Amarilly of Clothes Line Alley (1918)
Mary Pickford gets to play an adult girl in this movie with a screenplay by her buddy, Frances Marion, who wrote child roles for her in “The Little Princess,” “Poor Little Rich Girl,” and other films. As in those movies, much of the emphasis here is on a contrast between the rich and the poor, with a sense that poverty and honesty are linked, as are wealth and decadence.
The movie begins, like many of the period, with an extensive introduction to the cast of characters. In addition to Mary in the title role of Amarilly Jenkins, we also meet her mother (Kate Price) and brothers, and her boyfriend, Terry (William Scott), who works as a bartender in a big nightclub in Clothes-Line Alley. On the “other side of the tracks,” are the Society people, represented by Mrs. Philips (Ida Waterman) and her nephew Gordon (Norman Kerry). Gordon has a friend with the auspicious name of Johnny Walker (Fred Goodwins), who he spends time with drinking at the athletic club, and who appears to sleep at Gordon’s studio. Mrs. Philips wants to set up her nephew with a debutante (Margaret Landis), but Gordon keeps putting off her invitations – apparently he prefers spending time with Johnny for now.
The first part of the movie contrasts the lifestyles of the two families. Mrs. Jenkins takes in washing and keeps the boys under control; Mrs. Philips spends her time at society dinners and philanthropic meetings. Amarilly cleans up at a local “the-ay-ter” and keeps company with Terry, shyly teasing him with an un-delivered kiss; Gordon drinks and carouses wildly, making excuses to his aunt about bible study groups and prohibition lectures while he hangs out with Johnny, both of them often in bathrobes. The two worlds collide (inevitably), when Amarilly takes a job selling cigarettes at Terry’s bar because the “the-ay-ter” burns down. Of course, that is the night that Johnny and Gordon take a bunch of their friends slumming on Clothes-Line Alley. Gordon and Amarilly flirt with each other a bit, which causes Terry to spill a good deal of alcohol, and then a fight breaks out between the regulars and the gang of “swells” Gordon has brought with him.
Amarilly enjoys the spectacle of the brawl, but then sees the injured Gordon thrown out, unable to get home under his own power. She offers to bring him to her place, where her mom can fix him up. Unfortunately, this is observed by the local gossip, “Snitch McCarthy” (Tom Wilson), who immediately reports it to Terry. Mrs. Jenkins does patch Gordon up, and asks for his washing in return, but unfortunately Terry sees Gordon in Amarilly’s place and concludes the worst. He calls off their engagement. Then, in another of those silent-movie-coincidences, Amarilly finds that she needs to relocate, because Clothes-Line-Alley has been condemned due to Scarlet Fever (this never affects any of the other poor characters), and Gordon convinces his aunt to put her up for a while.
Mrs. Philips decides to use Amarilly in an “experiment” to demonstrate that environment is what divides rich and poor, and she tries to educate Amarilly to be like the rich folks she knows. She gives Amarilly nice clothes and gives her the run of the house. Gordon suddenly loses interest in Johnny and starts hanging around Amarilly. At a party, she auctions off a kiss and he wins, paying $150 for the privilege. Soon, they are spending lots of time together, and Mrs. Philips remembers her class prejudices and becomes concerned about her nephew being hooked in by a possible gold-digger. The situation comes to a head when Amarilly’s family attend a party at the Philips’s, and behave like poor people in a rich household, dancing up a storm, blowing their noses, and inadvertently insulting a guest by mentioning taking in laundry. Amarilly and family go back home, really with little regret, because this isn’t their world.
Back on Clothes-Line Alley, Amarilly seeks out Terry and tries to win him back. At first he resists, but when she tears up after he accidentally hits her with his bar towel, his demeanor changes and he agrees to come over for dinner. Amarilly prepares a dinner for two and Terry spends 50 cents (!) on a bunch of violets for her. A brief insert contrasts their romance with Gordon’s newfound interest in the girl his aunt had picked out for him. Unfortunately, a man finds a gun in an alleyway and accidentally sets it off, coincidentally shooting Terry while he’s on his way over for dinner. He crawls away and barely makes it to Amarilly’s house before collapsing. Fortunately, Terry survives. Amarilly visits him in the hospital and tells him that when he gets out, they have a date at City Hall.
An epilogue set five years later shows the two of them riding in a motorcycle with sidecar, now well-dressed and apparently comfortable. Then it is revealed under the blanket she has a baby, and behind Terry is a little boy.
I found it something of a relief to see Mary Pickford in an undisputedly-grown-up role. There was no creepiness about the attractions of the men in the story for her, or her for them, and she could pretty much be herself most of the time. She really was from a working-class background, and had to work throughout her childhood, although she did avoid “scrubbing” as her character does here, and was doubtless much more articulate than the funny intertitles suggest. There is certainly no explicit homosexuality in the relationship between Johnny Walker and Gordon, but I have implied it in my review because I think it’s deliberately implied in the movie. Fred Goodwins as Johnny is flamboyant and at least a touch effeminate, although it’s actually him that initiates the bidding for a kiss from Amarilly. I don’t know if audiences necessarily caught it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Frances Marion was tying non-standard sexuality to the general sense of decadence among the wealthy in the film.
Another element of the film was that the residents of Clothes-Line Alley are generally identified as Irish, and elements of their characters tied to their Irish descent. I had never thought of “Jenkins” as being an Irish name (Wikipedia tells me it originated in Cornwall and became common in Wales), but I suppose Mrs. Jenkins could have been a Flanagan at birth. Irish movies had a certain heyday in the silent era and were often romantic comedies with a good dose of ethnic humor. Pickford and Marion may well have been playing on this, but for the most part the ethnicity of the characters is incidental, it just gets mentioned now and again. What happened to “Mr.” Jenkins is never clear, but one of Amarilly’s brothers is no more than five or six, so there presumably was a man on the scene until relatively recently.
As I’ve suggested, the plot relies heavily on coincidence, but on the whole it moves effectively from one situation to the next, and it’s better than a lot of the stories that were coming out at the time. Pickford’s ability as an actress is fully displayed and her co-stars range from competent to very good as well. I particularly thought that William Scott, as Terry, did a good job as the injured but also overly-jealous boyfriend. It’s basically a romantic comedy, so a lot is played for laughs, but it’s far from being slapstick or screwball. There’s enough human drama to keep an interest, and it’s among the better features I’ve seen from 1918.
Director: Marshall Neillan
Camera: Walter Stradling
Starring: Mary Pickford, William Scott, Norman Kerry, Kate Price, Fred Goodwins, Ida Waterman, Margaret Landis, Tom Wilson
Run Time: 1hr, 7 Min
You can watch it for free: here.