Note: The title is not a typo, I’m afraid. The United States was bitten by the twee bug circa 1880-1920 and this is the result. “Orphant” indeed! Sigh.
One of the earliest surviving Colleen Moore films, this cliched tale of an abused waif and her happy benefactors is based on a poem by James Whitcomb Riley. Heaven help us all.
The Gobble-uns will get me? What are you talking about, you silly little man?
While a few fortunate stars managed to burst onto the scene with more or less fully-formed personas, most performers had to rely on trial and error before finding the perfect type of role to capture the admiration of their audience. Colleen Moore is remembered today as the torch of flaming youth but she spent her first few years in the movies playing the role of a wide-eyed innocent who would say things like, “Papa, what is beer?” (Moore’s witty observations make her autobiography a treat, by the way.) What a difference a haircut makes!
Comparatively few of Moore’s films are available to the general public and her two signature roles, Flaming Youth and So Big, are missing and presumed lost, which makes the survival and release of Little Orphant Annie all the more important. It isn’t Moore’s first film but it is the earliest surviving picture in which she plays the lead role.
Before we dive into the picture, let’s talk about the source material. I should warn any James Whitcomb Riley fans that I absolutely do not share your affection and, frankly, feel his poetry should be considered cruel and unusual punishment. I prefer to be addressed as “madam” in missives of rebuke.
Riley wrote the original poem upon which this film is based and he was… of his time, I suppose is the most charitable way to put it. Riley specialized in dialect poems (and you know how I feel about dialect title cards so double that rage here) and “child” poems, which meant that he wrote verses in baby talk. With Little Orphant Annie, he combined both of his, um, “talents” in order to create this:
Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an-keep;
An’ all us other childern, when the supper-things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an’ has the mostest fun,
A-listenin’ to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about,
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you
G’AAAAAHHHH! Kill it with fire! Help! Help!
Pant, pant, pant.
Okay, I’m calm now. I just have trouble being overloaded with twee. It’s as if Walt Disney had a baby Elmo at the Sanrio store. As you can see, this movie is going to have its work cut out for it if it’s going to make something watchable out of this treacle. Not only that, Riley’s tendency to embrace the Victorian ideal of children dying horribly for minor infractions makes his cutesiness come off as even more creepy.
(Hillaire Belloc masterfully spoofed the “child dies horribly for not making his/her bed” genre in his 1907 publication entitled Cautionary Tales for Children, which features such stories as Matilda: Who Told Lies and was Burned to Death and Henry King: Who chewed bits of string, and was early cut off in Dreadful agonies. Suitably, Edward Gorey illustrated a reprint of this masterpiece of black humor but you can also check out the public domain original edition here.)
The thing we need to remember, though, is that this goo-goo-gah-gah nonsense was actually pretty popular. When Riley passed away in 1916, thousands of mourners crowded in to pay their respects. (Waggish writer Nick Page suggested that they might have just been making sure he was really dead. I highly recommend Page’s book, In Search of the World’s Worst Writers, if you are into that sort of thing.)
By the way, since someone is bound to bring it up, my understanding is that Riley’s poem inspired the title of Harold Gray’s iconic comic strip, the main difference being that Gray knew how to spell “orphan”. However, the poem and the comic have very little in common other than featuring an orphan named Annie.
Selig Polyscope, one of many studios operating at the time, had the rights to adapt Little Orphant Annie and other Riley works. They also had footage of Riley, shot not long before his death. Selig intended to use these popular properties to launch a new star: a very young and very long-haired Colleen Moore.
Moore had already starred in another Riley adaptation, A Hoosier Romance, and was hoping to use the cachet of being the “Riley Girl” to build her career. Of course, Selig’s business was crumbling and there would be no more Riley films for Moore but she recovered nicely and became the symbol of 1920s Flaming Youth, just about as different from the Riley Girl as was possible. Thank goodness.
The film opens with old footage of Riley telling his tales to children. At least I hope it’s old footage. Riley died in 1916 so it’s either old footage or he is a zombie. Braaaaaains. The thought of quaint and adorable zombies shuffling about is pretty terrifying.
Anyway, we are then shown Annie (Colleen Moore), an orphan who delights the other children at the institution with her tales of goblins (I refuse to spell it gobble-uns) and other horrors. Having been a fraidy cat child, I doubt I would have liked Annie very much but the other kids seem to adore her tales of terror.
Unlike 90% of all orphanages in silent film, this one seems to be a pleasant enough place to stay with caring matrons and plenty of nutritious food. Annie problems begin when her uncle (Harry Lonsdale) arrives. It seems that the orphanage called him to tell him to pick up his niece but he utterly refuses to take her and seems to be a rather horrible person to boot.
Now if you were the head of an orphanage, what would you do?
- a) Thank him for his time and send him on his way, leaving Annie in the orphananage where she is happy and safe.
- b) As him if he knows any other relatives
- c) Tell him he is legally obligated to take Annie. So there. Oh, and never check up on whether he is treating her well.
If you didn’t choose C, you are clearly not qualified to run an orphanage. Forcing an unpleasant and possibly violent man to take custody of a tweenage girl against his will? Oh, that will end well.
As you can imagine, things do not go well for Annie at her new home and the orphanage seems to have washed its hands of her. Both Annie and her cat are beaten by Annie’s aunt and uncle, who view her as a source of free labor at best and as a convenient target for their frustrations at worst.
Is it too much to ask for someone to call a social worker? What’s that? They don’t have one? Sheesh. Good old days, my foot.
Fortunately, a local farmer named Dave (Tom Santschi) happens along when Annie is being beaten. He rescues her and tells Annie’s uncle that he will kill him if he touches his niece again. Annie views Dave as a knight in shining armor (and we are given a scene of him as a literal knight just in case we were too stupid to get it).
By the way, Tom Santschi was a longtime Selig performer who specialized in westerns. This is one of very few opportunities to see him out of a cowboy hat!
Annie’s aunt and uncle continue their melodramatic reign of terror but then a local squire and his wife enter the scene. They are good and rich and wonderful and decide to adopt Annie lickety-split. I just love those convenient rich people who sweep in to save the day! Funny, they seem so rare in real life…
Annie repays her new family’s kindness by helping with the housework and entertaining the children by threatening them with a supernatural death if they don’t behave. Literally, this is what she does. One of the kids is acting up and so she tells him the story of a small boy who was naughty, so was stolen from his room by goblins and drowned. This is treated as adorable and charming. (And you thought Labyrinth was creepy!)
Dave continues to be the apple of Annie’s eye, which is pretty squicky as Santschi was forty and Moore was only nineteen and was playing a character who was probably several years younger. Anyway, the Great War breaks out, Dave enlists and Annie sees him off to join the army. She’s so overwrought with emotion that she faints.
At this point, things grow a little murky and so I will try my best to sort them out.
(Lots of spoilers for a bit)
The original ending would have been true to Where is Mary Alice Smith, the Riley short story that also inspired the script. In it, a fourteen-year-old orphan’s beloved soldier, David, is killed and she dies of grief. Normally, I am pretty suspicious of stories of changed endings, having been forced to deal with Lillian Gish’s bizarre fiction regarding The Wind. However, in this case, I think that the ending truly was changed and rather clumsily too.
From what I can tell, the original ending involved Dave dying in combat, Annie’s uncle telling her the news and gloating, Annie collapsing and finally dying of a broken heart. Some accounts state that the whole mess of glurge concluded with Annie and Dave being reunited in heaven. I can see why this ending would not go over well during the First World War, where real people were dying and real survivors were being forced to cope with the loss.
Instead, a new ending was constructed with Dave’s death and Annie’s uncle breaking the news being products of Annie’s overactive imagination. Of course, this doesn’t really work as all of Annie’s other tales, even ones inspired by real life, included lavish fantasy elements. If Annie’s nightmare had included, say, Sir Dave the knight being locked in a dungeon by a goblin, then it would have meshed far better with the tone of the story.
Now, I am I favor of any ending the gets rid of the “dying of a broken heart” business. It’s lazy writing and it treats previously capable female protagonists like cartoonishly delicate porcelain dolls. (Looking at you, Mr. George “She lost the will to live” Lucas.)
I am not sure if the new ending was inserted on initial release or later on. Selig did not survive 1918, its assets were sold off, including redistribution of Little Orphant Annie. Colleen Moore was also long gone and so the new happy ending had to be cobbled together out of existing footage. We are shown that everything after Annie’s farewell to Dave was just a dream but the editors clearly just sliced off the second half of the farewell scene and used it to create this new ending. Sloppy.
As you can see, the screenplay for Little Orphant Annie leaves much to be desired but I think that most viewers are going to be asking a different question: How is Colleen? Is her performance good?
I am happy to report that even though Moore was young and inexperienced, she managed to do something that even experienced stars found difficult. What was that? She rose above the terrible material.
The two primary inspirations for the film were saccharine slop and the adaptation by Gilson Willets can only be described as amateurish. Moore’s character is the golden-hearted orphan who has appeared in movies for decades and could easily descend into cutesiness. However, while Moore is cute, she is not cutesy and she avoids the sort of hippity-skippity “Oooo, look, a bunny!” nonsense that plagued D.W. Griffith heroines, as well as the obnoxious mugging that Constance Talmadge indulged in.
Moore’s performance is fresh and natural, her easy charm and girl-next-door appearance working in her favor. It’s easy to see that she was ready to move on to the major leagues.
Little Orphant Annie is a bad film with one excellent performance holding it together. Should you see it? It depends on how much you like Colleen Moore. Fans of her work will want to see her earliest available leading role and admire her ability to rise above trite material. Everyone else is advised to stay far, far away. Or the gobble-uns will get them.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★½
Where can I see it?
Little Orphant Annie has been released on DVD by Grapevine.