Note: I wrote the first section of this post in December 2022, but was unable to squeeze it into the remainder of the year.
Mary Pickford loved Tess of the Storm Country so much, she filmed it twice, in 1914 and 1922. She decided to remake it because her previous film, Little Lord Fauntleroy, hadn’t done so well at the box office, and she wanted to redeem herself. She also realized she needed to play the kind of character audiences had grown to expect from her.
Not only did Mary love the character and story of Tess, she also felt the story could be done greater justice with improved filming technology and a bigger budget. The source material was a 1909 novel of the same name by Grace Miller White (née Mary Esther Miller).
The 1914 original is one of the few known surviving films starring Harold Lockwood. Tess was remade again in 1932 (with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell) and 1960 (with Diane Baker and Jack Ging).
The version being discussed here was released 12 November 1922.
Elias Graves (David Torrence, brother of Ernest Torrence) has another think coming if he believes he can easily expel the squatters living at the bottom of his hill. These poor fishers proudly cling to their way of life and their shabby homesteads, even in the face of cruel hostility.
Graves’s daughter Teola (Gloria Hope) is being courted by a young law student, Dan Jordan (Robert Russell). Though Dan and Graves share their hostile views on the squatters, Graves doesn’t approve of Dan and Teola’s relationship. Dan hopes to change that opinion by finding a way to get rid of the squatters.
Graves’s son Frederick (Lloyd Hughes) doesn’t share their opinions. He knows the squatters would have nowhere to go if they were evicted.
The putrid scent of rotting fish carries all the way up to the top of the hill, greatly offending Graves. Hoping to butter him up, Dan goes to take care of the matter. Graves also sends Frederick on this mission.
When they arrive, spunky 17-year-old Tessibel “Tess” Skinner (Mary Pickford) jumps on Dan and tangles him up under a fishing net, giving him a scratched cheek. She also chases Frederick away. Despite this violent meeting and Tess’s unkempt appearance, Frederick is charmed by Tess.
Dan decides to try another tack, stealing the fishing nets. If the squatters can’t fish, they’ll have nothing to eat, and will have no choice but to scram.
Frederick goes down the hill to see Tess, bringing chocolates. Though Tess is initially suspicious of his intentions, she’s quickly won over. Frederick also apologizes to Orn (Daddy) Skinner (Forrest Robinson) for his dad’s hateful views and says he doesn’t share them.
Tess also has another suitor, physically powerful, mean-spirited bully Ben Letts (Jean Hersholt), who won’t take no for an answer, despite her constant refusals.
When the thugs come to steal the nets, Tess and Daddy hide theirs in a mattress. It goes undetected until a tiny bit falls out at the last minute. Dan decides to leave well enough alone and wait until he can catch them using it. Meanwhile, the other families’ nets are burnt, with no concern for how the squatters will eat.
Driven by hunger, the squatters take a chance and go fishing under cover of darkness. Tess is terrified of trouble, and her fears come true when Dan is shot and killed by Ben. The nightmare increases when Daddy is falsely accused and arrested. He admits that’s his gun, but professes his innocence.
Ezra Longman (Danny Hoy), another guy with a crush on Tess, tells Ben he’ll keep the secret if he agrees to quit sexually harassing Tess.
The situation is even more complicated because Teola is pregnant out of wedlock, decades before single motherhood became socially acceptable.
Tess asserts her father’s innocence when Graves comes to the shanty, and prays for God to save her father, which Graves condemns as blasphemy. Graves says he’ll make Daddy pay the penalty, and Tess leaps on him in rage.
Frederick advises her to cool her temper, and reassures her that no prayer is blasphemy.
Tess and Frederick’s friendship continues to grow, and they begin studying the Bible together (with a copy Tess stole from church). A major theme of the film is that some unbaptised people who never go to church, with no formal religious education, are better Christians than people who put on a public show of piety but have no regard for even basic religious teachings.
Graves disowns Frederick when he discovers Frederick is raising money for Skinner’s defence.
The plot thickens when Daddy is found guilty. Now Tess is all alone, and Ben breaks his promise to leave her alone. Not only that, but Tess saves Teola from a suicide attempt and brings her to the shanty to give birth.
Will Daddy be proven innocent? Will Tess and Frederick’s unlikely love succeed? And what will become of Teola’s baby?