Mary Pickford is another of those massive stars, like Tom Mix, that I knew of but hadn’t really gotten to grips with. So I ran AMARILLY OF CLOTHESLINE ALLEY, directed ably by Marshall Neilan, and written by Frances Marion with an eye to every stereotype of Irish-American life that can be fitted into a film intended for family viewing (and a few that might raise eyebrows today).
Marion was possibly the top writer in Hollywood in the teens and ’20s (and I enjoyed reading about her fictional adventures in Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside) and her work on this romcom had me pondering if there’s a difference between male and female ideas of comedy. Maybe so, but only in general, i.e. rather useless, terms.
What I suspect is that male comedy, if boiled down to its essence, filtering out all subtleties and nuance, would come out all knockabout violence and bodily functions — in somewhat the way that autism is regarded as an exaggerated form of a certain male tendency, pee and poo and thump-on-the-head comedy is the masculine expression of that. There are plenty of men who enjoy this kind of basic apeman stuff, but many prefer it mingled with its counterpart –
Female comedy, boiled down to its essence, discarding all the nuance that is generally there, is concerned with emotions and stuff. Often the laughter comes from situations of social embarrassment. There’s likely to be less conflict, and often less surprise. Modern romantic comedies of the kind I can’t stand seem to hinge more on accepting a shared understanding of what’s supposed to be amusing, rather than actually being hit with anything startlingly funny. The laughter of agreement.
(Although Damon Wayans is male, and Nora Ephron is female, and although male and female audiences flock to these respective genres, I’d like to think that the division is largely a creation of the market. Just as I find stereotypically uber-macho and hyper-girly types boring, I find these films unappealing, but clearly the majority of people of both sexes fall somewhere in between. Psychologically, as far as anyone can tell, we all inhabit a spectrum between Mars and Venus.)
Both these extremes, like the extremes of social realism on one hand and George Lucas fantasy on the other, are pretty sterile on their own. What we seem to find with someone like Chaplin, as Sunnyside suggests, is somebody consciously blending the two, competing with Mary Pickford’s cuteness and emotional appeal, and adding in some kick-in-the-pants vulgarity. (Although there’s obviously a lot more to Chaplin than the novel combining of two stale flavours.) It takes us out of the deadening zaniness of Keystone, and the deadening precitability of… well, AMARILLY OF CLOTHESLINE ALLEY.
The first half hour of this film, to give you an example of its gentle pace, shows in parallel the lives of Amarilly, a dirt-poor Irish lass in an American slum, and Gordon (Norman Kerry, who was Phoebus in the Chaney HUNCHBACK), a rich and feckless sculptor. A collision is inevitable, but we wait for it quite some time. And no story is unfolding meanwhile to occupy our attention, and it becomes apparent that nothing can happen until the two meet. But still we wait.
By way of complication, both parties have prospective lovers in their own social class, so once things do get moving there are lovers’ quarrels and some blustering from the rich nobs about their boy carrying on with a cleaning woman. And here we finally arrive at an unpredictable stage, where it seems like the swiftest path to a happy ending would be to reunite Amarilly with her Irish beau, and let Gordon wed the society lass, yet this seems unsatisfactory, as it confirms the rigidity of the class system in a positively unAmerican manner. We’ve seen PRETTY IN PINK, there has to be more to it than this.
But there really isn’t — the film’s solution is to have the working class boy shot by accident, collapsing on Amarilly’s floor as she serves him a brimming plateful of Irish stew (and here I really didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling, since Pickford plays her failure to understand that the guy’s seriously injured, not just drunk, in the same breezy, pleasantly comedic manner she uses for everything else). He’s nursed back to health, we forget all about the film’s, you know, narrative, and then it’s six years later and they’ve got a couple of kids, The End.
“You can say anything you like about me. Just don’t say I love my work, that makes me sound like Mary Pickford, that prissy bitch!” ~ Mabel Normand.