Personally, I find Mary Pickford a little frightening, and I find the idea of the 33-year-old actress playing a girl about 20 years her junior even more alarming. Still, I can’t say that Little Annie Rooney — either despite or because of these things — didn’t finally win me over as a charmingly old-fashioned entertainment.
It takes some getting used to that “Little Mary” — with her rouged, “bee-stung” lips — is the tomboy of the tenements. Likewise, the film’s romanticized notions of poverty are also a tough sell. Yet both Little Annie Rooney and Pickford are insidious in how they sneak up on you, and you find yourself involved in the proceedings before you know what’s happening to you. And that may be the secret to why Pickford was the movies’ first superstar.
Actually, Little Annie Rooney is one of her more palatable offerings, largely eschewing the treacly religiosity she too often liked to pour on top of her films. In fact, this tale of slum-girl Annie is surprisingly hard-edged. As noted, it does romanticize poverty — the tenements being a pretty happy spot, all in all — but it doesn’t prettify the physical aspects of its environment. The slums are a fairly desolate-looking place, despite the cheeriness of their inhabitants.
It’s also something of a surprise to find a Pickford vehicle that doesn’t shy away from some fairly rough humor, including a large dose of ethnic jokes. Such things were pretty standard in silent comedy, but are not so common in Pickford’s world. So in many ways, Little Annie Rooney is the perfect example of her films, since it nicely showcases her plucky good humor, yet seems less forced than much of her catalog.
The film is directed by William Beaudine — better known today as “One-Shot” Beaudine for the plethora of B-movies he churned out later in his career; in 1944 alone, he knocked out 10 features! But Little Annie Rooney is also a reminder of what a good director he could be, if given the time and budget. The film is generally never less than entertaining, and sometimes — in its casual sentiment — it can be quite moving without seeming manipulative.
And if you’ve never seen Pickford, this is a great place to start.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke
[Cinema in the Park will show Little Annie Rooney at dark (about 8:45 p.m.) on Saturday, May 22 in downtown Asheville’s Pritchard Park). Musical accompaniment will be provided by Aaron Price & Friends.]