Home Video Hovel: Little Annie Rooney, by Craig Schroeder
Little Annie Rooney stars Mary Pickford as the titular scamp and leader of a gang of young ruffians and street urchins who have found themselves in an embittered battle against a similarly tempered crew of rogues and rascals. While the younger kids fight rather innocent turf wars, Annie’s older brother has found himself involved with a gang of not-so-innocent imps and hooligans, much to their police officer father’s chagrin. Little Annie Rooney weaves in and out of comedy and melodrama, often with ease but with the occasional bumpy transition.
Pickford was an actress in the same way Beethoven was a piano player. Directed by William Beaudine, 1925’s Little Annie Rooney leaves no doubt as to Pickford’s magnetism and charm. With a face that glows like a planet and impossibly curly hair, Pickford cuts a silhouette so distinct her visage has become one of the few, alongside Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, and Buster Keaton, synonymous with American silent film.
Just ten years after The Birth of a Nation revolutionized film editing and laid the foundation of how to translate action to the screen, Little Annie Rooney’s editing is one of the film’s most notable achievements. Unlike The Birth of a Nation, Little Annie Rooney boasts progressive bona fides with a multi-ethnic cast of supporting players and acerbic commentary on class and economic status (on the eve of the Great Depression no less). The film opens with an impressive action sequence between two groups of delinquents lobbing bricks like mortars, introducing the audience to Pickford’s Annie Rooney amidst the action. Juggling wide angle shots of entire street blocks (all shot on a set created for the film), close-ups of Pickford and the supporting players, and choreographed fight scenes, the film’s larger set-pieces are cohesive, fast-paced, and sophisticated sequences (Buster Keaton’s The General would come out the following year, doing much of the same, while also introducing revolutionary stunt work and action choreography). As the plot advances and the film begins to juggle multiple stories, the shrewd cross-cuts maintain the rhythm and action, coordinating the events in a symphony that makes for satisfying crescendos when the characters eventually cross paths. Though the brilliant editing allows the film to develop its peripheral characters, Pickford is the film’s star. Making use of angel-face lighting—a technique used by placing a strong light directly on Pickford’s thirty-three year old face to give the illusion of a baby-faced child—cinematographers Hal Mohr and Charles Rosher (the latter would shoot F.W. Murnau’s formative Sunrise just a few years later) intensify Pickford’s natural charm.
Despite its dynamic opening and the buoyancy afforded by its star, the film’s back half ushers a bit of heavy-handed melodrama that can’t quite match the film’s more comedic and energetic beats. The light-hearted nature gives way to more sinister plot developments, including murder and revenge. It’s a jarring tonal change that never quite evens out and eventually all of the kinetic set-pieces are replaced with high melodrama that just doesn’t pack the punch the film’s screenplay (co-written by Pickford) demands. Whereas similar tonal shifts are used effectively in many a Chaplin film (The Kid sees a similar transition from light-hearted romp to devastating drama), Little Annie Rooney’s dramatic points often feel maudlin and void of introspection.
Uneven second half notwithstanding, Little Annie Rooney is an exciting comedy, thankfully saved from the carnage of time. The Mary Pickford Foundation is responsible for the restoration of numerous Pickford films, including this one. In addition to an immaculate picture, the Mary Pickford Foundation solicited the talents of Andy Gladbach to record an entirely new soundtrack. Featuring bellowing percussion and jaunty piano riffs,the soundtrack is an impressive bit of music that merges modern sounds with period specifications. Mary Pickford’s contribution to film is impossible to quantify—in addition to her acting chops, Pickford was a founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as well as United Artists. With the release of Little Annie Rooney, the Mary Pickford Foundation (partnered with Flicker Alley) offers an exhibition for one of Hollywood’s first superstars.