Silent movies have really been growing on me lately. I’m always glad to find more of them, even though I don’t always know what to look for and am still unfamiliar with many of the actors and crew.
One silent-era player who’s definitely not a mystery is Mary Pickford. To say this lady was and is influential is an understatement. Pickford was not only one of the first movie stars, but she’s one of the first woman film executives and a co-founder of United Artists. She’s commonly thought to have introduced America to Alfredo sauce.
She also has a couple of ties to my hometown of Auburn: On a visit to Old Town in 1932, Pickford was so taken with a bar she saw in a saloon (now occupied by Carpe Vino) that she literally bought the bar and installed it at Pickfair. Plus, legend has it a train carrying some crystal she and husband Douglas Fairbanks ordered derailed in Auburn. Apparently it was a big to-do and written up in the papers, but I’m not sure of the exact date. Ah, docent life.
Anyway, Pickford’s main gimmick was playing little girls and in a few cases, little boys, and one example of this was 1925’s Little Annie Rooney. Pickford is a scrappy Irish American lass in New York City, and unbeknownst to the public, the film was hers in more ways than one.
The movie opens in the rough part of what it calls “downtown,” but it’s probably Brooklyn or the Bronx, where a gang called Kelley’s Kids has set out to go after Little Annie Rooney (Mary Pickford). She’s a tough cookie–if they hit, she hits back. Her dad’s a police officer, and she takes no prisoners. Annie’s pals and the Kelley Kids seem to lob bricks and other projectiles whenever they get the opportunity, and on this particular occasion they decimate a fruit cart.
Meanwhile, Joe Kelley (William Haines) is kind of a bum who sells tickets to a dance to get pocket money. He makes the mistake of selling ten tickets to an old guy who can’t dance, but he doesn’t care and goes on his merry way, just in time to break up a fistfight between his little brother, Mickey (Joe Butterworth) and Annie. Joe asks Annie what made her so mad, and Annie replies that the boys kept singing “Little Annie Rooney is my sweetheart.” It’s a line from an 1889 song still familiar to film audiences in the nineteen-twenties.
Joe repeats the line to Annie, only he’s so darned cute that Annie is instantly smitten. She goes home to make dinner for her dad and brother, Tim (Gordon Griffith) dancing and trilling around her pots and pans.
Tim’s got a date, supposedly, or he’s trying to get out of assisting with the washing up, but either way, Annie is helping him black his shoes when Joe shows up. The old man he sold the tickets to complained to Annie’s dad (Walter James), who tells Joe that if he doesn’t get his act together, he and Tim can’t hang out anymore. Annie is all in a flutter because her hands have shoe polish all over them, but she plays it cool.
It’s a busy night at the Rooney house, because various members of Annie’s group also drop by, hauled in by their parents. Turns out, a fruit cart was not only upset, but a horse ran away, and the owner wants compensation of ten dollars.
To raise money, the gang puts on a show, but the crowds aren’t impressed by Mary as a sheriff in a wild west skit or cringeworthy shimmy dancing by a kid named Humidor (Eugene Jackson). They’re five dollars short, but Joe squares everything by giving the owner of the horse five dollars’ worth of tickets to the dance.
The night of the dance is a raucously good time for all involved until a brawl breaks out, and when Officer Rooney comes to break it up, he’s shot and killed. While it’s all happening, Annie’s at home preparing a surprise birthday party for her dad. The neighbors have brought presents, including pickled herring, and Annie’s baked a cake with a crazy assortment of candles. She hangs a sign on the door asking her dad to knock before he enters and hides under the table when she thinks it’s him. Only it’s one of his fellow officers who’s come to tell her the bad news.
Annie and Tim are devastated, and Annie’s friends take her under their collective wing. Rooney’s death has left the community reeling, and the big mystery, of course, is who killed him. Tim vows to avenge his dad’s death, and roams the city looking to shoot the culprit. There are whispers that Joe is at fault, but it may or may not be that easy.
Mary Pickford wrote Little Annie Rooney herself under the nom-de-plume of Catherine Hennessey, the name of her own Irish granny. According to the Mary Pickford Foundation, she was a producer on the film as well, and dictated that it be shot in sequence to help with character development.
It was a tense time, because there was a plot to kidnap Pickford, and she couldn’t go anywhere without a bodyguard and police escort. She seemed to channel that tension into her portrayal of Annie, and the public loved it. Her performance is really remarkable, considering she was almost thirty-three when the film was made.
Pickford longed to play more adult roles, but unfortunately, she wasn’t allowed to shake off her type, as audiences would only accept Pickford as a little girl. When she bobbed her hair in 1928, her career began to tank. Pickford was still a respected actor, but she was no longer the darling of the public. She made her last film in 1933.
Also unfortunately, Pickford had some quirks. She famously made a point of keeping the nitrate negatives for her own films, and when her career collapsed she tried to destroy them. Luckily for film history, friends stopped her, and Pickford donated what was left to the Library of Congress.
It’s a good thing the movie was saved, because Little Annie Rooney is a fun, charming story that exemplifies what made Mary Pickford such as star. Considering how many hats she wore during the making of the movie, it’s a testament to her versatility as a filmmaker, too. The movie isn’t perfect; it has some racial stereotypes in it, but it’s still a nice way to be introduced to one of Hollywood’s first major stars.
All righty, friends, thanks for reading, and see you next week with a new “Page To Screen”…