LITTTLE ORPHANT ANNIE – A Blu-ray/DVD Review by John Strange
I love reviewing the old silent films. They give me a glimpse at the film business during its infancy. Many films, if not most of them, are long forgotten by the general public. Only a few films like Birth of a Nation are still known.
Over the last few months I have Ben able to bring you a few films restored with new music tracks by Ben Model. Recently he let us know that Eric Grayson had completed the restoration of Little Orphant Annie. Ben composed a new score for the film.
What excited me the most about this film is that it was the last film made by the Selig Polyscope Company and William N. Selig. Selig produced the film with Colin Campbell directing. At 57 minutes and five reels, this was a long film for the day. The filmmakers produced special effect I have not seen in other silent films like phantom characters appearing in the background and at one point, a man's clothes appear to change into a suit of shiny armor.
The story of Little Orphant Annie should not be confused with the Little Orphan Annie you might know from the comics, plays, or movies. This story comes from the writings of Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley. He wrote the poem upon which the movie is based. Originally about a young girl, Mary Alice Smith, who worked for the Riley family in the mid-1800's, the story of Little Orphant Annie was published in 1885. The original title was "The Elf Child", Riley changed the title before the third printing to "Little Orphant Annie".
The poem, like so many stories modified for the big screen, saw many changes. As written, it would have been perhaps a two reel film. The film's story starts in a tenement where a little girl (Jean Stone as the young Annie) witnesses her mother die. Neighbors take her to an orphanage where she lives happily for several years.
Sadly, children must leave the orphanage when they get to a certain age. Normally they would be placed in homes as a maid or cook. In Annie's case, the orphanage found out about an uncle who was still alive. Her uncle arrives and finally agrees to take her home with him.
Uncle Tomps (Harry Lonsdale) and Aunt Elizabeth (Lillian Hayward) are very clearly evil or at least amoral. Their treatment of the young Annie (Colleen Moore) is horrible. So horrible, in fact, that Big Dave (Tom Santschi) steps in and threatens to kill her uncle if he ever hits her again.
Sadly, the bad treatment doesn't end there. But the story gets better when Squire Goode (Lafe McKee) and his wife (Eugenie Besserer) agree to adopt her. Her life with the Goode's is, well, good.
Some of the best parts of this movie are the stories of witches and "gobble'uns" the young girl tells, complete with some amazing special effects that I would never have thought were possible with the cameras and technology of the era. Some of the effect required the camera operator to know how far to back the film up all the while the people in the scene must stay perfectly still while the scene is shot a second time with additional people/creatures in it.
How do I know about this? I watched BOTH of the commentary tracks. One was by the man who was responsible for restoring the film, Eric Grayson, and historian Glory-June Greiff. The other, possibly the best of the two, was by Jeff Codori, Colleen Moore's biographer.
In Jeff's commentary I learned that Colleen left school at a young age and went to LA to try her hand at acting. She wanted more than anything to do Little Orphant Annie for Selig. It was her first leading role after only made a small number of films. This was a testament to her talent.
After watching Eric's commentary, I truly saw all of the flaws in the restoration. Previous to watching with Eric's commentary, I had missed them all as I was drawn so deeply into the story that they slipped right past me. His commentary also talked about how difficult it was to restore this film as most of the 35mm prints had deteriorated so badly that they could only use small amounts form them. He also utilized several 16mm prints. The footage from this source had to be not only restored but enlarged to a 35mm ration to match the other footage.
The film that Eric and his team's work created is a film well worth watching. The story flows well and the recreated opening titles look great. The featurette extras are a mixed bag. The first is a featurette made at the December 10, 2016, premiere of the film starring Eric Grayson where he talks about the job of restoring the film. The second is Glory-June Greiff reciting a couple of poems by James Whitcomb Riley.
Speaking of Mr. Riley, he was a beloved poet in Indiana. The footage used in the film was shot by William Selig for the 1916 Indiana Centennial. The poet came back to his family home from Florida for the shoot. Sadly, Mr. Riley died several months after the footage was shot.
For silent film buffs, this is a must have. For everyone else, especially all of you lovers of horror in all its various formats, I think you will love this film just as much.
Colleen Moore, Tom Santschi, Harry Lonsdale, Eugenie Besserer, Doris Baker, Baby Lillian Wade, Ben Alexander, Billy Jacobs, George Hupp, James Whitcomb Riley, Mae Gaston, Lillian Hayward, Lafe McKee, Jean Stone
Original piano score by Ben Model.
Commentary by Jeff Codori, Colleen Moore's biographer, on Moore and the history of the film.
Commentary by Eric Grayson and Glory-June Greiff on the restoration and the background of poet James Whitcomb Riley.
Interview with Eric Grayson at the premiere of the restoration.
Glory-June Greiff reads Little Orphant Annie and excerpts from Where is Mary Alice Smith?, both of which are referenced in the film.
Slick 16-page booklet with pictures and more background information on the film.
Selig Polyscope Company
Pioneer Film Corp.
Blu-ray/DVD Release Date:
Theatrical Release Date:
A/1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Selig Rating Scale:
BRAND NEW: Should add to your DVD collection at any cost
SALE ITEM: Worth owning, but try to catch it a sale
SECOND HAND: Plan to get it, but wait to buy it used
RENTAL: Worth taking a look at, but not owning
COASTER: Pick it up at a garage sale and use it for drinks
PULL!: Makes a great Trap Shooting target