Release date: 11 March 1918.
Director: Marshall Neilan (Irish-American).
Starring: Mary Pickford, Norman Kerry and William Scott.
Mary Pickford stars as Amarilly Jenkins, the Irish tenement dweller in the ethnic neighborhood of Clothes-line Alley, as the title of the film suggests. The linking of Amarilly with her ethnic neighbourhood is another example of conveying the ethnic geography of America, and the symbiotic relationship between urban setting and ethnic identity. In the film, the city is coded as a community, but it is also coded as a potentially dangerous place. This is conveyed by the exoticism and threatening nature of Chinatown where Terry gets shot at randomly, which is exemplifies America’s xenophobia from the influx foreign nationalities.
Pickford’s performance vindicates the vast fandom she attracted. Even though she is not performing as the American sweetheart, which is a persona molded by her fans, her star persona shines through Amarilly’s poverty-stricken veneer. Young observes that Pickford associated her Irishness with such virtues as hard working, resiliency, matriarchy and humour (65). These qualities are evident in her role as Amarilly and other characters she played.
The plot of the film is a fish-out-of-water tale with quasi-Cinderella overtones. The upper-class, gentleman falling in love with the poor, working-class girl is a familiar trope that has been rehashed many times since in movies like Pretty Woman(1990) and Maid in Manhattan(2002) to name but a few. Like the majority of movies employing this trope, an event occurs so the path of the poor, working-class woman converges with the upper-class man. This develops in Amarilly when Gordon is taken home by Amarilly after a fight breaks out. The fight scene that Amarilly engages with is comical because Pickford fully embraces the fighting-Irish stereotype. In a humorous and melodramatic fashion she pretends to roll up her imaginary sleeves and punches the air with her fist while jeering on Gordon and the other men as if she were one of the men about to engage in boxing.
This image of the rough-and-tumble, tomboyish Amarilly, which is a symptom of living in the dog-eat-dog world of the immigrant tenement, juxtaposes sharply with the image of the upperclass, social butterfly that Mrs. Stuyvesant Philips’ attempts to create, as part of her upper-class Pygmalion experiment. Amarilly’s make-over involves the washing away of the filth of the tenement, but this process is also an ethnic cleansing, as the defining, physiognomic features of her Irish ethnicity-her wild, frizzy hair-are cleansed, tamed and contorted in order to conform to the WASP stands of beauty and to see if she can be equated with upper-class society.
The differences between the two ethnic groups-White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and the poor, working-class Irish immigrants-is accentuated at the society dinner. The dance the Jenkins performed during the dance scene symbolise their Irish ethnic identity and implies the stereotype of the Irish as dancers, which is intermingled with the stereotype of the fighting-Irish from the ‘Round 1’ and ‘Round 2’ inter-titles that are displayed between each round of dancing. Their ability to dance is seen as an innate thing. However, the inability of the society matrons to perform the other’s dance suggests one’s inability to perform another ethnic identity. As can be seen, Amarilly’s make-over doesn’t make her an upper-class, WASP lady because it is inauthentic. Her true ethnic identity cannot be contained under the false facade Mrs. Philips has applied to her. Even though her previous Irish-American comic dress is striped off her and replaced with the frilly dress of civility, her ethnic identity prevails, which suggests that ethnicity transcends materiality, and is not something that can be worn and discarded like a piece of clothing.
This is also apparent from Amarilly’s family who despite having dressed up for the occasion of the dinner, cannot retain the demeanor of upperclass civility for long. Ma Jenkins inadvertently offends one of the matrons by questioning her about if she does laundry and her reaction suggests her working-class background (Young 72).
Ma Jenkins is performed by Kate Price. As well as Pickford, she is a truly amazing character because of her depiction of the stereotypical Irish mother-figure, which is both humorous and sentimental. Her ability to raise a family in a foreign country without a husband demonstrates her resilience and strength, but it is also a reflection of what some immigrant mothers endured. Shannon maintains that Irish immigrants had the “weakest family structure of any of the major European immigrant groups” (81).
Although seriocomic-romance films are not a part of my favorite genre viewing-list, I admire this film for its realistic portrayal of the Irish immigrants’ experience, the film’s setting, which replicates tenement dwellings and the depiction of the prejudicial treatment of immigrants by the upper-class, WASP community, which is predicated on their socioeconomic and ethnic status. In this film, however, Irishness is represented in a certain way, which stems from theatre and vaudeville. Despite the all-too-predictable happy-ending of the film that provides us a glimpse of Amarilly’s life five years into the future, where her clothes and the act of performing leisure time- as they appear to be on a Sunday drive in the country-implies the elevation of her social status from gutter-snipe to Bourgeoise, middle-class, and her assimilation into mainstream American society. Leisure time-the act of retreating to the pastoral-is associated with authenticity because one retreats to the pastoral in order to be renewed. This is apparent in other films such as Deliverance(1972), Grizzly Man(2005) and Into the Wild(2007). In Deliverance the retreat to the pastoral of the remote, Georgia wilderness is an attempt to reassert masculinity, which is a problematic goal as can be seen from the film.
Works Cited & Consulted
Barton, Ruth. ed and intro. Screening Irish America: Representing Irish-Americans in Film and Television. Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. Print.
Shannon, Christopher. “The Bowery Cinderella: Gender, Class and Community in Irish-American Film Narrative.” em>Screening Irish America: Representing Irish-Americans in Film and Television. Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 77-90. Print.
Young, Gwenda. “Funny Girls: Early American Screen Comdiennes and Ethnicity.” Screening Irish America: Representing Irish-Americans in Film and Television. Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 61-76. Print.