Heart o’ the Hills (1919)
Director: Joseph De Grasse, Sidney Franklin
Cast: Mary Pickford, Harold Goodwin, Allan Sears
Synopsis: Family tensions in the Kentucky hills are inflamed by an outsider’s dishonest scheme to exploit the area for its coal.
We’re left in no doubt about the feisty, independent nature of Mavis Hawn (Mary Pickford), the heroine of Joseph De Grasse and Sidney Franklin’s Heart o’ the Hills from the outset. We first meet her riding her horse around a tree onto which a narrow band has been tacked. Mavis is practicing her marksmanship, aiming to hit the band as she gallops manically around the tree. The reason she is so intent on mastering the skill is that she once saw her father shot in the back by some unknown marksman, and is determined that she won’t miss when she gets the opportunity to avenge his death.
Heart o’ the Hills was filmed in the San Bernardino National Park, and the forest landscape dwarfs the actors. It also looks stunning, with cinematographer Charles Rosher using the natural beauty of the forests to capture images that still look breath-taking today. Mavis and her widowed mother (Claire McDowell) endure a hard existence amongst all this beautiful scenery, living in a tilting, wooden shack, sparsely furnished with basic wooden tables and chairs. They need a man to help them tend the land, and the most likely candidate is Steve Hunnicutt (Sam De Grasse — brother of the director), the widower father of young Jason (Harold Goodwin), who just happens to be Mavis’s young man. But Hunnicutt’’s motives are not pure — he’s in cahoots with a Northern industrialist with whom he plans to mine the Hawn’s hills for coal once he has married the widow.
This is one of Pickford’s better movies from the immediate post-War era. It has a strong storyline and a brisk pace which means things rarely drag — although a trial in which Mavis is tried for murder, and which should really provide the movie’s climax, is followed by a 10-minute coda which takes place six years after the main action. Although it’s a melodrama, Heart o’ the Hills does manage to inject some humour into the story. Some of that humour works — the barn dance scene, in which a dance contest is halted only when the oldest participant loses his false teeth, is a scream — but the deliberately misspelt intertitles which are intended to humorously convey the way the Kentucky locals talk largely fall flat, and grow old very quickly. Perhaps the most surprising aspects of the movie are that Pickford’s character is only supposed to be 12 years old (she’ll be thirteen on the 30th or 40th May, apparently) and that she’s seen at one point riding with a Ku Klux Klan outfit, complete with white hoods and gowns.
(Reviewed 27th June 2013)