What’s in a hat?
There’s never been a more troublesome bonnet. D.W. Griffith’s The New York Hat (1912) is a version of the Cinderella story, scripted by Anita Loos and Frances Marion. Mary Pickford plays Mollie, who leads a cheerless life thanks to her miserly father. When her mother dies she leaves money in trust for Mollie with the Minister, played by Lionel Barrymore. Mollie falls in love with an exotic hat from New York she sees in the milliner’s window, and the Minister, remembering her mother’s dying wish, buys it for her. This innocent act sets off the gossips, and a mighty scandal ensues. The Minister eventually produces a letter from Mollie’s mother explaining all, order is restored, and the Minister proposes to Mollie.
Mary Pickford’s acting in the film is a masterclass in the intimate performance style developed by Griffith at Biograph. She conveys a wide range of emotions from joy and wonder to ecstasy, despair and distress through small gestures and subtle body language as well as facial expressions. Her ‘bits of business’ with hat, gloves and kerchief are brilliantly executed. Her acting style is a modified version of the histrionic techniques favoured by silent screen actors in the period, who used conventionalised broad gestures and frozen poses to express heightened emotion. Pickford moves about in a more naturalistic manner that departs from tableau shots to create the impression of ‘real’ space. The film displays the match cutting and parallel editing that became standard in classic cinema.
The hat is a wondrous concoction, hot from the sophisticated city. In Mollie’s small town with its malicious gossips, it stirs up salacious rumours about the young girl and the Minister. Although these are resolved, the underlying theme is quite racy. The meeting of city style and small town mores creates a disastrous situation that devastates Mollie and results in the destruction of the hat by her father. (In 1927, F.W. Murnau would make Sunrise A Song of Two Humans with a similar town/country theme — though without the hat.) There’s a moral, of course, warning against the dangers of city decadence and excessive consumerism. The New York hat is pivotal: Griffith et al. use it as a narrative device, and as a means of demonstrating acting technique, highlighting the significance of screen costume in telling stories, evoking character, and producing spectacular visual display.
The video essay takes found footage from the film, cropped and re-edited with added music, visual and sound effects, to analyse the fine details of Pickford’s emotional performance. Along the way, some playful touches feature the hat itself as a central character.
© Pam Cook
Roberta E. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991