Firstly, we have to remember that Griffith was in the planning stages of filming Birth of a Nation. Edwin S. Porter is no Griffith and he basically treated the film as if he were filming a stage play but on location. Tess would have been the perfect vehicle for Griffith to experiment with film and editing techniques. Griffith is a wonderful storyteller of the greatest warmth and emotion (True Heart Susie, Broken Blossoms) and Tess would have been a great story for him to tell in his own unique style. Of course, if Griffith has filmed Tess in 1914-5, we wouldn't have Beaudiline's (sp?) flawless 1922 version. Porter's direction leaves one cold.
What Porter does do well is film on location. He's at his best outdoors and not working with actors. His style is almost docudrama and that approach may work for some stories. For this one, especially compared to Beaudiline's emotionally charged version, it was an unfortunate director's choice especially compared to Mary's over the top performance. She is having the best of times chewing the scenery and is works brilliantly for Tess.
This version of the film is all Mary from the first to last frame. She was talented enough to realize that she was not working with Griffith or DeMille as a director. Therefore she over compensates and leaves her competent but not great co-stars in the dust as well as Porter himself. But it's the little things she does as an actress that makes her extraordinary. The way she plays her father's homecoming by inching up his arms was a great choice and gives a really nice touch. Who can play white trash with more fervor, innocence and passion than Mary Pickford. Even in her lesser films, she awesome to watch.
If you are casual silent movie or Mary Pickford fan, then this film probably is not for you. But if you believe in the artistry of either Mary Pickford or silent films, then go for this one!