Working-class Perspectives and Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley

The story of Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley is a familiar one. A young working-class girl has her fate decided for her; she will work hard her entire life, marry a local bartender, and live in a tenement in Clothes-line Alley. When she has a run-in with a very wealthy man, however, her luck changes. For a while, it seems as though Amarilly and her rich lover, Gordon, are playing out the familiar Cinderella story. At the end, though, Amarilly returns to Terry, her poor barkeep. She is shown happy and content with her place as a worker, and gains some social mobility through hard work. Amarilly is a champion of the working class. She does more than accept her place in society; she prefers it, and illustrates the classic “American dream.” She has no desire to be part of the wealthy, snobbish upper class that rejects her family. Instead, she incites pride in the hearts of blue-collar workers. Mary Pickford tells her audiences that they are good enough for America and that they should be proud of who they are. While the fairytale story line might not be an accurate representation of the working-class in 1918, the target audience is reflected in Amarilly’s acceptance of her lower-class status. The rich characters lampooned by the filmmakers are a result of progressive-era class politics; in this way, films were a way for the lower-class to have their anger expressed in a public forum. In its typicality, Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley tells a story of a crushed lower class looking for validation when none was readily available.

            Frederick Lynch describes the Progressive Era as a time when the nation suffered “gross political corruption, corporate arrogance coupled with consumer impotence… pockets of acute poverty, and urban decay.”[1] Class in early films was a distinct divider between industrial giants or old money and immigrant or blue-collar workers. Sometimes, working-class themes in early films were highly politicized. Movies about strikes, union organizers, and working-class fights against the upper crust reflect the strong sentiments held by the working class.[2] One way in which filmmakers catered to their working-class audiences was through the mockery of the upper classes. Jokes concerning the trivial worries or practical foolishness of the upper class created a feeling that the upper class was out of touch or not part of the “American dream.”[3] The upper class of the progressive was both extraordinarily powerful and afraid of losing status due to the rising influence of worker’s unions and immigrant populations. These fears led to an attachment to rigid social and business practices.[4] Together, these factors created an upper class that was an easy target for filmmakers wishing to appeal to workers.

            Amarilly contains several elements that reflect the dislike of the bourgeois upper class by working-class audiences. Different scenes serve to divide the upper and working classes culturally. A scene portraying the two families eating an evening meal illustrates this concept. Before showing the upper-class family eating, the screen reads “Dinner, when it is eaten.” When the working-class family is sitting down for their meal, the screen says “Supper, when it is ‘et’.”[5] The effort at marking clear linguistic differences between the two families shows that Amarilly’s household is not interested in propriety; the busy, happy family in the tenement home compared to the prim, bored looking family in the large estate convey that the message directed toward moviegoers is one in support of a working-class audience.  One character in particular, the Mrs. Phillips who attempts to “fix” Amarilly into a society woman, represents the upper class in a way that gives the viewer a portrait of an elitist, out of touch element to root against. Steven Ross remarks that films directed at the lower class “did not offer solutions, nor did they present sophisticated critiques of capitalism. [They] offered audiences something more immediate and gratifying: revenge.”[6] While Amarilly does not contain many elements of harsh revenge, it does give a sense that Amarilly is “winning” by coming to her senses and living a good life. In an important scene, Amarilly’s family is invited to the decadent home of the woman taking her in. The “fish-out-of-water” imagery presented after the scene describes how Amarilly and her family feel in the presence of these people. The upper class is presented at the party as being judgmental and petty; one woman, in particular, is just as worried about her dog’s illness as Amarilly’s mother is about her son’s. Another woman, ashamed of her lower class past, feels insulted when Amarilly’s mother asks if “enny of youse ever took in washin’,” revealing to the audience the moral character of someone who abandons their place in society.

            The handsome rich man that Amarilly falls in love with is another example of the upper class being portrayed in a negative light by filmmakers. While he is good looking, he is shown as being flaky and shallow. At the beginning, Gordon is seen telling a fib to his aunt about his “Bible study” class, which in actuality consisted of him and his friends drinking and enjoying a spa. In contrast with Amarilly’s or the bartender’s hard work, the Gordon’s waste of time on frivolous activities paints him to be a poster child for the spoiled rich. Films in this era often made it a point to exaggerate the decadent lives of the upper class, and Amarilly takes particular liberties in this area. [7] The table settings, lavish parties, and focus on “training” Amarilly to become part of the desired upper crust give the viewer a sense that the people participating in these activities have nothing better to do, and are part of the group living off the wealth earned by the working man. At the end of the film, when Amarilly realizes that her place is not among the rich society, Gordon continues to attempt to take Amarilly “away from all this.” He insinuates that “this,” or Clothes-line Alley, is not good enough for a girl with as much potential as Amarilly. Gordon looks disappointed when Amarilly compares mixing the classes to mixing “ice cream an’ pickles.” Working-class pride is felt at Amarilly’s refusal to be “fixed.” The downtrodden look on Gordon’s face gives the audience a sense that Amarilly’s choice was her own, and Gordon’s surprise at her unwillingness to come with him is a result of his lifelong belief that his class is superior. While Gordon may be goodhearted, he is also out-of-touch with the cultural context in which Amarilly exists.

            In conjunction with elements that represent the upper class as undesirable, Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley also contains moments that directly support the lifestyles of working-class immigrant families during the Progressive era. Amarilly and her family are happy to engage in what others might view as “dirty work.” The first scene of the movie is Amarilly joyfully scrubbing windows, while her mother works running her laundry business. Even when she is given the opportunity to live in the house of the wealthy characters in the movie, Amarilly resists. She comments, “I’d rather stay here an’ go on with the scrubbin’. Gran’ma scrubbed… Ma scrubs…”[8] Amarilly’s sense of familial and class loyalty and gives her a quality that is likeable to people who hold work and family in high value. Her attitude about generations before her doing the same work reveals that she is not “too good” for work that the upper classes would never do. In a scene where she unfairly loses her job at the theater due to a fire, the contrast between the wealthy theater owner and innocent Amarilly is strong. The theater owner, enraged at Amarilly’s interruption and the fire, tells her to leave which leads to her job celling cigarettes at a local cafe. Here, she meets Gordon. When she speaks to Gordon, she remarks, “My regular business is in the theatrical perfesshun.” This line is put into place to comment on Gordon’s removal from the society he is used to and Amarilly’s refusal to become what he expects. The audience expects to hear that she is an actress when this line is spoken, but instead is reminded that she’s just the scrubwoman at the theater. This scene reinforces the idea that Amarilly’s life, while anything but glamorous, is not something to be ashamed of. Her pride at the idea of being a scrubwoman gives the audience a character to relate to.

            Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley is a film that reflects several common themes of Progressive era films. While not as outwardly political as trade union films, films like Amarilly “allowed the filmmakers to demonstrate the moral superiority of the working class while lavishing attention on the glamorous life-styles of the wealthy.”[9] At the end of the movie, Amarilly and Terry are seen five years later with two children and nice clothes. They are driving a car, which contrasts with the broken-down bike Terry drove five years ago. They are living the middle-class dream of upward social mobility without betraying the working-class roots that relate to the audience. Movies that represented this social mobility or transplanted poor characters into lavish settings gave the audience hope; nice clothes and a car are things that an immigrant could reasonably attain, in contrast with the decadent life of the extremely wealthy that would never be attainable.[10] Like many cross-class fantasy films of the time, Amarilly give viewers a chance to see how the rich live, while at the end suggesting that they would be happier living within their own social boundaries.[11] In a Progressive era where the working class had few modes of expression, films that reinforced the values of hard work, family, and practicality gave audiences someone to validate their lives and look up to. While Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley teaches working girls to dream, it also shows them the probable end result of their hard work in a practical way. The message is simple: it’s all right to make money and a good future, but dreams of upper-class existence are lacking in moral fiber.

[1]      Frederick Lynch, “Social Theory and the Progressive Era”, Theory and Society 4, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 161.

[2]          Steven Ross, Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), xii.

[3]    Ibid., 65.

[4]    Lynch, “Social Theory and the Progressive Era,” 163.

[5]    Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley, directed by Marshall Neilan (Artcraft productions, 1918.)

[6]    Ross, Working-Class Hollywood. 79.

[7]    Ibid., 78.

[8]    Amarilly, 1918.

[9]    Ross, Working-Class Hollywood, 198.

[10]  Ibid., 199.

[11]  Ibid., 201.




Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley. Directed by Marshall Neilan. Artcraft Productions, 1918.


Lynch, Frederick. “Social Theory and the Progressive Era.” Theory and Society 4, no 2. 1997.


Ross, Steven. Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America. Princeton:      Princeton University Press. 1998.


Ross, Steven. Struggless for the Screen: Workers, Radicals, and the Political uses of Silent Film.” The     American Historical Review 96, No. 2. 1991.


One thought on “Working-class Perspectives and Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley

  1. We agree on many points regarding the different social classes portrayed in the movie. I especially liked that you pointed the “American Dream” aspect and that Amarilly appears to be quite satisfied with her life at the end. I did not comment on the theater fire in my paper/blog, so I appreciate your thoughts on that subject.

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