Little Annie Rooney Blu-ray Review: Charming Silent Comedy and Melodrama

One of Mary Pickford's most successful films pulls on the heartstrings with admittedly shameless melodrama.
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Mary Pickford was 32 when she made Little Annie Rooney, where she plays a girl barely into her teens who spends all of her time picking fights with boys and getting into child gang warfare, when she isn't doting on her cop dad. It's a testament to Pickford's particular talents that she often easily passes for someone that young, even when surrounded by other child actors: she's tiny, her face is ageless, and she knows how to hold herself in a way that belies physical maturity.

That she becomes the love interest for an apparently much older man (played by William Haines, actually eight years Mary Pickford's junior) is just part of the vagaries of the melodramatic plot. Annie, a tough girl of the streets, lives her life to cause harmless mischief while her old brother Tom is running with a crowd that includes some real tough customers. They seem to be a small-time gang, though there's some older members who are real thugs, including the fellow with the not at all suspicious name of Spider, who has just got out of prison.

Tom's real friend in the gang is Joe Kelley, who doesn't like to hear that Tom might be following his father's footsteps into police work. When Annie dad is shot in the line of duty, Tom becomes convinced it was Joe who did it, and seeks revenge.

That's the melodrama plot, the tearjerker element of the story. Most of the actual action of the film revolves around Annie - either her tomboy antics in the streets, or her reverence for her father. There's some broad comic set pieces, the best of which involves Mary trying to mount, then control a horse for a stage show, when her pantomime horse met with jeers from the audience. She ends up hanging from ropes and trying to swing on top of the bemused animal.

Playing little poor girls was Mary Pickford's specialty: her attempts to play more mature roles were commercially unsuccessful, and fan outcry for her to keep playing child's roles lead her to conceive of Little Annie Rooney. At this point in her career, Mary Pickford was firmly in control. She conceived the movie, wrote it under a pseudonym, and picked the director and the rest of the cast.

For much of the movie she is surrounded by child actors: other tenement dwellers who are part of her gang, protecting the block from the other penniless kids loitering about. It's a pretty diverse crew that Annie hangs out with: she's Irish, of course, but her gang contains Chinese, Jewish, black, and Italian kids as well. The depictions tend toward the stereotypical (not shock in a film where the central character is Irish and her dad's a beat cop) but not condescending. The film's New York tenement location was built on studio sets and shot in Hollywood, and the production design is meticulous.

This release on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley is from a print of the film that has recently been restored, and it's an amazing clear copy of the film. Little Annie Rooney is very much a film of its time, and the simple plot and unhurried pacing, as well as the swinging for the cheap seats melodrama is definitely an acquired taste for modern audiences. But it is uncommonly good at both the melodrama and the comedy. Some of the plot mechanics are pretty creaky (Tom only gets the idea that Joe shot his dad because that paragon of virtue Spider told him so) but they're all contrived to get our heart-strings pulling for that Annie Rooney, and that they do.

This Blu-ray release of Little Annie Rooney also includes a DVD copy of the film, and a booklet with short essays on the production both of the film, and of the new score included in this release. The only on-disc extra is a short featurette about the composing and performance of that score. Similar to the recent release of Fanchon the Cricket, the score is a major production, though while that score was folk and rock oriented, this one is more traditional movie music, performed by a 12-piece orchestra. It's a welcome addition to the film, and a far cry from the more typical silent movie accompaniment of one guy plinking around on a piano.

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