Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley (1918)
Director: Marshall Neilan
Cast: Mary Pickford, William Scott, Kate Price
Synopsis: A poor widow’s daughter is wooed by a socialite when she cares for him after a bar fight.
For Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley, Mary Pickford forsook the little girl persona which had stood her in such good stead in films like The Poor Little Rich Girl and Stella Maris, and playing instead a working class Irish girl of marriageable age. Although Pickford made a convincing child, it was the adult roles that offered more of an acting challenge simply because they required more subtlety than child roles which merely called upon her to pull exaggerated facial gestures. When she played it straight she made quite an impression. She was, of course, helped by the fact that her movies were vehicles designed specifically for her, but even a stellar actress like Pickford couldn’t carry a poorly written picture on her own. In Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley she’s fortunate that a first-class supporting cast just about manages to overcome the rather ordinary screenplay from Frances Marion whose best work, despite already having nearly 50 screenwriting credits to her name when she wrote this, still lay ahead of her.
Pickford plays Amarilly Jenkins, the plucky daughter of an Irish washerwoman (Kate Price) and sister to four younger brothers, who is unaccountably dismissed from her job as a cleaner in her theatre when she spots a fire and raises the alarm. Amarilly is going steady with Terry (William Scott), a bartender whom we know is dead keen on her because they’ve been going steady for three years and the poor guy’s still trying to collect his first kiss! Anyway, he gets her a job selling cigarettes at the bar in which he works, and it’s there that she meets wealthy Gordon Phillips (Norman Kerry — The Phantom of the Opera), who’s slumming it with his friends. When Gordon sustains some injuries in a mass brawl between his drinking friends and the regulars, Amarilly takes him back to her mother’s house to get patched up, leading Terry to mistakenly believe that she’s no longer interested in him. Inevitably, Norman falls for Amarilly and gives her a job cleaning at his Aunt’s mansion. However, when his Aunt (Ida Waterman — Stella Mari) learns of his intent to marry Amarilly she arranges for their two families to meet at a formal dinner party with her socialite friends.
There’s certainly no room for ambiguity in Frances Marion’s script for Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley. While the working class Jenkins family might be a little common and unafraid of arguing with their fists, their home (in a noticeably sanitised slum) is a lively, rambunctious place full of warmth and fun, while the Phillips’ mansion is cold and sterile. The Jenkins work hard for the pittance that they earn, while Gordon’s Aunt looks down upon those for whom she organises charity lunches and Gordon plays at being an artist while getting drunk every night. In reality, a street-wise girl like Amarilly would instinctively know that there could be no future for the two of them together, and Gordon simply seems to be staging a polite rebellion against his Aunt’s way of life, which we repeatedly see him making excuses to avoid. Marion’s script perhaps wisely avoids delving too deeply into the details of the relationship between Amarilly and Gordon, choosing instead to dwell on the troubles of poor Terry while simultaneously emphasising just how empty and cold the lives of the rich really are.
It’s not difficult to see why Pickford was so popular in the silent era; she makes for a feisty, spirited heroine and is quite believable as a working class girl. Kate Price, one of those unknown actresses with hundreds of titles to her credit, is outstanding as the personification of a jolly Irish washerwoman, while both Scott and Kerry are convincing as the men in Amarilly’s life. Had the film boasted a more compelling script, Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley might have proven to be something of a classic, however it struggles to find enough plot to fill even its relatively short running time, and even Pickford’s plentiful charm struggles to overcome a horribly contrived finale which feels tacked-on and unnecessary.
(Reviewed 1st September 2014)