Little Orphant Annie

Studio: Eric Grayson

Apr 06, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Released in 1918 and alarmingly close to being lost for much of the last century, this Annie will probably be almost unrecognizable to anyone expecting coming into it expecting the curly-haired moppet of radio, stage and film, “Tomorrow,” and Daddy Warbucks. Unlike the musical, which was based on the long-running comic strip – which debuted six years after this film, in 1924 – Little Orphant Annie is based on James Whitcomb Riley’s 1885 poem of the same name, which loosely inspired that better-known incarnation of the character. The original poem – which you can read here, or listen to it read by the author in an old phonograph recording – ran only four verses, and described an orphaned girl with a talent for scaring the bejeebies out of her fellow children by telling spooky stories.

If we were to describe the tone of silent film version of Little Orphant Annie, it would be “whimsically grim.” (Here she closer resembles a character from a story by illustrator Edward Gorey than the high-spirited, crime-solving ragamuffin from the comics.) When we first meet toddler-aged Annie, it’s to watch her mother suddenly drop dead at the foot of her high chair. She grows up in an orphanage where she entertains the other misfortunate youths with her fantastical tales of goblins and witches. The orphanage eventually tracks down Annie’s last living kin, a rotten old uncle, who takes her away to work on his farm with her wicked aunt. Annie’s clumsiness leads to frequent beatings from her uncle until she’s rescued by a kind, wealthy couple who adopt her into their growing collection of waifs, urchins, and strays. Before the story’s over, Annie falls for a rugged cattleman who’s soon killed at war; she becomes so overwhelmed with grief that she passes away from a broken heart, only to wake up and learn it was all a nightmare.

Again: this isn’t the Annie most of us grew up with, but that should in no way deter you from this jewel of a film.

One of the film’s most delightful elements is its macabre imagery. The filmmakers channeled mucho gusto into illustrating Annie’s spooky tales, and so the movie is well-populated with bug-eyed goblins (or “gobble-uns”), witches, man-sized bats, and swinging skeletons. The special effects are charmingly quaint. In one early sequence, a witch swoops down from the sky on a broom, scoops up a naughty tot, flies him cross-country and then dumps him into a boiling cauldron. It’s as silly as it is gratuitous, if not particularly frightful: the goblins, with their googly eyes and oversized heads, can almost be considered cute, and another sequence where pint-sized gremlins play in the orphans’ soup bowls is downright adorable.

(And no, the “orphant” you keep reading isn’t our spell check giving us issues – it’s simply an esoteric spelling of the word “orphaned.”)

At the time this film adaptation of his most famous poem was released, James Whitcomb Riley was a bona fide celebrity, having reached a level of nationwide fame that’s no longer equated with poets today. He was a frequent guest of the Cleveland and Harrison White Houses, a bestselling author, and a performer who’d attract sold-out crowds on national reading tours. Riley gives a brief, posthumous performance as himself at the film’s beginning and end; the poet died in 1916, two years before Little Orphant Annie’s theatrical release.

Now a full century old, Little Orphant Annie may be the earliest surviving film starring Colleen Moore, one of the era’s A-List actresses. This Blu-ray/DVD version has been pieced together from multiple incomplete prints and lovingly restored. There is damage still visible, which is expected given the rate at which so much of the period’s film stock deteriorated, but overall the restoration looks fantastic. It’s accompanied by a wonderful piano score by Ben Model, which does a great job of keep the film’s pacing brisk and lively. (If you ever forget how important the musical score can be to silent cinema, hit the “mute” button on your remote and just feel how the action on-screen suddenly seems to slow to a crawl.) Extra features include two audio commentaries, a featurette on the restoration, and live reading of Riley's poetry. All in all, this is a more impressive package than you’d see from many bigger labels for better-known films – if you’re an enthusiast for silent movies, then this release of Little Orphant Annie is highly worth seeking out.



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