The Bootleg Files: The New York Hat

BOOTLEG FILES 778: “The New York Hat” (1912 film directed by D.W. Griffith).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On multiple labels offering silent films.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An expired copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It’s already out there, but that’s not why it is in this column.

In the early years of the silent movies, the bootlegging of film prints was completely out of control. Due the primitive nature of film distribution, it was too easy for cinematic miscreants to swoop in and gather up prints and resell them as their own works, thus denying the profits that the original producers should have recived.

Since legal controls on cinematic intellectual property had yet to be enacted, film producers were left to their own devices to ensure their work was not being bootlegged. For the Biograph Studios, one strategy that was tested was the forerunner of watermarking – and this was conspicuously on display in its 1912 one-reeler “The New York Hat.”

Today, “The New York Hat” is considered as one of the most notable films of the early 1910s due to the talent on both sides of the camera. Behind the lens was D.W. Griffith as director, with G.W. Bitzer as his cameraman, who were working from a story written by then-newcomer Anita Loos and polished into a screenplay by Francis Marion. On the screen was Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore in leading roles and smaller and bit roles distributed to Griffith stalwarts Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh, Mack Sennett and Alfred Paget.

At 16 minutes, “The New York Hat” is a mini-melodrama played out in broadest brush strokes imaginable. The film opens at the death bed of a dying mother who entrusts a wrapped box to her young pastor (Barrymore) while viewed in grief by her husband and daughter (Pickford – 20 years old at the time playing a girl in her mid-teens). The pastor returns to his rectory and opens the wrapped box to discover money and a letter from the now-deceased woman. The letter complains that while her husband worked her to death, she managed to save some money and asked to pastor to use it for buying her daughter “the bits of finery she has always been denied.”

The pastor goes to a local millinery shop and purchases a feathered hat that is extravagant in both its appearance and its price – $10, a princely sum at a time when a woman’s hat at $1.98 was considered pricey. The purchase comes at the right time in the girl’s life, as the only hat she owned became shapeless and her stingy father refused her money for a new chapeau.

The pastor gives the frilly new hat to the grateful waif, but this creates a new problem: the local gossips start spreading lies about improper relations between the pastor and girl. The miserly old father gets wind of this and destroys the hat. The film ends with a big confrontation at the pastor’s home with the girl, her father, the nasty gossips and the elderly male members of the church vestry – but when the pastor produces the letter from the now-dead mother giving him permission to buy the girl some fineries, everyone’s opinion changes. The pastor proposes to the girl, who meekly agrees to become his wife.

“The New York Hat” is an early example of Griffith’s career-long distaste for self-appointed authorities of proper social behavior along with his championing of spunky young heroines doing battle against the rigid confines of the class structure.

The film also shows how Griffith was mastering his craft, particularly in the genuinely sincere performances by Pickford and Barrymore – Pickford’s acting skills will not surprise anyone viewing this film, but the handsome and dashing young Barrymore will be something of an unexpected surprise to contemporary viewers who only know his crotchety old-man-in-a-wheelchair roles.

But Griffith wasn’t quite at his full game yet – he could not get a subtle performance from Charles Hill Mailes’ miserly father, and the women playing the gossiping biddies who stir the malice pot – Mae Marsh, Claire McDowell and Clara T. Blacy – represent some of the most excruciatingly heavy-handed emoting of early 1910s movie acting.

Still, for 1912 this was a significant achievement for Biograph, which knew it had a potential hit film with “The New York Hat” and it was eager to protect its’ investment. The company’s strategy to ensure it would not be bootlegged was both odd and successful.

In the scenes that take place in the living room of Pickford’s family home, the Biograph corporate logo – a large circle filled with the letters “AB” – can be seen on display in the home of Pickford’s character. (If you look at the photograph accompanying the article, the logo is next to the window and midway on the wall.) The logic behind this, the studio executives reasoned, was that anyone who came into possession of a print of “The New York Hat” knew immediately that this was a Biograph film because its logo was visible in about half of the scenes – thus, bootleggers passing the film off as something else would immediately be revealed as fraudsters.

The strategy of inserting a studio logo into the art direction of a film never took root, and over time more effective and less intrusive ways to ensure intellectual property protection were introduced. Eventually, “The New York Hat” saw its copyright expire and the film fell into the public domain, resulting in endless dupes that presented the work in not-pristine prints.

Multiple copies of “The New York Hat” in varying degrees of quality can easily be found online, and the Biograph logo is still clearly visible in these prints. While it may not have put a halt to film bootlegging, the unlikely presence of the logo in this work gained a small degree of immortality for being an unlikely part of this early Griffith effort.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to the award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his new podcast “Benzinga Show Business” on Phil Hall’s new book “Jesus Christ Movie Star” is now available from BearManor Media.