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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Heart O' The Hills
Heart O' The Hills
Image // Unrated // May 3, 2005
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted June 5, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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In a nustshell: Two very good Pickford films, though one is marred by too much digital enhancement.

The Movie:

This Milestone release features two Mary Pickford movies on a single disc: Heart O' the Hills (1919) and M'liss (1918). Both of these films feature Mary as a back woods yokel with a lot of spunk and a heart of gold. These are fun films, though Heart O' the Hills has a rather inappropriate musical score and also suffers from too much digital enhancement. It also has the distinction of being the last movie that Mary Pickford would make for a studio that she didn't own. She was filming this picture as she, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and director D. W. Griffith were forming their own motion picture studio, United Artists.

Heart O' the Hills

Mavis (Mary Pickford) is a 12 year old girl who lives in the hills of Kentucky. She and her mother Martha (Claire McDowell) live in a shanty on the land that they farm, and ever since her father was killed by an unknown assailant, things have been hard for the pair. Mavis has vowed to get revenge on the man that killed her father, but without any clues, all she can do is spend her time honing her shooting skills.

A local man, Jason Honeycutt (Alan Sears) starts courting Mavis' mother, but Mavis doesn't like him much, she's sure that Honeycutt just wants their land. Soon after Jason and Martha wed, a group of men led by Morton Sanders (Henry Herbert) come up to the hills and start buying up land. They know that there are rich coal deposits throughout the region, and they manage to swindle a lot of the simple, honest folk who live in the area.

When Mavis discovers that her mother's land has been given over to Sanders for a song, she informs the town folk of Sander's intentions. The men of the area, along with Mavis, decide to take action. They dress up in sheets and hoods to hide their identity (and end up looking like the KKK) and tell Sanders to get out of town. When one of Sander's men fires on the group someone shoots back, and Sanders ends up dead. The rest of Sander's men still want to buy up more land, so they tell the sherif that Mavis was the one who killed their boss. Mavis is arrested, and put on trial for her life.

Heart O' the Hills is an interesting film in Pickford's canon for a couple of reasons. First, it is one of her more violent roles. Mary typically didn't partake in anything more violent than getting into a scrap with a bully, but in this film she does more than that: she shoots a man dead. She also isn't the loving child who dotes on her mother. In one scene her angry parent is going to take a hickory switch to her back side and Mary grabs the stick, breaks it over her knee, and tells her mother that she has to treat her as an adult from now on. "Be my dinner ready, Mammy?" she demands.

This film also gave Mary a little wider range of emotions to act with. Instead of the usual (very toned down) sexual awakening of a young girl, this also had Mary hunting her father's killer, being tried for murder, and being abandoned by her mother. This gave Mary a chance to really act, and with one or two over dramatic exceptions, she does an admirable job.

The film does have its flaws though. The biggest problem is that they try to put too much action into a fairly short movie. The plot is a little complicated, with several main plots all vying for attention. The film starts out with Mavis looking for her father's killer. That plot is ignored for a while as the focus shifts to the city folk who come to swindle the hillbillies out of their valuable land, then switch to Mavis' murder trial where her life hangs on the line. (They apparently didn't have a problem trying a 12 year old girl as an adult, nor were they worried that she didn't have an attorney.) Throughout all of these plots Mavis starts to become attracted to boys, and has conflicting feelings about that. This is just too much. The climax of the movie, Mavis' trial, comes about 2/3 of the way through the film. Everything after that seem anticlimactic.

Even with this movie being a little cramped plot wise, it was fun to watch. Mary Pickford always brings an energy to all the roles she plays that really enhances her films and makes it easy to overlook the flaws. She gave just the right amount of spunk to Mavis to make the movie enjoyable.

M'liss:

The second feature on this disc is M'Liss, another film where Mary plays a spunky young girl living in a rural setting. Based on a story by Bret Harte, the movie had already been filmed once, in 1915, and would be put to film twice again after this version; in 1922 as The Girl Who Ran Wild, and then again in 1936 with Anne Shirley in the title role.

Melissa (Mary Pickford), or M'liss as everyone calls her, is a little hellion. She lives with her father, 'Bummer' Smith (Theodore Roberts), who is a drunk and pretty much leaves M'liss on her own. So she dresses like a bandit and 'robs' the stagecoach with a slingshot, to the amusement of the drivers, and generally does as she pleases.

M'liss doesn't go to school, but the new school master, Charles Grey (the wonderful Thomas Meighan, who sadly is all but forgotten today) takes an interest in her. As time passes they become good friends, and M'liss gets a school girl crush on the ruggedly handsome teacher, going so far as to start going to school "to be teached."

Things are looking up for M'liss until her father is found in their cabin murdered. Charles is the main suspect, since he was in the cabin shortly before the murder, and is promptly arrested and tried for the crime. M'liss knows he's innocent, but how can a young girl convince a jury of that?

This was another fun Pickford film. Mary manages to look charming in nothing more than rags in this film, and her spirit and energy are quite infectious, as always. Pickford has a huge amount of screen presence, and whenever she's in front of the camera the movie just sparkles.

Though it is similar in plot to Heart O' the Hills, this movie is much more upbeat. There is a lot more humor in this movie, most of it coming from Mary. The scene where the local judge is talking with the school children to see how their education is coming along is a riot. When he asks M'liss who the first man was, she tells him that is was Washington. "Wrong - 'Twere Adam." declares the judge. "Oh of course" replies M'liss, "if you're speakin' of foreigners."

This isn't a great or important movie, but it is still a lot of fun to watch. Pickford does her usual great job with her character, making the audience feel for her when the only doll she's ever had gets harmed, and laughing with her as she struggles in school. I actually enjoyed this more than the headlining feature.

The DVD:


Audio:

The stereo soundtrack for Heart O' the Hills, composed by Maria Newman and preformed by a string quartet, was very clear and well performed, but I didn't care for it. The music fit well in many places, such as during the shin-dig, but much of the time it didn't. When the locals are meeting in the woods, the only music is a rather tinny sounding drum being beaten rather slowly which didn't fit the somber occasion. In other places the music is intrusive, such as when the elder Jason is introduced and they play a whimsical tune for no apparent reason. During the trial scene, they chose to play a slide whistle every time someone stood up, which distracted from the serious tone of the scene. Though the musicians were talented and played well, I just disliked the music they were playing.

M'liss has a soundtrack composed and preformed by Donald Sosin, and Mr. Sosin does his usual fine job. The piano score fits the tone of the of the movie, enhancing the emotions of the scenes without being intrusive. A much nicer score.

Video:

The sepia toned image for Heart O' the Hills left a little to be desired, though the quality of the print was pretty good. There was some damage to the print which looked like it had been through a projector several times. Mainly scratches and dirt, and the occasional torn frame. This wasn't distracting though. The contrast was pretty good, and level of detail was good.

The real problem was the overuse of digital effects to enhance the picture. Because of this everyone is outlined in white, details in the background are often way too bright, and there is an artificial grainy quality to the movie. This really mars the picture. An average looking image that would have been better without the digital adjustments, even if the picture ended up being softer.

Close up of a frame from Heart O' the Hills. Notice the white outline on the left side of the boy's face and around the hat. His face also has a lot of grain and the color is uneven.

M'liss looked much better. It looked like there was the slightest touch of edge enhancement in a couple of scenes, but it was very light and not distracting. The image for this feature was very clear a just a little bit soft. Some of the fine details were a little blurry, but only a tad. The contrast was good overall, though in some scenes the highlights are washed out. There is a good amount of detail too. A very fine looking film.

Extras:

The only extras on this disc are a pair of still galleries, one from each film.

Final Thoughts:

This DVD makes a great double feature. These two movies go together very well, and it was nice to see them both on one disc. I actually enjoyed M'liss a bit more than Heart O' the Hills, though both were good. Heart... just had a little too much plot crammed into it, but it was still fun. The real complaint I have with this disc is the image quality for Heart O' the Hills. The image had a significant amount of digital enhancement preformed on it, and the artifacts from those processes marred the picture. The image isn't unwatchable, but the artifacts are very noticeable, especially on a large monitor. The musical score that accompanies the movie was also not very good, with some comical sounds being used in serious parts and being generally intrusive. Even with these flaws, I think this disc is worth picking up. The two movies are enjoyable and will stand up to repeated viewings. Recommended.

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