January 16, 2011

Mickey (1918)

'Til now this list has felt very much about The Forward March of Progress, cinematically speaking.  But Mickey is not so concerned with pushing boundaries of any kind, and in fact it felt significantly cruder than Stella Maris.  I chose it for the list because it was the highest grossing film of the teens (at least as far as I can tell - these things are murky for the first few decades).  It wasn't a Great Work of Art.  It was a crowd-pleaser - also very important to film history.  And I'd have to say, overall, it still is.

Mickey is a small-town girl who has inherited a gold mine - only the mine hasn't paid out in 20 years.  She was raised by her late father's partner, Joe, who runs the mine, but now that she's (nearly?) of age, he can't take care of her anymore and sends her to New York to live with her rich aunt.  Only her "rich" (read: evil) aunt's family has blown it all on gambling, and is desperate to find new money before their lifestyle collapses.  They happily take Mickey in until they find out her mine is worthless, after which, out of revenge I suppose, they set her to work as a veritable household slave.  Oh, and on the way to the city she has a run-in with a handsome man (Mr. Thornhill, another mine owner) and falls in love, and he later shows up looking for her but she is hidden away while her evil aunt's evil daughter begins pursuing him for his money.

I'm only about halfway though, but I need a break.  This plot is a cumbersome beast with lots of hinges (several of which I'm not sure make any sense), and while I'm pretty sure I understand it all now, I spent way too much time puzzling it all out while I was watching.  It suffers especially from too many endings, which I'll get to in a bit.

But this movie isn't really about all of that.  It's about Mickey, played with devilish glee by Mabel Normand.  She's a tomboy and a troublemaker of the first order, who answers to no law but her own.  Actually, I can see how she might be terribly obnoxious in another setting, but, with targets so richly deserving as these, she's nothing but charming and even heroic.  A particularly great moment is when she picks a ball of chocolate off a cake.  Surely nobody will notice just one.  Or... maybe two.  Or five.  Well, now she's done it... so... how much further harm could there be in just eating the rest of them?  Suddenly her aunt bursts in and notices all the chocolates are missing, and Mickey - who literally cannot close her mouth because it is so stuffed with sweets - has the nerve to look confused and peek around the table to see where they might have got to.  She's like the adorable dog you just can't stay mad at.

Speaking of which, there is an actual adorable dog in this movie, which means we've had extended cute animal scenes in every single production we've watched so far.  You can almost tangibly feel the release of centuries of pent-up frustration at not being able to record one's pet's antics for posterity.  I can only imagine what these people would have done with YouTube.

Anyway.  What I liked most about Mickey is that she represents the other recurring trend we've seen - every movie has starred headstrong female leads.  I suppose it could be argued that their spunky attitude provides a way for them to constantly get in trouble, but even then they are never "reformed" in the end.  It is clearly acknowledged to be key to their charm.  I had to wonder if perhaps the progression of feminism has not been so straight a line as we usually think - it seems there must have been a backwards slide at some point, because these early films are absolutely stuffed with interesting, juicy roles for women.  Which is why I was somewhat disappointed in the ending to Mickey.

At first it seems it will end when it turns out Mickey's mine has hit the motherlode, which happens moments after she is finally kicked out of her aunt's house.  It's the perfect revenge, and it will allow her to take care of Thornhill's (apparent) debts, making her the hero.  However, she doesn't get the telegram, and meanwhile he gets suckered into betting on Mickey's cousin's horse to win back his fortune.  The evil cousin tells his jockey to lose on purpose, while betting on another horse, allowing him to help his family and ruin Mickey's suitor in one fell swoop.  Once I figured all this out, the scene made sense - it gives a big action finish to the movie, and allows Mickey to save the day through her own actions instead of just getting lucky with the mine: for she knocks off the cheating jockey at the gate and takes over, riding very nearly to victory in a thrilling sequence that should have ended the movie.  Unfortunately, the horse trips at the last moment, bringing Mickey, her hopes, and the plot all crashing down into the dirt.  After this there is a dark and dire confrontation between Mickey, the evil cousin, and Thornhill at the New York mansion which ultimately gives him the chance to rescue her.  This was not only disappointing from a gender role perspective, it was also extraneous and barely comprehensible, and we were all beginning to nod off.  Still, she tried, and the horse fall wasn't her fault, and they both wind up independently rich at the end, so I suppose it's a wash.

Overall, as I said before, this was a hard film not to like.  It was as roughshod and straightforward as its heroine, and unlike the "pure entertainment" movies of today, it didn't have that cynical feeling of appealing to tested formulas to make money.  It was just fun.

NEXT WEEK: From now on I will announce the next movie here, for the benefit of anyone following along at home.  In this case, that will be Don't Change Your Husband, a somewhat lavish romantic comedy and the first pairing of legendary director/actress duo Cecil B. DeMille and Gloria Swanson.

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