Pastor Lionel Barrymore receives a strange mission from a parishioner (the wife of the town miser) who has recently passed away: He is to take the money she has left and buy her daughter, Mary Pickford, little luxuries that she has been denied. The Pastor starts by buying Mary a pricey hat from New York. Little does he know that this kindness will start a frenzy of gossip.
If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.
Director D.W. Griffith had a few pet peeves that he never tired of shooting barbs at: Despoilers of maidens, oppressor and the poor, perhaps his favorite targets of all, overzealous social reformers and small town gossips. When a young aspiring author named Anita Loos submitted a story for a one-reel short entitled The New York Hat to the Biograph Company, it proved to be an ideal Griffith script. It had a saintly mother, a put-upon waif, a kindly suitor and lots and lots of fun had at the expense of petty scandal-mongers.
Just one thing to note before we begin: In films of this period, characters were often not given names and were merely referred to by their professional titles or by some descriptive word like Boy, Father, Gossip or even something colorful like The Little Disturber. Only one character has a name in The New York Hat so I will be using the names of the performers to refer to their characters just to make things easier. Later versions of this film have added character names but they are not used in the version I viewed. No need to make things confusing.
The story begins with the death of that saintly mother (Griffith’s go-to mom, Kate Bruce). The local pastor (Lionel Barrymore) receives a small box from the dying woman and opens it as soon as he returns home. It contains money and a letter. Kate was worked to death by her miserly husband (Charles Hill Mailes) but she scraped together some savings and she wants to pastor to use it to buy luxuries for her daughter, Mary Pickford.
Poor Mary is stuck with shabby clothes and an ugly hat. In 1912, if your hat was not at least three feet wide and covered in ostrich plumes, strings of pearls and a few dead birds… Well, you may as well just not go out at all. However, her cheap father will not buy her anything more stylish so Mary prefers to go bare-headed.
There is a new sensation at the village millinery shop: A hat from New York itself! The hat costs the handsome sum of $10, far out of the price range of most of the town’s citizens but is is a beautiful thing, complete with dead bird.
Mary joins the crowd of gawkers admiring the hat in the shop window. Lionel spots her, realizes how much she wants that hat and decides to fulfill the first part of his mission then and there. He has no idea what a stir the hat has already caused nor does he realize that all the women in the shop will be dying to know just who the very-eligible pastor is buying the hat for.
Mary is dreaming of the New York hat. She is sorry to wake up. Then in comes Lionel with a box. He presents it to her and asks her to not tell anyone about who gave it to her. Mary opens up and there is her dream hat. She is overwhelmed with emotion.
Mary naively believes that her splendid new appearance will make her more acceptable to the girls her age. Nope. She is openly mocked when she debuts the hat at church and soon the town gossips are whispering about a scandalous affair with Lionel.
Biograph player fun! Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh and Mary Pickford’s little brother, Jack, are among the churchgoers insulting Mary. In fact, this whole film is chock full of famed actors and actresses used as extras. See how many you can spot.
Soon, the whole town is in a frenzy. Mary’s father catches wind of the trouble and tears up the offending hat. Then he marches off to give the pastor a piece of his mind. The church council has gathered its strength and has also set out to confront poor Lionel.
Mary, in tears over the demise of her hat and the blot on her character, gets to him first. The church council sees Lionel comforting Mary (staring through his window!) and burst in to prevent another tryst. Lionel produces the letter and the gossips depart with their tails between their legs. Mary’s father realizes the mistake he has made and also becomes quite sheepish.
But there’s more. Lionel, who has been looking mushy over Mary since the film began, proposes marriage. After a whispered conference with her father, Mary accepts. Aww! But wait. Doesn’t that mean the gossips were right? And what will happen when the engagement is announced and, and, and… Never mind. Just enjoy the happy ending.
(The original scenario for the film states that the pastor proposes marriage in order to “hush all scandal forever.” I still don’t see how that’s supposed to work but, hey, it’s their movie.)
Griffith was in his element when he dealt with small town life and The New York Hat is justly considered to be a Biograph classic. Every role is perfectly cast and the clever plot zips along while still managing to pack in lots of wry commentary.
Mary Pickford’s character is very much in her comfort zone: A sweet, imaginative girl who has been wrongly deprived. On paper it sound a bit trite but anyone who has seen Pickford in action knows that she deftly infused life and spunk into her characters, even when not specifically called for in the scenario.
One of Griffith’s great attributes as a director was his ability to aid his performers in creating three-dimensional characters, using every action to convey meaning. In her autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow, Mary Pickford wrote that Griffith would discuss the character’s circumstances and force his actors and actresses to put thought into what actions would be natural and logical for the role.
Griffith’s skill as a director and Pickford’s talent as a performer are displayed marvelously in the scene where Mary has fallen asleep after seeing the New York hat, written in the scenario as merely “Mary at home is dreaming of the marvels of the wonderful hat.” The film plays this up for maximum pathos. In her sleep, Mary Pickford reaches up, feels the imaginary brim and smiles, knowing her hat has made her a beauty. When she wakes up, she repeats the gesture but disappointment clouds her face when she realizes it was all a dream. This sweet scene makes Mary’s social rejection all the more heartbreaking.
The rest of the cast is also excellent. Lionel Barrymore overdoes his surprise scenes a bit (eye bulge! jaw drop!) but he is splendid at the more tender moments. He just seems to exude benevolence. While he played his share of villain roles, Lionel Barrymore’s most famous and beloved parts are his kindly grandfathers, crotchety geezers with hearts of gold and elderly purveyors of wit and wisdom.
Only thirty-four when The New York Hat was shot, Barrymore would not enjoy roles in the romantic lead for long. Soon he was typecast as fathers, uncles and granddads while his little brother John would be playing the romantic lead into his fifties. It’s fun and enjoyable to see Lionel have a chance to get the girl. He is every inch the kindly benefactor and it’s no wonder that Mary Pickford’s character falls for him.
Lionel Barrymore continued to work with Griffith through 1914. Actor and director were reunited in to the 1920’s with America, in which Barrymore menaced Carol Dempster, and Drums of Love, in which he battled for the hand of Mary Philbin.
The New York Hat is rightfully considered one of the most delightful examples of Griffith’s pre-feature work. It is an ideal introduction to pre-feature cinema and a real treat for fans of Barrymore, Pickford or Griffith.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?:
The New York Hat is available on DVD and via streaming as part of the Biograph Shorts set from Kino and the Griffith: Years of Discovery Volume 1 disc released by Flicker Alley. Both editions are excellent.