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Women's History March: Tess of the Storm Country (1922)

We celebrate Women's History Month with four films featuring strong female protagonists.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: Class wars exist today, certainly, but one based around those who live near a river and salvage what they can from the elements while wealthy people (literally) look down on them from the tops of hills may seem like a foreign concept to those who view Tess of the Storm Country today. However, this provides the basic setting for the film. In an effort to rid these squatters from his land, wealthy Elias Graves (David Torrence) becomes reckless in his attempts to move them from his land, eventually resulting in a murder. This leads to an inevitable love story between Tess (Mary Pickford) and the son of Elias, the liberally minded Frederick Graves (Lloyd Hughes) who is tolerant of the ways of these people different from him and attempts to sway his father. Along the way there are laughs but plenty of peril and drama, as befits a film of this time. The film was a true blockbuster in terms of scope and tone in 1922.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: The plot is relatively simple and very relatable to today's audiences. The rich man on the hill can't stand the sight of the uncouth squatters on his land. One guy has all the money and judges from afar those who don't. Then he takes action to remove them from his property so he doesn't even have to acknowledge they exist. The squatters live meager but relatively happy lives. They fish for their meals and live in ramshackle houses put together with whatever materials were available.

RB: This sort of “regular folks against rich folks” theme would be more common during the height of the depression, at least until the code took hold, at which point films became more fantasy-like, depicting lives that people wished they had vs the kind that they could possibly relate to more.

SG: It is difficult to discern Tess's age, but people tended to mature more slowly 100 years ago. People went from being kids to adults with no acknowledged in-between, so while we may assume her lack of hygiene and interest in the opposite sex is an indicator that she is a tween based on today's standards, I suspect Tess is closer to 16 or 17.

RB: Pickford herself was 29 or 30 when this was filmed. She’d continue playing young spitfires for most of the rest of the 20’s, which seems implausible today, but it is a testament to her star power and the way that she comes across on the screen that she was able to pull this off for the bulk of her busy film career. It’s impossible not to root for her.

SG: Her spunk is evident in the scene where Mary climbs the prison wall to visit her father and slip him items through the window bars. It is a great visual and illustrates Tess's commitment to right, but not to the law. This is a glimpse of what is to come later in the film.

I found the relationship between Graves's daughter Teola (Gloria Hope) to be remarkable. She finds herself desperate and in need of a friend, and Tess rescues her even though their families are at odds and doing so is a liability. Tess does it because it is the right thing to do. Later it hurts her potential future, but she is unapologetic and continues to fight for her morals. She is an incredibly strong character disguised as a petite and childlike adolescent.

The villain in this movie (Jean Hersholt) is a textbook melodrama baddie. He abuses his friend and repeatedly tries to rape Tess. His slow approach in her cabin as he grimaces menacing at her is the epitome of silent era filmmaking.

RB: Scenes such as this are always jarring to me in vintage movies. I’m reminded of a similar scene in Wild Boys of the Road (1933) where Ann Hovey has a similar encounter with Ward Bond. I agree that there is much in this scene to make you shudder and is a real testament to the power of this sort of film making.

SG: Mary's hair was an important part of her identity. She kept it long and curled in ringlets like a little China doll. By the 20s, her hair was a reminder of the past, and since she often played young girl roles, she did not need to adapt her look to the current fashions. As Tess, her hair is teased into a wild nest and it flies around in the breeze, but we are treated to a makeover scene when she decides to clean herself up to impress the rich son on the hill. The Pickford we know and love is revealed. Her fans will recognize this sequence from other films; she often played wild creatures tamed by love. One of my favorite publicity shots of her was my screensaver for years; she is bent over into a white porcelain sink getting her hair washed wearing a thin cotton gown tied with bows with one eye peeking out at the camera. By 1928, Mary was in her late 30s and sound had arrived, making it difficult for her to continue playing adolescents, so she had the decision to cut her hair. She didn't just trim it. She went all the way and got a stylish bob with a fingerwave. The haircut was front page news in the New York Times. Fans were furious. Although she won an Oscar for Coquette, allegedly at her request and to honor her contribution to film overall, not just for her performance, her career did not last long in the sound era as a star. Her curls are now in the collection of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

RB: When you and I saw The Letter (1929) at the Wexner Center a couple of weeks ago, it was alleged that Pickford used her influence with the Academy to bestow the award upon herself as Jeanne Eagels had already passed away by the time that the nominations were announced. I admit that I have not seen Coquette, but I do find this scenario very plausible as such things are not unheard of.

SG: Coquette is painful to endure. I've made it through a few times, but it sounds like actors reading lines, and the sound quality is bad which makes the dialogue difficult to understand. I want to like it because it is Mary but it isn't easy. She would never have won the award had she not already been an established star. The biggest achievement is that she successfully plays against type.

The novel of Tess of the Storm Country by Grace Miller White, first published in 1909, is very readable. I've discovered many worthwhile novels because I enjoyed the film version. Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster and its sequel Dear Enemy were also a treat.

RB: Grace Miller White is hardly a household name today, but her novels were popular enough in the early 20th century that several of them were made into films (Deserted at the Altar, Judy of Rogue’s Harbor, and Storm Country Polly are others). She was name enough that her image and name was used liberally in advertisements for all of these films.

SG: This is the second time Mary made this film, the first being in 1914. I saw that version at Cinefest and found it to be disappointing. The film lacks many close-ups which keeps the audience more distant from the drama than this version. They both suffer from moments of decomposition. At the end of his life, Adolph Zukor said he was proudest of three films in his career and included Tess among them (also The Covered Wagon and The Ten Commandments). It saved Famous Players. Zukor had to pawn his wife's jewelry and cash in an insurance policy to fund it, but it was a success, and it kickstarted Pickford's career as a leading lady. Film historian Kevin Brownlow said, "The first, raw and theatrical, moving forward in a series of jerks, has much to commend it, but it fails to make any emotional impact on an audience brought up on far more sophisticated stories. The second, beautifully mounted and exquisitely photographed, is, by any standard, a work of art. It is hard to believe there are only eight years between them." Part of the improvement has to do with the money invested. The generator used to shoot the night scenes in the 1922 version cost 3x as much as the original Tess (which only cost $10,000 to make). The new production cost more than $400,000 and took 17 weeks to shoot at Lake Chatsworth.

RB: You make a very valid point regarding the technological advances that took place in such a short period of time, budget excluded. It’s fascinating to me how quickly the artform of silent film evolved and matured, a topic that I hope we can explore more in the future. The film itself was wildly successful, with some reports of houses so packed that additional theaters had to be booked to handle the overflow. The Los Angeles Evening Herald reported that the film is a “deluxe rendition of the earlier popular favorite,” and that it “loses nothing of the finer imaginative flavoring of the initial narrative but has the further joy of polish in pantomimic expressions by an exceptional cast.” The Los Angeles Times agreed. “A film with a heart and a magical feeling for beauty. Mary Pickford’s new Tess of the Storm Country is one of the achievements of the year.” Exhibitor’s Herald felt that it was a “miracle of the amusement world,” and that the popularity of the film would “extend through generations."

SG: I hope that VCI will release this on Blu-ray as they have been doing with other Pickford films since the Milestone release has long been out of print and secondhand copies can be expensive. Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell starred in the 1932 remake, which I'd also like to see.

RB: I found the Milestone release perfectly acceptable, but of course, a more modern restoration may bring out more highlights that were missed. We live in a time where we are very fortunate to be able to take such things for granted. Classic film fandom should be at an all-time high if we are basing it purely on accessibility and quality of the material that is now available to us for assessment.

SG: When I first delved into Pickford's career, My Best Girl, Sparrows and this version of Tess of the Storm Country were my favorites of all of them. This gives the best representation of her appeal in a role as a young lady. Four stars.

RB: I find myself not nearly as versed in silent film as you, so to my knowledge, this was actually the first Pickford feature that I’ve seen. I found Mary absolutely magnetic and enjoyed the turns that the plot would take very much. I heartily agree with your four star assessment.

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