• Brigette Cook Jones

Little Orphant Annie 1918


In 1918, a silent film would premier with the title, "Little Orphant Annie." This would be the very FIRST of many Annie renditions; however, it is different from all of the rest. This film would solely be based on the James Whitcomb Riley poem, "Little Oprhant Annie," which first appeared in the newspaper, "The Indianapolis Journal," in 1885. This film is also unique in the fact that it is a silent film and comes from the very early years of Hollywood. There are special effects in this film - - but they are very crude. Also what is interesting, is the poet who created the Annie character, James Whitcomb Riley, appears in the film - - even though he has been dead for 2 years by the time it opens.

So just how did this all happen?

Without a doubt, "Little Oprhant Annie" was/is James Whitcomb Riley's most popular and famous work. On a side note, there was a couple who came from Arizona to visit Riley's Boyhood Home yesterday while I was working. They happened to just see the home from their vantage point across the street at the Pizza King - and decided to visit - not knowing (or so they thought) a thing about Riley. I asked them, if they knew any of Riley's works? - "No, I don't believe we do." Have you heard of "Little Orphant Annie?" They replied, "No I don't think so." Using a different tactic, I asked again - "Have you heard of the phrase - 'An the gobblins will get you ef you don't watch out!" - "Oh yes! We have heard of that." - - "Well folks - - that is Riley!" I firmly believe that many people are familiar with Riley - - they just don't know - that they know Riley.

So back to my original story - - "Little Orphant Annie" was Riley's most famous work - and as such when movie scripts, based on Riley's works, were in development - - "Little Oprhant Annie" would be one of them. The Selig Polyscope company of Chicago elected to produce the films - in fact there was supposed to be a series of Riley films, and Nicholas Selig would hire Gilson Willets to wrte the script based on Riley's work.

However, "Little Orphant Annie" wasn't the first of Riley's poems to be made into a movie. That honor would fall to "A Hoosier Romance." This film would also appear in 1918 and would also star Colleen Moore.

Colleen Moore was a young girl who had aspirations to become a movie star. Her uncle, Walter Howey, editor of the Chicago Tribune, would help her in those efforts and see that she got her foot in the door with first D. W. Griffith and then with Nicholas Selig. Colleen was only 19 when she started filming in July of 1918. The story of the script follows both of Riley's "Annie" poems - "Where is Mary Alice Smith" and "Little Orphant Annie." There are a few alterations and some elaborations - most notably an orphanage is added to the script - which was not present in either of Riley's Annie stories. Also we see more interaction between Annie and her Uncle and Aunt - who ultimately and reluctantly turn her over to "Squire Goode" and his wife.

We see that Annie takes on her story telling duties - with both the children at the orphanage and the children in the Goode's home. Here she warns them if they are not good - - the Goblins will get them, and we see scenes of what happens when one little boy doesn't listen to what Annie says. We also see the Uncle and Aunt - change periodically into a goblin and a witch - since these relatives are cruel and unkind - it would be natural that Annie would see them this way.

The movie is also unique in the fact that James Whitcomb Riley narrates the film. Riley, who died in 1916, was filmed for the Centennial of the State of Indiana - - by the Selig Polyscope company. The image is iconic - - Riley is sitting in front of his Indianapolis home with a large group of children surrounding him - while his little poodle, Lockerbie, sits on his lap. Riley talks with the children at length - and since the film is silent - - anything can be used for Riley's dialogue - - including the narration of the Orphant Annie movie.

Lastly, we also see the introduction of "Big Dave." In the "Where is Mary Alice Smith?" poem - Riley introduces a character by the name of David Mason Jefferies - who supposedly steals Annie's heart and is her protector. While in real life there was no David Mason Jefferies - the character brings in a protector for the girl - against the evil from others. "Big Dave" is the one that sees that Annie is placed with "Squire Goode" and his wife (sounds like Reuben and Elizabeth Riley to me) - who has some children that Annie can help oversee, and also help Mrs. Goode with the household chores.

I won't say how the film ends - - as I have seen one version of it - - and apparently there is an extended version that is also available, but more rare.

Most importantly, this film continues to keep "Little Orphant Annie" and Riley alive in the eyes of the public - - a full two years after the poet's death. In Greenfield, the "LIttle Oprhant Annie" film would play at the "Why-Not Theater" - at the same time that there were articles in the newspaper about Mary Alice Smith herself.

Colleen Moore, who is probably remembered to day as the donor of the marvelous fairy castle at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, would plead with Selig to keep her employed as the "Riley Girl." Moore understood that being seen as the "Riley Girl" would give her some associations that would be very important as there were other Riley movies in the works. Little Orphant Annie” was released in December, 1918. It was a popular film. In a Chicago Daily Tribune “Right off the Reel” column from January 12th Mae Tinee (“matinee”) reported “Colleen Moore will divide honors with Thomas Santschi in ‘Little Orphant Annie.’ She was a lovely and unspoiled child the last time I saw her. Let’s hope commendation hasn’t turned her head.”

Yes the reviews for "Little Orphant Annie" were good, very good - - but they were not enough to save the Selig Polyscope company. The company went belly-up - right after the release of the "Little Orphant Annie" film.

The 1918 version of "Little Orphant Annie" would be unique in that this is the only one to be totally based on Riley's works. The movies of "Little Orphant Annie" that would come later - - were all based upon the comic strip - - which would appear in the newspapers in 1924 - a mere six years later after this movies' appearance.

There would be "LIttle Oprhant Annie" movies in 1932 and 1938 - - which were solely based on the comic strip and the radio show. The 1982 movie "Annie" would be based on the Broadway musical of 1977. Of course, the newest version of "Annie" from 2014 - has updated the story even further.

While the new Annie may say, "You are never completely dressed without a smile." The original 1918 Annie still warned - -An the goblins will get you, ef you don't watch out!


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