M’Liss (1918)

by popegrutch

Mary Pickford is a feral, bratty tomboy in this comedy-western from Artcraft. While in most of the movies I reviewed in 1917 she played a little girl of ten or eleven (taking advantage of her stature to seem younger than her co-stars), here she is a girl on the cusp of woman-hood, but the movie handles this somewhat awkwardly.

The movie opens, as many silent features did, with a kind of visual credit sequence in which each actor and character is introduced with an intertitle and a brief vignette that shows them in character. Pickford is shown in a raggedy dress, firing a slingshot at a bear in the woods, and we are told that her name means “limb of Satan” to the local populace. We also meet her pappy, “Bummer” Smith (Theodore Roberts), a  bearded man who trades eggs for booze, the local judge (Tully Marshall) who also enjoys a drink, and the villain, “Mexican” Joe (Monty Blue). Shortly thereafter, the new schoolteacher (Thomas Meighan) rides into town on a stagecoach that is robbed by M’Liss at slingshot-point, largely due to the winking cooperation of the stagecoach driver, Yuba Bill (Charles Ogle). We now learn that “Bummer” Smith has a rich brother in San Francisco who has willed “Bummer” all his money, but the evil nurse (Winifred Greenwood) and her husband (Val Paul) have plans to get it for themselves. Got all that? Good.

The first part of the movie essentially establishes that M’Liss is starting to soften as she comes closer to adulthood. She suddenly starts playing with a doll, a very un-tomboy-ish thing to do, and she joins the other girls of the village in mooning over the new schoolteacher, who is an undeniable hottie. It’s hard for M’Liss to overcome her own resistance to discipline at first, but once she dolls herself up a bit by plucking some feathers out of her father’s chicken to adorn a new hat, she’s ready to put in an appearance at the school. The judge pays a call to see how the new teacher is doing and when he asks her a question, she smart-mouths him and gets kicked out. But, the teacher is genuinely concerned about her progress, and starts tutoring her after school.

It is during one of these tutoring sessions that two important plot points are introduced: First, M’Liss proposes to the teacher, and he doesn’t exactly say no (he doesn’t quite say yes either, but considering the trouble he’d be in today, he certainly doesn’t react the way we’d expect a modern teacher to). Second, pappy is knifed in the back by a figure unseen by the audience, although we’ve got a pretty good idea that it’s Mexican Joe (spoiler alert: it is). However, when Yuba asks the dying “Bummer” who he last saw, he answers truthfully that it was the teacher. Somehow no one ever figures out that a man who was stabbed in the back might not have seen his attacker, so a trial begins after the arrest of the teacher. Now the baddies from SF show up and start railroading things so that he looks guiltier. Only M’Liss is on his side, but whenever she speaks up in court, he admonishes her to be respectful.

So the trial comes to its inevitable conclusion and the teacher is sentenced to 60 years in the local jail. That’s not good enough for the real killers, so they whip up the local miners to lynch him. M’Liss and Yuba get wind of what’s happening, and Yuba has begun to suspect the San Franciscans, so they hold up the sheriff and put the teacher on a horse out of town. Somehow the crowd gets confused and the San Franciscan man gets caught instead of the teacher, which leads to him and Mexican Joe accusing each other of betrayal and thus inadvertently confessing their crimes in front of a lynch mob. They do what lynch mobs do. Meanwhile (and this is intercut with the lynching), M’Liss discovers the teacher hiding out in her place, Yuba tells them that she’s now a rich woman and they hug, apparently resolved that she’s of marriageable age now.

There’s actually quite a lot to like about this movie. For one thing, the Northern California scenery is lovely, and this may have energized the performances. Mary Pickford is more energetic and enthusiastic in the role than we’ve seen before, and she clearly loved the opportunity to play the wild, uncontrollable girl-child, as she did in “Poor Little Rich Girl.” Marshall Neillan seems to have been less inclined to restrain her than Maurice Tourneur was, and she truly runs wild in this film, shooting her slingshot with abandon and hollering, pouting, and generally putting up a fight at every opportunity. The intertitles, particularly for her lines, are often hilarious, and include more swearing than one expects for the period. The rest of the cast is good too, but it’s really her movie. I’ve skipped a lot of the humor that derives from her actions and various misunderstandings, but at one point when she’s being hassled by the other kids for playing with her doll in a general store, I actually thought the movie was about to devolve into a Keystone-style food fight. It really wouldn’t have been out of place. Having seen this with a live audience at Cinecon, I can tell you that there are a lot of laughs here.

That said, there are also several sticking points that will be problematic for a modern audience. Probably the first is the idea of the obviously adult teacher dating one of his underage students. It’s not clear what the age difference is, but it’s pretty clear that there is one. Neillan tries to dodge this a bit by leaving it unclear whether Meighan is really saying “yes” to the proposal and by limiting the final “kiss” to an embrace, but anyone over 8 pretty much knows what’s going on here. It was probably a tad less shocking at a time when women were expected to marry young, and to marry men who were “established” enough to “provide” for them when possible, but for us today it’s pretty creepy (not to mention that she’s going to be the one providing, since she’s an heiress). On a similar note is “Mexican” Joe’s ethnicity. He, and his henchman, are the only apparently minority figures in the town, and they are portrayed as weak, cowardly, and unscrupulous. We’ve certainly seen worse caricatures in this project, but it should be called out nonetheless.

And then there’s that disturbing ending, in which two men are lynched on screen to give a sense of closure, cross-cut with the romantic resolution. That’s rather grim, and casts a pall of black humor over the rest of the comedy. The sheriff puts up a phony protest against the extra-legal action, before conveniently turning his back and “accidentally” dropping a length of rope under a tree for the mob to use. One of the lynchers tells the victims “I guess this will teach you boys a lesson.” And, we “see” the actual deaths in a reaction shot of the Mexican side-kick. I think his pantomime was meant to be funny, but it’s grotesque. A number of other westerns from this period end with the hanging of the villains, but this one seems particularly unsettling, in what had been a fairly lighthearted movie up to this point. Moreover, it’s completely unnecessary to the plot: their confession and capture would have settled that part of the story neatly, perhaps more neatly because it would be easier for M’Liss to establish her claim and for the teacher to remain free with their living testimony.

With those issues in mind, however, M’Liss is certainly worth it for Pickford fans, and I’d even recommend it for people just getting to know her. Her rambunctious, unpredictable performance will throw off any mistaken ideas that “America’s Sweetheart” was all sweetness and light, and there’s plenty of good comedy to go around.

Director: Marshall Neillan

Camera: Walter Stadling

Cast: Mary Pickford, Thomas Meighan, Theodore Roberts, Tully Marshall, Charles Ogle, Monte Blue, Winifred Greenwood, Val Paul, Charles Stevens

Run Time: 1 hr, 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here (no music on either one).