Tess of the Storm Country (United Artists, 1922)
Directed by John S. Robertson
Starring Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford said that her character in Tess of the Storm Country was her favorite out of all the characters she portrayed. It must have been, since she did it twice: once in 1914, and again, reprising the role for the 1922 remake.
Both adaptations take varying liberties with the source material, so I’ll first give a brief summary of the book and then mention the plot difference in the movies:
In Ithaca, New York, on a hill overlooking Cayuga Lake, sits the stately country home of Elias Graves (1914: William Walters / 1922: David Torrence), the minister of the largest church in the city. His daughter Teola (Olive Golden / Gloria Hope) lives with him, his son Frederick (Harold Lockwood / Lloyd Hughes) is away at Cornell University. The view over the water is blighted by a crude village of desperately poor fishermen squatting on the bank of the lake. Graves owns the land and wants nothing more than to tear down every last shanty, but squatter’s law prevents him from evicting the fishermen. Among the squatters are Tessibel Skinner (Mary Pickford) and her father Orn (David Hartford / Forrest Robinson), Ezra Longman (Eugene Walter / Danny Hoy), and Ben Letts (Richard Garrick / Jean Hersholt). Ben was once the boyfriend of Ezra’s sister Myra, but more or less abandoned her when she became pregnant.
Graves uses his influence to enact a ban on net fishing in the lake – hoping to starve out the squatters. Forced into poaching to survive, the men wait until nightfall to haul in their nets. The game warden anticipated this, however, and sweeps in to confiscate the catch. Ben takes Orn’s rifle and shoots the warden dead. Orn hears the shot and discovers the body. He’s examining it when the police arrive. Orn is arrested for the murder of the game warden.
Meanwhile, Frederick is home for vacation. He meets and falls in love with Tess, although the animosity between his father and the squatters limits their interaction. With him is his friend Dan Jordan (Jack Henry / Robert Russell), who has a fling with Fred’s sister Teola. He had hinted at marriage without any immediate plans before, but toward the end of winter break, Teola presses him to set a date as quickly as possible. Dan, oblivious that Teola might be pregnant, brushes her off with the same vague promise.
An accident occurs at the university and Dan is killed. Teola, realizing now that she has no hope of saving her honor, goes to the cliffs with suicidal intent. She’s found by Tess, who talks her out of it and takes her back to the Skinner shack. Teola gives birth to a premature baby boy, who Tess promises to take care of, not expecting him to live long. Some days later, Teola is with Tess and the baby when Fred comes for an unexpected visit. He intends on asking Tess to marry him, but assumes the worst when he discovers her with a baby. Tess looks to Teola, hoping she’ll confess, but Teola remains silent. Tess keeps her secret, but not without anger.
Orn Skinner is found guilty and sentenced to death. There’s a moving scene in the courthouse, where Tess appeals to the audience and very nearly walks out with her father as they sit in stunned silence, but the Minister breaks the spell and demands he be returned to his cell to await execution.
The Minister had been away for several weeks, during which time Teola supplied Tess with food for the baby, but on his return, the baby is left with what scant supplies are available in the village. His health rapidly declines, and when it becomes obvious to Tess that death will occur in a matter of hours, she takes the baby to the Minister’s church to have him baptized.
The Minister categorically refuses to baptize the dying baby, believing him not only to be a bastard, but worse, a squatter bastard. Tess goes to the font and, to the best of her ability, baptizes the baby herself. Teola, unable to keep silent, rushes forward and claims the now dead baby as her own.
Fred begs for Tess’s forgiveness and renews his offer of marriage. Ezra confesses to Orn’s lawyer that he was there when the shooting occurred and witnessed Ben pull the trigger. A retrial is held and Orn is acquitted. The Minister, humbled by what he’s done, deeds the lakefront to the squatter village.
I’ve left out some subplots, but that’s the main story. Neither film adaptation was so bold as to make the villain a minister. In the 1914 version, Graves is at least a deacon of the church. In the 1922 version, he’s just a member of the congregation. The change undercuts the depth of his villainy – not only wanting his own grandson dead, but personally damning him to Hell. Dan is also whitewashed in the ’22 version. In it, he wants to marry Teola, but her father won’t allow it. He becomes Graves’s accomplice, hoping to win his favor. That change works, I think – it adds depth to the character and it turns him into an excellent foil for Fred, who always opposed his father’s treatment of the squatters. It does lose the parallel between Dan and Ben, but then neither film spends as much time establishing Ben as does the book, so the parallel would be lost anyway.
Apart from changing the minister into a deacon, the 1914 version omits very little of the book – the Bill Hopkins subplot, what happens to Ben after the confession… really, that’s about it. To squeeze all that material into five reels is quite a feat. Some scenes move along so fast you hardly see them. With its breakneck speed, the film sometimes neglects to introduce characters when it should. We see Teola and the setup for her arc long before we know who she is or what her name might be. Ezra, who appears early and frequently in the film and is central to the resolution of the main plot, is never actually identified until the very end.
Tess of the Storm Country (1914) was one of the last films directed by Edwin S. Porter, the pioneering filmmaker most known for his landmark Edison works Life of an American Fireman (1903) and The Great Train Robbery (1903). Like so many other pioneers, Porter didn’t seem to be able to keep up with the rapid advances in cinematography in the decades that followed. Other than its length, if you told me Tess of the Storm Country had actually been filmed in 1904, I’d have no reason to disbelieve you. With hardly any exception, all the scenes are shot in a very flat, staid tableau style. It does work – the narrative never becomes incomprehensible – but it’s insanely antiquated for 1914.
The 1922 remake begins with a forward stating its reason for existence. It acknowledges the 1914 version and explains that this “re-creation” was made “under the improved conditions of modern photoplay production”. The conditions certainly are improved. Compositionally speaking alone, there’s artistry in every shot. The pacing issues of the original are all more than corrected, and the pared-down story would surely be much easier to follow for someone unfamiliar with the source. That said, completely removing Graves’s position in the church – while likely a necessity to be passed by the National Board of Review, to say nothing of the church-dominated New York censorship board – destroys what should be the emotional finale. That is the one area in which I think the 1914 version is unequivocally superior.
I’d recommend both, but see the ’22 version first.
My rating: I like them.
1922 version available from Image Entertainment