This is a very slightly fleshed-out transcript of an introduction I gave to The New York Hat at the Kennington Bioscope as part of an evening dedicated to women in silent film.
It’s quite old, and very short, but The New York Hat (DW Griffith, 1912) is one of my favourite films, and I’d really like to explain why. As with Shoes (Lois Weber, 1916), this film looks at the lives of women and their finances through the lens of consumerism, but the ramifications run deeper than the shop window.
The first reason that I love The New York Hat is that it is an early woman’s picture and I mean that in a fully feminist sense. Today we talk a lot about the Bechdel Test, which is basically a test to ascertain whether the women in a film are fully realised characters and not just appendages to the blokes. To pass the Bechdel Test, two named female characters have to have a conversation with each other about something that isn’t a man. Sounds simple. In the field, films that pass this test are rarer than hen’s teeth. It’s really hard to map the Bechdel test back on to silent films in the first place, and so many modern films fail it that you have to assume that older ones will struggle.
However, The New York Hat passes not just the letter but the spirit of the Bechdel test with flying colours, because its narrative is driven entirely by what women want, by what women understand about the world and the values that women have. We have the mother who wants the best for her daughter, the “bits of finery” that she craves, and the daughter who wants to grow up. Then we have some more women, the gossips, who create a conflict for her.
We have two male characters: the father is a no-good man who doesn’t really understand or care about women, and the minister who is a very good man, but also fails to understand women and their world.
The second reason that I love The New York Hat is that even though it was made in 1912, it is like a glimpse at the future, at Hollywood in the height of the 20s. If you are interested in the history of silent cinema then this film is going to give you a real kick because everyone is in it. If The New York Hat were a pop band it would be a rock supergroup. The scenario for The New York hat was written by Anita Loos, who would go on to have a fabulous Hollywood career, writing films and intertitles and also the hilarious novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The New York Hat is pure Loos – it’s very sharp on the way that women interact with each other and it also contains two of her favourite hobbies: fashion and gossip. When the lead character wears her new hat, the gap between the impression she thinks she is making and the one she really is, is a bitterly dark example of Loos’s vicious humour. It’s also a very poignant moment – and those mixed emotions are part of the magic of this enduring film.
Loos often recalled it was the first film that she ever wrote, as a film fan back in California. She sent this story off to the Biograph company and she was delighted when they sent back a cheque and said they were going to make it. As she told and retold this story she embellished it. To be honest, it was the second script she had accepted by Biograph. And she was so fond of knocking years off her age that at some point you will you find her saying that she was 12 years old when she wrote the story, which is not true. She was in her early 20s – which is still very impressive. And it is interesting that she chose to represent herself that way when this story has so much to do with the importance of being seen as a young woman, rather than a little girl.
DW Griffith was the man at Biograph who directed the movie, and we all know about him. Loos’s scenario was adapted into a full screenplay by Frances Marion, who was to become one of Hollywood’s greatest silent screenwriters. And the star of the film is someone that Marion would continue to collaborate with. Mary Pickford was at this time undoubtedly the greatest cinema actress in the world. The performance she gives here is so cinematic, it is beautiful. Every little gesture, every nuance of expression on her face is totally directed towards the camera. This was one of Pickford’s later performances for Biograph, before she joined Players Lasky, and if you are familiar with her 1920s career, you’ll smile to see her here playing a woman who doesn’t want to dress like a little girl.
The New York Hat is a deceptive film, which appears to be about fashion and gossip and intrigue, but is actually about a young woman making her first independent steps in the world. Like the hat itself, there is more to it than meets the eye.