3 June 2004 | wmorrow59
A short drama from 1912 that still has the power to move us
For a number of reasons The New York Hat is among the most familiar titles of all the short films D.W. Griffith made for Biograph during his apprenticeship. It marks Griffith's last collaboration with Mary Pickford before her departure for the Famous Players Company, and it presents a youthful Lionel Barrymore in a prominent role as the pastor who takes a benevolent interest in Mary. Sharp-eyed viewers might also catch a glimpse of Lillian Gish in a brief bit outside the church. History and casting aside, the movie itself holds up quite well as entertainment.
From the very first scene Mary has our sympathy. The death of her mother has left her in the care of a sour, miserly father who is not attentive to her needs, and when she receives a fancy hat as a gift it clearly means a great deal to her. As the story unfolds we become increasingly involved in her situation, indignant at her mean-spirited father, and irritated with the town gossips who assume the worst about the pastor's intentions towards Mary. The age of the film is forgotten when Mary's father rips her beloved hat apart and throws it to the ground. We feel for her, we want to see justice done, and we want to see that old miser brought low. In this regard, the ending is especially satisfying.
It's interesting to find that this early work features thematic elements that would recur in films by both director and star. Several of Mary Pickford's strongest vehicles present her as a lower class girl who is painfully aware of her status, and longs for acceptance by her 'betters' -- who, as often as not, are snobs unworthy of her admiration. Griffith, meanwhile, went on to demonstrate a special contempt for busybodies in his later work, such as the "reformer ladies" in the modern story of Intolerance.
Still, while the gossips of The New York Hat richly earn our scorn, the sympathetic pastor's actions look naive at best. Shouldn't he have expected people to wonder about the nature of his relationship with this young girl? The girl's exact age is not stated and is hard to determine (Mary Pickford was 20 years old when the film was made, but she could have passed for 16 or even younger), but in any case you'd think he would have been a little more circumspect. One question left unexplored at the end is the whether the gossips are correct in their assumption that the pastor is interested in Mary in a, shall we say, more than fatherly way. Let the viewer decide!