M’Liss (1918) A Silent Film Review

Mary Pickford plays the title character in this wilderness curio. A wild youth living in a mining town with her father, the town drunk, M’Liss begins to appreciate civilization when she falls for the new schoolteacher, Thomas Meighan. Her life takes a turn for the tragic when her father is murdered and the crime is pinned on poor Mr. Meighan. It’s up to M’Liss (aided by the screen’s first Frankenstein monster, Charles Ogle) to save the hapless educator from a lynching.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

One genre? One? Ha! Wimps.

I have been wanting to review M’Liss for a long time but it never really seemed to fit into the review schedule. However, it’s the end of the year and, darn it, I am going to review M’Liss!

This is a hybrid film that fits into several categories at once. It’s a murder mystery, an inheritance yarn, a backwoods tale and it is also (arguably) one of Mary Pickford’s teen roles. (Pickford actually played teenage girls as often as she did small children but her teen parts often get lumped in with her child roles.)

Um, how old are you supposed to be?
Um, how old are you supposed to be?

The movie was helmed by Marshall Neilan, the master of twee (not necessarily an insult) and Pickford’s favorite director. The supporting cast includes Theodore Roberts (Moses in the first Ten Commandments), Tully Marshall, Charles Ogle (cinema’s first Frankenstein monster), Monte Blue and Thomas Meighan. In short, some of the best that the Paramount stables had to offer.

For all the talent involved, M’Liss remains one of Pickford’s more obscure titles. Should it remain that way? That’s what we are going to find out.

Does M’Liss deserve rediscovery?
Does M’Liss deserve rediscovery?

Melissa Smith (Mary Pickford) is the hellcat of a small mining town. Nicknamed M’Liss, the tears around threatening people with her slingshot and generally getting into mischief. Her father is the town drunk, Bummer Smith (Theodore Roberts), and M’Liss spends much of her time trying to keep him safe and sober.

When a new schoolteacher arrives in town, M’Liss takes a sudden interest in education. As the teacher is played by Thomas Meighan, I understand her sentiment.

She’s ready for some book learnin’
She’s ready for some book learnin’

However, scheming is afoot. Bummer has a rich brother who has just died. His nurse and her brother find the will and discover that the old man left everything to Bummer and his wife. Bummer’s wife left him soon after M’Liss was born. If he were to meet with an accident and the “wife” were to show up…

Assisted by a scheming deputy named, I wish I were making this up, Mexican Joe (Monte Blue), our villains set to work. Bummer is stabbed, the schoolteacher framed and all looks set for the baddies to claim the fortune. But they didn’t count on M’Liss and her friend, a stagecoach driver named Yuba Bill (Charles Ogle).

M’Liss and Yuba Bill must save the day.
M’Liss and Yuba Bill must save the day.

Pickford’s close friend Frances Marion wrote the screenplay for M’Liss. It was based on a short story by the ever-tedious Bret Harte. As Harte’s stories were notoriously unsuitable for motion pictures (he’s one of those annoying “ain’t I gritty?” and “let’s all just stare at one another” writers), Marion made the intelligent decision of tossing out everything except the title, a few snatches of dialogue, the death of the heroine’s father (suicide in the book) and the names of some of the characters.

A cuter, nicer M'Liss.
A cuter, nicer M’Liss.

A sample of the oft-praised Hart’s prose:

“But she threw plates occasionally at the landlord, and quickly retorted to the cheap witticisms of the guests, and created in the Sabbath school a sensation that was so inimical to the orthodox dullness and placidity of that institution that, with a decent regard for the starched frocks and unblemished morals of the two pink-and-white-faced children of the first families, the reverend gentleman had her ignominiously expelled.”

Would you be a lamb and diagram that sentence for me? Ta!

Miss Marion had her work cut out for her.

Not the easiest story to adapt.
Not the easiest story to adapt.

Fun facts! When M’Liss was remade in 1936, it starred Anne Shirley, who had a small role in The Purchase Price (1932), which was a sorta remake of The Canadian, which starred Thomas Meighan. Shirley was born two weeks before the Pickford version was released in 1918. Thomas Meighan died three weeks before the remake was released in 1936. Go! Impress your friends with this astonishing knowledge.

Back to the review.

Beautiful scenery.
Beautiful scenery.

The film’s plot is paper thin and the movie actually works the best when its talented cast is just allowed to play. We get to see M’Liss robbing the stagecoach with her slingshot and relieving Mr. Meighan of his pipe. Later, M’Liss decides to gussy herself up for her teacher and steals the tail of her father’s favorite chicken to decorate her hat. Bummer is later seen sewing little pants for his bird to protect her modesty.

But, alas, the plot intrudes and now I must bring up a few aspects of the film that make is jarring to modern viewers.

How young is too young?
How young is too young?

The heroine’s exact age is kept ambiguous. As Pickford puts it in the film, she will be grown up… soon. I took her to between twelve and fifteen. In the short story, she was hired on as a servant but child labor laws were lax back in the day so that is of little help. I suppose you could argue that her fondness for dolls means that she is a younger child but then her sudden interest in fashion indicates (at least to me) that she is ready to leave childhood behind.

Meighan in a jam.
Meighan in a jam.

In any case, the age of M’Liss leaves Thomas Meighan in a very uncomfortable situation. He was the go-to steady leading man of Paramount but he was not yet a big enough star to demand better roles and scripts. Still, he had an innate ability to glide through the most ridiculous of scripts with his dignity intact. (This was no small feat. The man survived Heart of Wetona.)

Meighan needed to muster all his strength for the role. He has some good scenes at the schoolhouse and the trial but he is also called upon to overpower and spank Monte Blue (yes, literally), among other silliness. I also felt that the reaction to a male schoolmarm (a popular source of humor in western fiction) could have resulted in better character development for both Meighan and the actors playing the townsfolk. The idea is in place but in the end, Meighan’s profession doesn’t really matter as far as the overall story is concerned. He may as well have been a traveling pickle salesman.

I wasn’t kidding about the spanking.
I wasn’t kidding about the spanking.

And then there is the romance. Like M’Liss’s age, the question of romance is kept ambiguous. M’Liss proposes to her schoolteacher and he accepts but one gets the impression that he is just humoring a high spirited kid. (Spoiler) Then at the end, he steals her slingshot and uses it to demand a hug. The movie ends with them in a clutch.

Errrrrrrr…

Don’t ask too many questions.
Don’t ask too many questions.

The short story ended with a pretty clear understanding between the schoolteacher and his pupil. In the film, Pickford and Meighan do their best but they are caught in an “is it or isn’t it” romance with very disturbing implications. Matters are not helped by the fact that Meighan spent his entire film career looking thirty-five. There’s nothing wrong with being thirty-five but it does make things difficult when one is called upon to romance a heroine who is possibly a tween and shown playing with dolls.

(Pickford had a similar issue with her child character’s love for William Haines in Little Annie Rooney. The matter was handled by setting the final scene in the future and showing that the adult Pickford and Haines were an item.)

M’Liss dresses up.
M’Liss dresses up.

I think the best option would have been to either cast a much younger actor or a much older one in the part. If the actor had been older, the relationship between the teacher and M’Liss would have been much easier to paint as paternal. If the actor had been younger, the question of age would have been lessened. Any veteran reader of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books knows that teachers could be the same age as (or younger than) their pupils. An eighteen-year-old schoolteacher and a fifteen or sixteen-year-old M’Liss would have been much easier to stomach.

Ambiguous age.
Ambiguous age.

Another distressing aspect of the film is its inconsistent views on lynching. Thomas Meighan is threatened with a vigilante hanging at the climax. M’Liss and Yuba Bill are horrified and help him escape. Later, the real culprits confess and the sheriff leaves them to the same mob, dropping a rope by a tall tree as he rides away. Hint, hint.

So, lynching is not wrong because it sidesteps due process and because extra-legal execution (regardless of the guilt or innocence of the victim) is murder. It’s only wrong when it’s aimed at a handsome schoolteacher. When it’s aimed at the villains, it’s kinda cute. Got it. Now excuse me, I need to smack Frances Marion upside the head. Yes, Frances Marion. There was absolutely no lynching in the original book. Miss Marion invented the episode out of whole cloth.

Really, movie? Really?
Really, movie? Really?

And if anyone tries to give me the “historical context” nonsense, I shall smack them upside the head as well. As it happens, the Dyer anti-lynching bill was first introduced to congress in 1918, the same year that M’Liss was released. The notion that “something used to happen, ergo it was acceptable to all” has no place in serious historical discussions.

(End spoiler)

See it for Mary and not much else.
See it for Mary and not much else.

M’Liss is a curious mix of humor, death and jaw-dropping inappropriateness. Sandwiched between two beloved classics on Mary Pickford’s resume (Stella Maris and Daddy Long Legs), it shows that even a winning partnership of director and star could stumble. The movie is not wholly bad, at least the first two acts, but it remains a very strange film in Mary Pickford’s career.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★

Where can I see it?

Milestone released M’Liss on DVD as a double feature with another rustic Pickford title, Heart o’ the Hills. It features a very good score from Donald Sosin.

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