A while ago, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it. This is Post #30.
Little Annie Rooney
Directed by William Beaudine
Release Year: 1925 (45 years before I was born).
What it is about: 12 year old ragamuffin Annie Rooney and her friends cause mischief and mayhem on the streets of New York City. Her older brother Tim is part of a gang of older boys led by Tim Kelly, a young man that Annie has a crush on. Annie and Tim’s beloved single father is Officer Rooney, who works hard to keep the peace, but who winds up tragically killed in an altercation amongst older gang members. Tim mistakenly believes that Joe was responsible and critically wounds him with a gun. To save Joe (=and to also prevent her brother from going to jail, Annie volunteers to donate blood, mistakenly believing this will cost her her own life.
Starring Mary Pickford as Annie Rooney, Walter James as her father Officer Rooney, William Haines as Joe Kelly, and Gordon Griffith as Tim Rooney.
My impressions of this movie before I watched it: I’d never heard of the before preparing for this series, and then even then I didn’t really know anything about it. I’ve heard of Mary Pickford but didn’t know anything about her.
Reality: Little Annie Rooney is a strange animal. When you are watching films this far back in the history of the medium, there are always going to be some historical and stylistic context that is going to be useful to take into account. But in this case it was more than usual.
What is immediately noticeable about Little Annie Rooney is that lead actress Mary Pickford is clearly much older than her character. Annie is meant to be about 12, whilst Mary Pickford is 32! She is short, and so much smaller than all the adults she is playing against, but its obvious that she is not a child. And this is especially clear when she is appearing alongside actual children, which she spends a lot of this movie doing. It’s not that she is bad at this; it’s just distracting for me–although not for audience’s at the time, it seems, who voted via 20,000 letters to a fan magazine that she play such street urchin characters, rather than characters more appropriate for her age.
The other surprising thing about the movie for me is its jarring blend of tones. For the first two thirds of the movie, the main think you find is the comical misadventures of a streetwise tomboy. Much of the start, in fact, is taken by an extended and ridiculous fight on the streets by all the young ragamuffins. There is now way to take this fight literally–they throw bricks at each other but it’s all obviously played for laughs.
So the movie presents itself as light-hearted and silly, like an extended silent Our Gang comedy. There are gangs and crime represented in the film, but the worst thing that we see them doing is strong-arming people into buying tickets to a dance.
But then suddenly it takes a sharp swerve when an outbreak of violence at the dance, and Annie’s father, Officer Rooney, is shot dead…and on his birthday to boot! There’s a sequence where Annie is at home busily getting ready to surprise her father with a special birthday meal, and thinking her father is at the door when it is actually one of his colleagues come to deliver the bad news, which is especially heart-breaking. The movie threatens to get even more tragic when Annie’s brother guns down his friend Joe, mistakenly believing that he is responsible for his father’s death.
I liked all this stuff–it was actually more engaging than the childish antics of the rest of the movie–but it was such a strange departure from what had gone before that it was kind of confusing. But maybe I’m not used enough to the movies of the day to know whether that sort of thing was common.
Because the last act of the film was the most dramatically interesting, I came away from Little Annie Rooney with quite a positive feel. But there are other good things about it was well. Mary Pickford is great as Annie (once you get past the whole weirdness of the age discrepancy), with lots of emotion and responses coming through her physical performance–essential for a silent actor. And the production design is outstanding. The city streets are apparently all built on a movie lot but they are incredibly detailed. The big street fight at the beginning is silly but the world it’s all taking place in is fully authentic.
The movie also has quite an interracial cast, which is notable and interesting. It’s again like the Our Gang stories in that regard, with characters from various backgrounds–Irish, Greek, Jewish, Chinese, African-American and more. And though there is some race-based humor, it’s pretty minimal.
The concept behind Little Annie Rooney has an interesting history, both before and after this movie. The name appeared in a 19th century song by Michael Nolan which was originally sung in England before coming to the USA. The song’s first stanza is this: “A winning way, a pleasant smile, Dress’d so neat but quite in style, Merry chaff your time to wile, Has little Annie Rooney.” It’s being sung by Annie’s fiancé Joe who is excited to be engaged to her–so that could be in the same continuity of the movie. A couple of years after the film, a comic strip called Little Annie Rooney started appearing, trading on the popularity of Little Orphan Annie. This version of Annie Rooney was an orphan and traveled with her dog Zero, and so doesn’t really have anything to do with the movie. The strip continued until 1966.
In 1931, Fleischer Studios made an animated film based on the original song, which featured a version of Annie Rooney who married her sweetheart, Bimbo (!) Fox later purchased the rights for the comic strip with the intention of turning it into a movie, but that became 1935 movie Ginger starring Jane Withers. And in 1942 a teenaged Shirley Temple starred in Miss Annie Rooney, about the daughter of a struggling salesman (named Tim in this version) who falls in love with an older rich boy.
And last but not least, apparently there is a Scottish phrase that goes, “She’s having an Annie Rooney!” which means that someone is flying into a rage!
So…when you get down to it, what did I think? I really thought I wasn’t going to like this one, but the last half an hour won me over, and helped me appreciate the earlier parts of the movie more.
See here for the Master List.