Mary Pickford is a tenement kid with a cop father and a brother who wants to be a gangster. Mary falls for her brother’s best friend, another would-be gangster, and must clear him of murder. Subtle it ain’t but it still boasts of certain charms, namely a very young Billy Haines as the male lead.
‘Twas workin’ for the devil you were!
What do you do when your audience refuses to let you grow up? Mary Pickford had just such a problem in 1925. She had tried to shake off little girl parts but her fans loved to see her in curls and lace dresses. Never one to deny her public, Pickford gamely stepped back into childhood.
Little Annie Rooney (Mary Pickford) has all the usual problems of a twelve year old girl, as well as a few unique to her. A tough tomboy who leads a multi-ethnic gang of kids, Annie is the sworn enemy of the neighbor boy, Mickey Kelly. Mickey’s big brother, Joe (William Haines), and Annie’s big brother, Tim (Gordon Griffith), are aspiring to be gangsters. Annie’s father, on the other hand, is a beloved policeman. Officer Timothy Rooney (Walter James) is keeping his eye on Spider (Hugh Fay), a newly released big-time gangster and his sidekick, Tony.
Meanwhile, Annie and her best friend Aby Levy (Spec O’Donnell) have gotten themselves into a fistfight with Mickey and his gang. Annie and Mickey seem ready to settle their rivalry once and for all when Joe stops the fight. Annie is smitten and doesn’t even mind when Joe teases her about her name.
Joe is a bit of a rascal, as we soon find out. To raise spending money, Joe forces Aby’s father to buy dance tickets to a gangster’s ball. When Officer Rooney finds out, he makes Joe return the money and forbids Tim to associate with him. Meanwhile, Annie and her gang get in trouble for, literally, upsetting the fruit cart. Annie is left holding the bag and owing $5. Much to her delight, Joe stands up for her and pays off the debt with dance tickets.
Annie and Tim prepare a surprise birthday party for their father. Joe is at the dance, having a good time, flirting with Tony’s girl. Spider provides Tony with a gun and has his moll kill the lights. Officer Rooney rushes in to see what is wrong. Tony shoots at Joe in the dark and hits Officer Rooney. Annie eagerly awaits her father. An officer comes in and breaks the news that her father will never come home. Annie takes it hard but Tim is devastated.
Tony and Spider have made a clean getaway. To take the heat off themselves, they tell Tim that Joe shot his father. Tim returns home to get his father’s pistol. He is going to kill Joe. Annie tries to stop him but he rushes out to get revenge. Joe has heard what Spider and Tony are saying. He swears to Annie that he did not kill her father. Annie believes him and helps him get out before Tim can catch up with him.
Annie is frantic to save Joe. Her gang comes to her aid with evidence that points to Tony. Annie hurries to stop Tim from committing murder. She teams up with arch-rival Mickey to catch Tony and clear Joe. Too late, as it turns out. Tim finds Joe on the street and shoots him. He goes to turn himself in and learns the truth from Annie. Joe is dying in the hospital. Annie has to save him or Tim will be guilty of murder. Annie and her gang rush to the hospital…
Mary Pickford’s audience loved her in anything but they were especially fond of her child roles. By 1925, Mary had played everything from Pollyanna to Little Lord Fauntleroy. The 33-year old superstar needed a new story and a new character. Unable to find anything suitable, she wrote the plot for Little Annie Rooney herself under a pseudonym.
Based loosely on an old chestnut of a song, the film showcased everything that made Mary popular. Feistiness? In spades. Pathos? Check. Slum kid who makes good? Naturally. What is missing is the heart. Mary Pickford’s best films, like Daddy Long Legs or My Best Girl were designed as popular entertainment but Little Annie Rooney has a calculated feel to it. You can almost picture Mary Pickford and her crew checking off a list to make sure the movie has all the right Little Mary moments.
Another problem is the use of racial stereotypes. Some amount of unfortunate stereotypes are a given in films of the silent era but Little Annie Rooney goes overboard. From the Jewish kid who doesn’t fight on the Sabbath to the Irish cop with the Leprechaun accent (“Joe, my boy – ’twas workin’ for the devil you were– makin’ old man Levy buy these tickets.”), the makers of Little Annie Rooney seem to have tried to take as many ethnic stereotypes as possible and run them into the ground. It’s a shame because Annie’s multi-culti gang could have been so much more fun if they had left the clichés alone.
That’s not to say that Little Annie Rooney is a bad movie. It is competently made and Mary Pickford glides through her role with ease. William Haines, though, saves the film. Mary’s leading men often seem to have been chosen for their height rather than their charm. Some were quite stodgy. Of course, this may have been intentional since their seriousness contrasted well with Mary Pickford’s vivacity.
Haines could never have been stodgy if he tried. He specialized in playing energetic but flippant young fellows who learn their lesson and get the girl by the picture’s end. With charisma to spare and youthful charm (he was Mary’s junior by eight years), he infuses get-up-and-go into an otherwise average film.
I wonder, though, what is the audience supposed to make of the romance between the obviously adult Haines and 12-year old Annie, even if she is played by a grown woman. I suppose that Little Annie Rooney is better if you don’t ask questions and just enjoy the show.
Where can I see it?
Little Annie Rooney is widely available on DVD but the available budget editions leave much to be desired. Better than nothing, I suppose.