Flicker Alley has once again made a great contribution to the recovery of silent cinema by releasing two restorations of films starring Mary Pickford.
Pickford was an extraordinarily successful figure of the era. Her enormous popularity as a star lasted from her days acting in Griffith Biograph films into the early sound period. She was one of the four founding artists of United Artists. Indeed, she was the new distribution company’s mainstay for a time, as her co-founders, Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith (seen above watching her sign the contract) worked off their commitments to other distributors or made films that were less than successful (notably Chaplin’s 1923 A Woman of Paris). After retiring from acting, Pickford strove to retain prints of all the films she had been in, hoping to guarantee their ultimate survival.
One of Flicker Alley’s two films, Little Annie Rooney (1925, dir. William Beaudine) was restored from a nitrate print in her collection, held at the Library of Congress. The other, Fanchon the Cricket (1915, dir. James Kirkwood), she and everyone else feared was lost. In 2012, however, the Mary Pickford Foundation discovered that the Cinémathèque française had a nitrate copy of Fanchon, and, with contributions from an incomplete nitrate print at the British Film Institute, a restoration was achieved at l’Immagine Ritrovata labs in Bologna. Both films come in a dual edition of DVD and Blu-ray, accompanied by new scores and program booklets. Both are region-free. The visual qualify of both restorations is excellent.
The two films are dramatically different from each other. Fanchon is set in 19th Century rural France, while Little Annie Roonie takes place in contemporary New York. Still, in each Pickford plays a wild young woman–young meaning almost child-like in her innocence and aggressive behavior–and yet one ready to step abruptly into romance and marriage.
Fanchon the Cricket
The origin of the film dates back to Georges Sand’s 1849 novel, La petite Fadette, written in collaboration with François le Champi. (“Fadette” apparently refers to a girl with fairy-like powers.) Set in the 19th Century French countryside, it marked Sand’s return to a focus on the rural poor. The novel was translated into English immediately and republished repeatedly with various titles in later translations, most recently in 2017.
In 1861, an English-language adaptation as a play, Fanchon the Cricket, by August Waldauer premiered in New Orleans to great success. (“Fanchon” roughly means someone who is free.) Its star, Maggie Mitchell, apparently the Pickford of her day, continued to tour in the role for over thirty years, still playing the teenage heroine into her 50s. She died in 1918 at aged 85 and thus may have seen Pickford play the role on the screen. (Numerous actresses had also starred as Fanchon in the popular play. There was a 1912 film version from IMP.)
Fanchon tells a remarkably unclassical story for 1915, a year in which the classical Hollywood style was well on its way to maturity. There is relatively little plot. The action takes place in an unspecified rural area of France in the 19th Century. Landry, the son of a rich local family, has become engaged to Madelon. During the celebrations, we are introduced to Fanchon, a waif living in the forest with her grandmother, who has a reputation as a witch. Fanchon is torn between her desire for friendship and her mischievous antagonism with the young people of the area, who fear her.
These young people seem perpetually to be celebrating the engagement or local saints’ days, venturing out into the forest for picnics and dances, despite the fact that they seem unreasonably frightened by Fanchon’s presence there. Repeatedly they encounter her, who deliberately tries to scare them, then awkwardly dresses up in her mother’s outmoded clothes and tries aggressively to join their frolics.
Despite Landry’s engagement, he is reluctantly drawn to her, especially when she saves him from drowning in a lake. Only late in the plot do we discover key premises. First, Fanchon’s grandmother had been forbidden to marry Landry’s uncle, her true love, which led her to her current hermit-like existence. Second, Fanchon, who has been actively luring Landry away from his fiancée, would never marry him without his father’s consent. These are things that a classically constructed plot would set up much earlier, creating tension that is singularly lacking in this film. Still, all ends well.
The film is almost entirely shot outdoors, in the fields, forests, and lakes of Pennsylvania, with resulting beautiful compositions (see bottom).
Pickford fans probably know that Fanchon the Cricket is the only film in which all three Pickfords played. Lottie is Madelon (above left), the petulant betrothed of the hero, Landry, and Jack plays a young bully whom Fanchon fights when she sees him tormenting Landry’s “half-wit brother” (above right).
Little Annie Roonie
The films begins with an expository title: “Up town a gang calls itself ‘Society’–down town a gang calls itself a ‘Gang’ and lets it go at that. –Let’s go down town!” The opening scene then shows two groups of kids caught up in a street fight. The whole thing is comic, if pretty intense, and its only female participant is Annie Roonie, apparently a youngish child, played by Pickford. Her allies are an ethnically diverse bunch, including Abie Levy (above, played by Spec O’Donnell, who played so many mischievous-son roles in Max Davidson’s Jewish comic shorts of the 1920s). Pickford called her young cast a “mini League of Nations.” These youngsters are more than background decoration, with some of them having roles to play in the action, as when Abie’s family comforts Annie after her father is shot.
Although the opening part of the film is typical Pickford comedy, there are grown-up gangs in the plot as well, with Annie’s brother drawn into bad company, despite their widowed father being an Irish cop. Indeed, the narrative shifts into what is nearly a Von Sternberg film. There’s an atmospheric scene in a dance-hall where the father is gunned down by a lurking thug and Annie’s love interest (turns out she’s not as young as her behavior would suggest) gets blamed because he happens to be standing by Roonie at the time.
The lighting in these and other shots is impressive–not surprisingly, given that Pickford was very particular about the photography for her films. Her regular cinematographer, Charles Rosher, was one of the tops in the field during the silent era. Hal Mohr assisted, and the results beautifully employ the three-point lighting system developed during the late 1910s and 1920s.
Little Annie Roonie was a success, showing that Pickford could lure in the audience with her accustomed youthful comedy and then transition into a more serious plot that showed off her dramatic abilities as well.
Flicker Alley’s press announcement states that these two releases are the “first of a planned series of Mary Pickford films that showcase the breadth and depth of her talents as well as that of the finest behind-the-camera craftspeople of the time.” Given Pickford’s prolific output, one can only hope that this series goes on and on.
A new edition of our e-book Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages has just gone into production at the hands of our web tsarina Meg Hamel. It updates our discussion of Nolan’s career by including a brand-new chapter on Interstellar and one on Dunkirk that revises and expands our blog entries on the film (here and here).
The book also includes a new chapter surveying Nolan’s approach to filmic storytelling, along with more links and frame enlargements. I wrote the bulk of this second edition, with Kristin contributing portions on exposition in Inception and Dunkirk.
As in the first edition, I try to respond to the objections that some viewers have about Nolan’s work. I grant some problems with his films, chiefly at the level of visual style. But I also try to make a case that Nolan has been exploring film narrative in ways that are significant for film history. I argue that his achievement contributes to storytelling trends of his moment (from the 1990s on) and in art and literature more generally. His work is shaped by what I call a “formal project,” akin to that we find in Alain Resnais and Hong Sangsoo.
Nolan’s detractors are likely to counter that those directors are better than Nolan. But they work in different circumstances. In the context of mass-audience Hollywood cinema, I think Nolan’s work repays scrutiny.
I’m mostly offering analysis, not evaluation. I have to admit, though, that in reworking the book and rewatching the films, I’ve come to extend my admiration for certain projects (The Prestige, Dunkirk) to others, especially Interstellar. Still, even if you don’t share my regard for the films, I think that it’s worth discussing what Nolan’s accomplishment shows about trends in modern cinema and the broader possibilities of filmic storytelling.
Which is to say, yet again, that Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages 2.0 is primarily a venture in film poetics.
We hope to make the new edition available this month or in January. It would be priced higher than the current edition, at $3.99 (i.e., the cost of a Tall Caramel Frappucino). This pays for a new design for the book, one exploiting the horizontal format for widescreen frame enlargements. We won’t be embedding video extracts in the text, as we did last time, but we may set up the clips as online links.
To the hundreds of you who bought copies over the years, thank you. We appreciate your support, and we hope that the new edition will also be worth the attention of the readers who visit this site.
Just to be clear, we’ve also welcomed the narrative explorations of Resnais and Hong Sangsoo on our website, and in our research more generally.
You probably know Henry Jenkins’ vast website “Confessions of an Aca-Fan.” It hosts blog entries, essays, interviews, and a podcast. As both a media scholar (the aca part) and a connoisseur (the fan), Henry has wide-ranging interests. He analyzes/enjoys/celebrates/criticizes film, TV, comics, music, and videogames (he testified about them to Congress). He’s also a big advocate for the role of media in education and political change.
Soon enough he followed that with another influential book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The idea of “transmedia storytelling” that Henry set forth here became a byword for the media industry as well as for scholars; his prophecy that we’d see a lot more of it has come true with a vengeance. We had a nifty dialogue about the idea online some years back (here and here).
And these are just three of his seventeen books! Henry is an epic multitasker, so he has found the energy to be an inspiring teacher as well. All of us at Wisconsin are thoroughly proud of him.
Naturally, when Henry asked me to participate in an email interview around my two 1940s books, The Rhapsodes and Reinventing Hollywood, I felt honored. Now he has run our conversation in four installments on his site, starting here.
I hope the answers I provide will shed light on my research projects. (As for the fan part: Yes, The Greatest Showman and Game Night are mentioned.) At the least I think people will learn a lot from Henry’s questions. Thanks to him for reigniting the spark of conversations we’ve had over the years.