The members of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful comprise a very erudite crowd (okay, you can take your hands out of your pants pockets now—I’m not asking for money) and they’re no doubt aware that if I were to mention “James Whitcomb Riley” their immediate reaction would be to think of his famous 1885 poem Little Orphant Annie. Even on the off-chance that some cartooners would respond “Who’s J.W. Riley and what does he do when he’s not tending bar?” they’re familiar with the line in poem that reads “An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you ef you don’t watch out!” The legendary work—a favorite of mine when I was a wee lad—is essentially a morality lesson advising children to mind their parents and other authority figures lest they be snatched away by supernatural forces. Yeah. Nothing particularly frightening there. (“Mother…Father? Remember that old bedwetting problem of mine? It’s returned with a vengeance.”)
The rights to many of Riley’s works were purchased by motion picture companies in the teens to adapt to the silver screen, and it was the Selig Polyscope Company (a studio founded by Colonel William Selig that started out in the business making travelogues and industrial shorts) who expressed the major interest in bringing the poet’s literary contributions to theatergoers, notably with A Hoosier Romance in 1918 (sadly, this is a lost film). The studio followed this with an adaptation of Little Orphant Annie that same year—the feature would avail itself of footage of J.W. shot as part of a project involving the state of Indiana’s centennial celebration; “the Hoosier poet” was filmed telling local children the history of the state outside his home in Indianapolis, and what resulted was released to movie screens in June of 1916 (Riley himself passed away a month later). Alas and alack, Little Orphant Annie would be the last feature produced by Selig Polyscope; it was previewed as a Selig title, then went into general release under the banner of the Pioneer Film Corporation and eventually found a home with World Pictures. Annie was re-released in 1926 but despite the dedicated efforts of film historian-preservationist Eric Grayson, he couldn’t find any info on the studio responsible for the reissue.
Back in August of 1916, Grayson—known to his intimates and creditors as “Dr. Film”—initiated a Kickstarter project to restore Little Orphant Annie using a combination of 16mm prints and a surviving 35mm nitrate print (which was already experiencing deterioration). (This released version, by the way, is the longest version commercially available.) It had been a dream project of Eric’s for many years, but he was continually stymied in his efforts to generate any attention. “No one was particularly interested in preserving the film,” he notes, “because it was available on DVD in the form of a cut, murky dupe print that was out of sequence. The film was being unfairly maligned in the marketplace because it was considered substandard.” Grayson knew that if the film were to be restored, 2016 would be the opportune time to do so because it would not only coincide with Indiana’s bicentennial but mark the centennial of James Whitcomb Riley’s passing. Furthermore, the Library of Congress offered the use of two 16mm prints as well as the remaining 35mm footage. No sooner was“nitrate won’t wait” uttered than the effort to pass around the Kickstarter tin cup got underway, generating $10,647 (more than meeting its $10,000 goal) from 227 backers.
The finished restoration was premiered at a showing in Delphi, Indiana in December of 2016, and the DVD version that was the reward for my contribution arrived in the House of Yesteryear a little over a week ago. Here’s an example of the benefits of clean living: I received both the DVD and Blu-ray (Eric explained it was cheaper to send both) of the restored movie, so that was a pleasant little bonus. In the booklet that accompanies the combo pack he references a previous post at his Dr. Film blog by observing: “Those of you who hold this print up against restorations like Casablanca will be disappointed. While Casablanca has 35mm materials, including nitrate negatives, still available from the year of release, there is no negative extant for Little Orphant Annie. The surviving prints are all from the 1926 reissue made to capitalize on Colleen Moore’s stardom.” I knew going in that this refurbishment wasn’t going to be pristine…but what I watched this weekend surpassed any expectations. Eric and the folks who participated in this restoration have done an exemplary job—the movie looks simply amazing.
Little Orphant Annie is believed to be the earliest surviving feature starring Colleen Moore, who would enjoy great stardom in the 1920s with such vehicles as Flaming Youth (1923). Selig Polyscope had cast Moore in the earlier A Hoosier Romance, and had planned to make the actress “the Riley Girl” in subsequent productions but the closing of the studio put the kibosh on that. “It’s easy to see why she became such a popular star,” Eric observed at the time of the Kickstarter project, “since she has a magnetic presence that keeps the viewer’s interest all through the film.” The Little Orphant Annie restoration features an audio commentary from Moore biographer Jeff Codori (he also contributes a history of the film in the liner note booklet) and additional commentary from Grayson and fellow film historian Glory-June Greiff on the film’s restoration. (In addition, Greiff recites Riley’s magnus opus in a brief segment…on a stage where the poet himself once stood.) Contributing the marvelous score to the refurbished version of Annie is the hardest-working man in the silent movie music business, Ben Model.
The plot of the movie is a simple morality play that borrows elements from both the poem and an 1882 story J.W. Riley wrote about the woman who was the inspiration for “Little Orphant Annie”—Mary Alice Smith (Riley’s story is titled “Where is Mary Alice Smith?”). Young Annie (Jean Stone) acquires her “orphant” status at a young age when her mother dies suddenly and she’s sent to the County Orphants…er, Orphans Home. As she matures into womanhood, Annie (Moore) must leave the home and she’s placed in the care of her Uncle Tomps (Harry Lonsdale) and Aunt Elizabeth (Lillian Hayward)—both of whom suffer from serious deficiencies in the parenting department (Annie is subjected to constant physical and mental abuse). Her saviors are a neighboring farmer named Dave Johnson (Tom Santschi) and Squire (Lafe McKee) and Mrs. Goode (Eugenie Besserer); the Goodes (subtle—isn’t it?) take the unwanted waif in (they always have “room for one more”) while Dave is the recipient of a crush from Annie (she often envisions him as a “knight in shining armor”).
Directed by Colin Campbell from a scenario by Gilson Willets, Little Orphant Annie is a most entertaining blend of fantasy and melodrama—the otherworldly elements (depictions of witches, goblins, and other nasties who reside in Annie’s vivid imagination) are doggone impressive for a film of that era (Grayson observes in a featurette that while this sort of thing has now become effortless through CGI, the time-consuming process needed to render this kind of celluloid magic in that era was the very definition of extraordinary), and as I’ve previously stated, the entire presentation (movie, extras, etc.) is polished and would be the envy of any home video release. “If it hadn’t been for Kickstarter, this wouldn’t have happened,” Eric declares in the featurette…and speaking only for myself, I’m glad I was able to contribute a few shekels because the end result was worth it.