Little Orphant Annie (1918), the latest film restoration by film historian and collector Eric Grayson, is a rare gem for silent film fans–especially those who enjoy falling down research rabbit holes as much as I do. It’s come out at the perfect time–exactly 100 years since its initial release, and 100 years after the death of James Whitcomb Riley, author of the poem “Little Orphant Annie.” It’s the earliest available film that stars Colleen Moore, who within a few years would define “flapper” for a generation. Watching it requires you to put aside any memories of 1977 musicals involving little redheaded girls singing hopeful songs–and even the Little Orphan Annie comic strip, which didn’t debut until 1924.
And considering all the work it took to bring this restoration to DVD, we should count ourselves as very lucky. Originally filmed by the old Selig Polyscope Company, Little Orphant Annie has been available in subpar, fragmented prints on cheap DVDs for some time, but this restoration uses what remains of the original 35mm print combined with two 16mm prints from the Library of Congress. Funds were obtained via Kickstarter, that modern-day wonder. Grayson painstakingly pieced the film back together, cleaning and stabilizing the images and restoring the original tints. His goal was to make the film as accurate to its original 1918 appearance as possible, and when you see the finished result you’ll agree that he did a beautiful job.
In case you’re wondering, yes, “orphant” is the old-timey spelling of “orphan.” It may come across as a bit precious to us today, but it was simply using the title of a classic poem everyone was familiar with back then. The poem was by the famed James Whitcomb Riley, who appears in bookend scenes in the film (the Selig company shot the footage for a 1916 documentary on Indiana, and then reused it for Little Orphant Annie). Known for his wildly popular folksy poems like “The Old Swimmin’ Hole” and “When the Frost Is on the Punkin,” Riley’s work was so familiar to the American public that when he died in 1916 many people felt they had lost a friend.
His “Little Orphant Annie” poem was based on a servant girl who lived with Riley’s family when he was a boy, especially his memories of her telling spooky stories to him and his siblings. These were the kinds of stories that people all over America used to tell in low tones by their firesides–folk tales tinged with the supernatural, usually imparting a useful moral.
Little Orphant Annie is notable not only for Colleen Moore’s fine performance as the precocious young storyteller (it occurred to me that Colleen could’ve played a splendid Anne Shirley), but for its special effects. Dissolves, double exposures, and other in-camera tricks were used to create Annie’s visions of flying witches and mischievous “gobble-uns”–which will “git you / Ef you / Don’t / Watch / Out!” And yes, these creatures are brought to life as your usual creepy 1910s papier-mache-and-tarpaulin horrors (sensitive kids might not like those parts very much!).
It’s not a bad pick for a Halloween film, I dare say. I just might add it to my usual list of October viewing.
Apparently the film was so well-received in its day that for a few years, it was Colleen’s definitive role. Yes, while she’s the quintessential “Jazz Age flapper” to us now, back then when you saw her face you would’ve thought, “hey, it’s Orphant Annie!”
As a whole, Little Orphant Annie is a unique example of one of the things that draws me to silent film the most–its preservation of a rural past that’s now almost forgotten, with all its folks tales and dialects and “quaint” old customs. In 1918, of course, the film was actually being nostalgic for an even earlier time, typified by the work of the much-loved Riley. That in itself is also interesting to me.
Plus, there’s the spectacle of thosee “gobble-uns”–once you see ’em, you don’t forget ’em.
The DVD/Blu-ray combo includes a booklet with Eric Grayson’s notes on the restoration and a splendid essay by Moore biographer Jeff Codori. I really appreciate it when DVD booklets give plenty of background details, and this one really brought the film’s context to life. Other goodies includes two commentary tracks, a featurette from the restoration’s premiere, and a reading of Riley poems by historian Glory-June Greiff. It can be purchased on Amazon.
Many thanks to Eric Grayson for sending me a screener of this restoration! I’m delighted to have this significant film in my collection.