I am not a crier. I am intensely passionate, easily moved, deeply emotional, and perceptive but I am not a crier. However there is one thing that has always been able to pull the tears out of me and that is art. And film is one of the arts that can start the waterworks for me. And it often does. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a sad scene or a tragic story to draw a tear. Sometimes it’s simply the beauty of a film or a joyful or triumphant moment in a story.
When I sat down to think about what film I wanted to cover for this blogathon I thought of several movies that make me cry no matter how many times I’ve seen them. I thought of It’s a Wonderful Life, Imitation of Life, Titanic, and even The Lion King. But there was another movie that came to mind that I recently watched and had a good cry over. But it may not be anything you would expect.
My last good cry during a movie was when I watched Little Annie Rooney and it was totally unexpected! The basic summary of Little Annie Rooney according to TCMdb is, “two children of the streets set out to avenge their father’s murder.” IMDb doesn’t even mention the father’s murder and simply states that Annie Rooney and her friends are threatened by a “potentially dangerous street gang.” So going into this movie, I was at least aware of it being about warring street gangs and there being an element of revenge, but I was not prepared at all for the long, emotional scene in which the father’s death actually occurs.
So let’s rewind and start at the beginning.
Little Annie Rooney is a Mary Pickford film in more than one way. Not only is she the star of the film but she also wrote the film under the pseudonym Catherine Hennessey (her maternal grandmother’s name). In Sunshine and Shadow, Mary wrote, “I had a longing to play something human and warm and amusing – something also a little tragic. My choice was Little Annie Roonie.”1 The role she wrote for herself pulled from some of her darkest memories and made for an emotional climax.
The movie opens with two warring gangs of kids. And when I say warring, I mean these kids are throwing bricks at one another! But it appears to be all in good fun for the most part. Soon after the two gangs make peace, we meet Little Annie Rooney’s crush, Joe Kelley, played by Billy Haines. I found her relationship with Joe to be completely human and relatable. I think we all experienced having a crush on someone older than us when we were kids. Joe was an old friend of Annie’s brother but had gotten himself involved with a not so good crowd. This gang isn’t anything like the kid gangs of the neighborhood. These guys are truly up to no good and are being led by a guy fresh out of the slammer. Annie’s brother, torn by his teenage desires to be like his father and to prove himself to his friends, plays it cool with the gang.
The movie reaches its climax when the gang ends up at a wild party and a shootout occurs. In the chaos and dark, it is hard to tell just what happened but the feeling is ominous. A police officer lay dead and the killers are on the run. In the meantime, Annie is preparing for her father’s birthday and is completely unaware of the tragedy that has taken place. However, she is not long to find out.
In the gripping scene, little Annie Rooney prepares a cake and wraps her pitiful handmade scarf for her father for when he returns home. She dances around as she sets the table and eagerly awaits his homecoming. A wrap at the door sends her scurrying under the table and calling out to the knocker to please wait. Standing outside is the officer who must break the news to the girl that her father has been killed. His heart is heavy and it is easy to see that he dreads having to make such a call. Little Annie Rooney, still believing it is her father, calls out for him to come in. She watches as the two feet enter the room. Her excitement dwindles as it starts to dawn on her that it is much too quiet for it to possibly be her father. She peeks out and sees the officer. Her face changes as she starts to put the pieces together, knowing that something is terribly wrong. The officer informs her that her father has been shot and killed.
As Mary wrote, “And how I cried! I was that motherless girl receiving the news that her policeman father had been killed in a gun battle with thugs. I imagined what life would be like without him…This was supposed to be his birthday. I had knitted him a tie with the stripes going in all directions, and he would never wear it now; I had fussed so tenderly over the birthday cake with all the different-size candles sticking up out of it, some long, some short, some skinny, some fat, my idea of a perfect birthday cake, and he would never see it or eat it.”2
This tragic scene is where Mary Pickford, the actress and the human, shines through. Pulling from her own personal tragedies of losing her father and being raised singlehandedly by her loving mother, Pickford shares with us her most honest emotions. To watch her face change from excitement, to anxiety, to shock, and finally to grief is really quite remarkable. The scene feels agonizingly long as we watch Annie Rooney’s world crash around her but it is Pickford’s honesty in expressing that emotion that makes it so heart-wrenching.
Mary explained the mood as she filmed the scene and the surprise visit made by a popular star. “While we were taking that scene Rudolph Valentino unexpectedly walked in on the set one day with a friend from Europe. At any other time his presence would have been thrilling and welcome; but that afternoon it threw me emotionally off balance. It took me hours to get back into the mood of the tragedy of that little girl of twelve. Had it been make-believe and nothing more, I could have turned it on and off at will. But I really was that bereaved little orphan.”3
The movie ends on a happy, feel good note, as is usual for a Mary Pickford film of this time. The pace quickens shortly after the terribly sad scene and we are quickly brought back to high spirits and laughter. But not without some anxiety and sympathy as Annie Rooney makes what she believes to be the ultimate sacrifice for love. After some confusion over whether Joe Kelley was responsible for her father’s death, she discovers that he is innocent. But tragedy strikes again as Kelley is shot and quickly losing blood. Mary offers to give a blood transfusion but believes that she will die because of it. She says goodbye to all of her friends and goes into the operating room full of sorrow and pride. In the end, she wakes up, not without some surprise, and discovers that Joe has made it through the transfusion. And there is a much needed happily ever after at the end.
Other Pickford roles have sad moments that pull at your heart strings but none quite like Little Annie Rooney did for me. Her honesty and raw emotions are what made the scene so different from others she had performed in her career. It sure did hit me hard the first time I watched it. And even on a second watching, I was brought to tears again. It’s a great silent drama that I would recommend to anyone!
1. Mary Pickford, Sunshine and Shadow, (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc), 1955, 156.
2. Ibid, 156-157.
3. Ibid, 157.