Kickstarter is the not-so-secret ingredient in much of this century’s wave of silent film restorations. Here is a sterling new example of what happens when individuals take it upon themselves to salvage forgotten movies.
As Eric Grayson explains in an extra on Little Orphant Annie, a rare 35mm copy of this 1918 feature was rotting away. Through a Kickstarter campaign, he collaborated with the Library of Congress to combine and digitally restore the best moments of the 35mm print with several lesser 16mm prints and one fuzzy video print. In his fascinating commentary, he points out every transition between prints while discussing what he had to do to stabilize or reframe the image and provide its proper tinting.
Does the film deserve all the attention? Now that we can finally get the best look at it that we’ve been able to have since the silent era, we can say yes, it’s a charming oddity with many remarkable effects and moments of style.
The source is James Whitcomb Riley’s poem, now largely overlooked but known to just about all literate Americans when the film was made, basically as a poem for children. It combines spookery with sentimental Victorian moralism and didacticism whose intention is to “scare straight” any recalcitrant little ones who don’t mind their manners and their elders.
“Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay” begins the poem, seemingly narrated by one or more of the children. Annie is a servant who delights in telling tales of spooks and spirits, always ending with the refrain “An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you ef you Don’t Watch Out!” The goblins snatch away a little boy who wouldn’t say his prayers, and then a sassy little girl “who mocked ’em an’ shocked ’em, an’ said she didn’t care!”
Thus, the poem brings to heel any pernicious little atheists or disrespectful (female) upstarts who don’t know their place. The innate conservatism of the poem’s warning is conveyed through a lascivious delight in the evil, the chaotic, the supernaturally rambunctious. Didactic works, especially those aimed at children, frequently exhibit this paradoxical tension between the conservative and subversive. For that matter, so do morally didactic works aimed at adults. When the titular Jezebel rides proudly to her fate in the last five minutes of that 1938 Bette Davis film, it’s only after audiences have vicariously enjoyed her scandalous behavior for two hours, and even her “punishment” is taken on her own willful terms.
Getting back to the poem, this much-anthologized bit of Americana from Indiana’s “Hoosier poet” was once so much a part of the cultural landscape that it inspired both the Raggedy Ann dolls (created by fellow Indiana author Johnny Gruelle) and the Little Orphan Annie comic strip, which continues to thrive in pop culture in musical form.
Annie was inspired by a real-life servant named Mary Alice Smith, whom Riley had known as a boy. She was still alive when this film was made. She also inspired a tragic short story, “Where Is Mary Alice Smith?” in which the servant loves to tell gruesome tales until she dies of a broken heart when her boyfriend is killed in the Civil War. Elements of both sources are thrown together by screenwriter Gilson Willetts, along with new melodrama, in order to expand the short title poem into a five-reel feature.
The movie begins with footage of Riley himself, filmed in 1916 shortly before he died and surrounded by children whom he’s supposedly regaling with the film’s story. The Selig Polyscope Company shot this footage and recycled it in the first two of itsplanned cycle of Riley projects to star newcomer Colleen Moore. The first of these, A Hoosier Romance, is unfortunately lost. Little Orphant Annie, the second and last of the series before Selig went belly up, has only been available in a cluttered jumble of decaying and mis-edited prints for decades.
In one of the film’s several new inventions borrowed from elsewhere in the cultural minefields, Annie’s story opens in a shabby urban tenement, populated by drunks and women of uncertain virtue, where her linen-scrubbing mom suddenly drops dead in front of the crying child. Movie-goers of 1918 had heard about these tenements from other movies, or from muckrakers of the era, or perhaps from living in them. Annie is promptly dispatched to an orphanage, much nicer than Oliver Twist’s, until she comes “of age” and must leave. This still leaves her somewhere in her teens and now played by Moore.
Moore would become one of the most famous stars of the ’20s, playing flappers and other such modern phenomena of the wicked world, but here in the late ’10s, she’s still in Mary Pickford territory and very effectively so. Only in her teens herself, she’s very natural and believable, especially in closeup. Her eyes were of different colors and seemingly of different sizes. You can detect this in certain shots if you look carefully, and it enhances Annie’s forlorn and otherworldly qualities.
At first, Annie is stuck with an uncle and aunt worse than Simon Legree. They spend all their time limping and slouching and hitting her and throwing her fluffy cat. Annie quickly moves to another family with more kids than the Von Trapps, or so it seems, and there settles until her sweetheart (Tom Santschi) goes off to WWI in the gloomy final reel. The movie still has a few narrative tricks in store.
The story’s main attraction is Annie’s fantasy world, conveyed through elaborate in-camera superimpositions as she constantly imagines gnomes and fairy queens and goblins with big papier-mâché heads dropping by. She imagines these things to herself or recounts them to the kids. Thus, her uncle and aunt make recurring appearances as a potato-headed goblin and a witch, and her sweetie-pie sometimes converts to an armored knight.
Even through the wear and tear on these multiple prints, Charles Stumar’s photographic prowess recommends itself. As the commentators justly remark, it’s more than the dazzling effects work or a couple of gratuitously beautiful tracking shots. He often moves the camera in subtle ways that weren’t very common in this nailed-down era. The Hungarian-born Stumar had a busy career until he died at age 44 in 1935, shortly after shooting The Werewolf of London and The Raven.
He’s clearly given a free hand and inspiration by prolific director Colin Campbell, who’s credited on Wikipedia with 177 films from 1911 to 1922. The Scots-born Campbell is one of the era’s remarkable journeyman eclipsed by memory and nitrate decay. He shoots much of the film on real locations, and it always looks expansive and outdoorsy. Even the slum scenes and the uncle’s farmhouse are rather capacious. He grasps how to block scenes of up to a dozen busy characters with clarity, and he keeps things moving through many moods and changes of scene.
Grayson undertook this restoration and 2K scanning as part of the Riley Centennial in 2016. Ben Model, who operates his own Kickstarter restorations, provides a good piano score idiomatic of the era. The restoration commentary by Grayson and Riley scholar Glory-June Greiff is informative and engaging, while the commentary by Moore biographer Jeff Codori is more desultory. In an extra, Greiff performs the poem and an excerpt from the short story. Their commitment to this little corner of America’s literary and cinematic culture is admirable, and this DVD/Blu-ray combo with an extensive booklet of liner notes makes a happy souvenir of their efforts.