poverty. We see an alcoholic sleeping it off in a filthy room full of rags and debris, and a family of neglected children whose mother is too ill to leave her bed–we even see cockroaches crawling on the poor woman’s pillow. We see the poverty, but then we also see Amy treat the impoverished with dignity, and doing what she can to help them. She explains to her grandfather: “I’ve seen things that have opened my eyes.”

Mary hoodlum carrying baby mot pic news '19

Cropped from Motion Picture News, 1919.

I’ve seen a couple fan reviews remark that the title could turn viewers off, “hoodlum” not being as popular nowadays as “thug” you see. Well, that sure doesn’t apply to me–the more old-timey an old film’s title is, the more I want to watch it. Give it a title like The Ragamuffin or A Gentleman’s Dilemma and I’m all over it. Something like Poor Orphan Opaline’s Consumption would make me drop everything. In any case, the idea of something sounding too old-timey to attract interest is not something that my mind can comprehend. (Oh, and by the way, The Hoodlum begins with a mini public service film where Mary urges people to continue buying WWI war bonds!)

If you’d like to see this underappreciated little gem, The Hoodlum is available in your usual cheap knockoff DVDs and fuzzy YouTube copies, but it’s also part of Milestone’s Rags & Riches: The Mary Pickford Collection. It’s also available for streaming on Fandor.

Tidbits:

  • Like millions of people across the globe, Pickford contracted the Spanish flu in the spring of 1919. She was too ill to work for four weeks, and against her doctor’s advice went back to work on The Hoodlum before she was 100%.
  • The director was Sidney Franklin, who had directed pictures for Norma Talmadge, who Pickford admired.
  • Max Parker was the art director, and would go on to create the glitzy high society worlds for many of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1920s films.
  • The wonderful Max Davidson played one of Amy’s Jewish neighbors.
  • The main Irishman is played by Andrew Arbuckle, who’s said to be Roscoe Arbuckle’s cousin. I’m a bit skeptical and would love to see actual confirmation of this. He was also apparently the brother of Macklyn Arbuckle, an actor who, as I once saw, denied that he was related to the famous comedian. Of course, that was at the height of Roscoe’s Labor Day scandal, so you never know…!
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13 thoughts on “Obscure Films: “The Hoodlum”

      • Finally got around to watching this one. I thoroughly enjoyed it! This one should certainly be better known.

        There are some things that are a stretch, plot-wise. But Mary Pickford, being who she is, managed to pull it off so well you scarcely notice. It amazes me how she can go back and forth between a comedic, almost over-the-top caricature on the one hand and a reflective, empathetic, thoroughly realistic character on the other. She provides lots of funny moments and some really poignant ones. She was quite an actress.

        I thought the cast and settings were impressive, and so was the lighting, especially in the rain scene, as you mentioned. The musical score on the Rags to Riches dvd is wonderful—especially in the rain scene. I could listen to that over and over…

        Thank you for highlighting this one!

        P.S. Poor Orphan Opaline’s Consumption sounds up my alley, too. 🙂

        • When most films try to switch tones back and forth it usually seems forced or insincere, but Mary could always pull it off. It really is remarkable.

          Yes, I should write an article about how many super out-of-date or old-fashioned elements should make you WANT to watch a silent film, for the sheer glory of it all. I remember the first time I saw a silent that had an honest to gosh organ grinder and his monkey (might’ve been a Keystone). My mind was blown. 😀

          Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Donnie!

  1. Well Lea, you have been a marvellous host walking us through a number of Mary Pickford films over the past month. You have inspired me to watch a number of them. Quite frankly, I’m shocked! Truly shocked! Certainly by today’s acting standards and most definitely by the standards of silent film.

    I am no stranger to silent movies and have been a fan of the genre for a number of years. Maybe I never took Pickford’s films seriously, or maybe I was just too interested in heavier symbolically driven and stylized European silents? Or may it was those films which had distinct architectural approaches? Anyway, I’ve since learned the error of my ways. And by taking a bit of a crash-course on Mary Pickford movies, I can now fully appreciate why she was not merely a great significance to advancing the history of film, but a great actress in her own right.

    You have beautifully recounted some aspects of her off-screen life: modest background, business acumen, social responsibility, leveraging her screen persona et c. When discussing actors, some people take offence at mixing off- and on-screen personalities. “Don’t confound the work of an actor with their real-life personality,” they say. A fair position. But I think that we can rightly make an exception with Mary Pickford. I think the convergence of what she did in front of the lens and behind it are complementary–maybe even a symbiosis of much bigger lessons to be learned.

    A few months ago, I knew Pickford largely for who she was and what she did off-camera. But after seeing a slew of her films, notably: Tess of the Storm Country, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Stella Maris, Daddy-Long-Legs and Sparrows, I now understand the depth behind her characters–or what could really be described as her characterizations. She’s tough, focused, determined, assertive, unwavering, and loaded with a depth of emotional intelligence. When she believes that she is in the right, so de we.

    We all go through challenges in our lives. And so did those who watched Mary’s films when they were released in the theatres. Then, as now, when we watch a movie where Pickford is likely to ostensibly play an “adult baby,” we watch her carry out her role with the full knowledge that she was an astute businessperson, a champion for artists, and an actress who asserted a belief that right beats might.

    There’s something to be said in all of that!

    (Thank you, Lea.)

    • Ian, thank you so much for this thoughtful comment! Knowing that the past month helped you become a Mary fan is basically the best compliment I could hope for. That’s what these theme months are all about–helping fellow fans “get to know” certain people or studios in a new light. And as a bonus I get to study about about them and learn new facts along the way, myself.

      I agree that Mary isn’t the sort of actress whose life and work have to be regarded separately–she took her role as unofficial “Hollywood royalty” very seriously, and made a sincere effort to be a good role model. Who can say how many people she must’ve inspired, back in those days?

      Stop by anytime, happy to have you as a reader! 🙂 (I had a final, belated Pickford month post that went up today, hope you enjoy.)

    • Ian, I had the SAME exact experience, talk about a revelation. I am SO happy you have had the same experience.

      As Lea says….the best part is….she made so many! Especially in this time period!

      I like to see “The Hoodlum” in context to what she did that year. She makes “Daddy Longlegs”, her yearly child movie…huge hit….then a few months later, follow it up with this! A light, urban comedy…..and then? Follow it up with “Heart Of the Hills”! A fantastic rural movie (comedy?) which is just fantastic.

      She did the same thing the year before. “Stella Maris”, the big spectacular one for the year….and then follow it up with a contemporary urban comedy (“Amarilly of Clothesline Alley”, great) and a rural comedy (“M’Liss”, hilarious, one of my favorites, and stars Thomas Meighahn, one of the only actors to hold his own OPPOSITE Mary Pickford, usually the guys are pretty interchangeable and inconsequential).

      As far as “The Hoodlum” is concerned…..the opening scene, where she is telling her father about her crazy cat……oh my gosh, I have to hold my sides. And the scene where she’s shooting craps with the kid and she winds up with the rats in the coal cellar….holy smokes (no pun intended), if that ain’t funny, pray tell, what is? Again….up there with the comedy greats, just never included!

      But hey….you know what’s funny? You know what’s REALLY funny? This:
      “Give it a title like The Ragamuffin or A Gentleman’s Dilemma and I’m all over it. Something like Poor Orphan Opaline’s Consumption would make me drop everything. ” 😀

  2. Oh one more thing, about the….how do you say….”flimsy” plot.

    Someone (i don’t remember who) said: You don’t go to Mary Pickford films to get lost in a well-plotted story! They often rely on unlikely coincidences and what have you. “The Hoodlum”, more than many, does feel like a “vehicle”, let’s get her to hit these marks: the bratty child, the snob, the spunky scrapper (she seems to turn into that overnight!), the heart of gold, and finally, a bit of romance. But believe me….you won’t care! Or if you do, you’re missing the point!

    Any time Mary Pickford was in front of a camera, it’s precious. Even if it’s newsreel stuff, where she’s not acting. The fact that some of her work is lost makes me queasy – and I know she doesn’t have it nearly as bad as some people, Colleen Moore specifically breaks my heart. In the second version of “Tess of the Storm Country”, the only existing print starts to really get bad during an amazing scene where she’s taunting the landlord through the gates…..it’s like watching the remaining fragments of “Flaming Youth”, or “He Comes Up Smiling”…your heart breaks for THEM, and the work they gave the world…..and the world just let it fade away.

    Not you, though, Lea! Not us!

    • Newsreel footage of Mary–of any silent star, really–is just gold, isn’t it? You get a chance to see them as themselves (or close to themselves, anyway). I find myself studying the footage of Mary, Doug, and Charlie now and then. You can almost sense the energy they had, being on top of the world and all.

      • I get chills, just watching that two seconds where she’s next to him, in the Little Tramp costume, and they mug and do a quick bit of business together, I know you know what I’m talking about……..would have been fantastic to see them act together…..not that any movie could hold them!

        • YES, seeing them as “themselves” is a total gift, the closest thing we’re going to get to heading back in time!

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