Hoodoo Ann (1916)
This early production from Triangle Film Corporation stars Mae Marsh, fresh from the set of “Intolerance,” and was produced by D.W. Griffith, at the time when his name could sell a picture by itself. A bit oddly structured for a melodrama, it gives Marsh opportunities to show a range of emotion and development.
The film begins in an orphanage, where the twenty-two-year-old Marsh plays Ann as a younger girl in the fashion set by Mary Pickford. She is the least popular girl at the orphanage and is also treated cruelly by the staff for some reason, made to do chores like scrubbing the kitchen floor while the others are at recess. It is never explained why her status should be different from any other orphan, except that the African American cook (Madame Sul-Te-Wan) one night reads her palm and tells her she is “hoodooed” until she gets married – “And then you won’t need no hoodoo to make trouble.” One day she steals a doll from Goldie, one of the other orphans (Mildred Harris, future first wife of Charlie Chaplin), accidentally breaks it and hides it, then is wracked with guilt over lying about it. Her opportunity to redeem herself comes when a fire breaks out at the orphanage, and Goldie for some reasons sleeps through the alarm. Ann runs back into the building and saves the still-snoozing Goldie. She wins praise and a couple who recently lost their own child adopts her on the spot.
Living in her new home, everything seems idyllic for a time. Although she is awkward and uncultured, the Knapps show her affection and are impressed by her cleaning skills. They buy her the clothes she wants out of fashion magazines. And, she meets Jimmy, the boy next door, a struggling cartoonist played by Robert Harron. He takes her on a date to watch a movie. They se a Western in the vein of “The Perils of Pauline” in which the woman is the hero, rescuing the male lead from a near-lynching by shooting off the tree branch he was to be hanged from. Ann is thrilled, and when she finds a loaded (!) gun in the attic, she starts playing gunslinger. Of course, the gun goes off and she follows her previous instinct to hide her involvement. But, she does go across the street to see her neighbor lying on the floor, apparently hit by the stray bullet. When his wife comes home, she does not find a body, but also cannot find her husband. The discovery of blood on the porch makes Ann (and the police) suspect the worst. Ann tells Jimmy she can’t marry him, but won’t say why. Because Mrs. Higgins has a history of arguing with her husband, the police begin to question her. Ann rushes over to confess all when Mr. Higgins, back from an overnight bender, stumbles in. The neighborhood boys bring the Higgins’s cat back with its arm bandaged – apparently the shot hit it and this explains the blood stain. The final scene shows Ann and Jimmy’s wedding. For some reason, after the preacher finishes, Ann is compelled to ask, “Is it over?” before the movie can end.
Griffith biographer Richard Schickel says this movie “bears evidence of his directorial hand,” despite Lloyd Ingraham being officially credited. He’s more qualified to say than I am, but evidently Mae Marsh only got a starring role thanks to Griffith’s intervention. At first, I was struck by how ungainly and awkward she seemed next to Mildred Harris, who is more petite (and also wears makeup, despite playing a child), but as she transformed during the course of the film I came to see that this was deliberate. Her first attempt at a “fashionable” outfit is an outrageous parody of the style of the day, but by the time she and Harron are dating, she has toned it down and become the lovely young woman we expect. I was also slightly annoyed by how infantile her behavior is at the start of the movie – she seems to have no idea that cozying up to someone working needlepoint is a good way to get stuck with a pin, and when she falls down shortly after meeting Harron, she raises her arms like a toddler asking to be picked up – but again, there is development over the course of the film, and this first part establishes that without love or attention, she has never known how to behave. Once that comes, she remains innocent, but increasingly confident, until the final accident takes place. There is something a bit creepy about a grown woman playing with dolls for an audience, though. Somehow it feels like a fetish from the 19-teens.
I mentioned the structure and pacing, however, and that needs to be discussed. The actual conflict of the film, the question of whether Ann will confess having shot Mr. Higgins, doesn’t come up until the final 15-20 minutes of a one-hour movie. The beginning is somewhat sadistic, as we know everything she does is going to backfire, until she saves Goldie and then things are just a little too perfect to hold much interest. When things finally happen, the development is quick and effective, if a bit contrived. The idea that detectives would start giving a possible widow the third degree before even finding a body or establishing whether a bloodstain was even human may be more realistic in some communities than we’d like to believe; the idea that a childless couple will rescue the ugly duckling from an orphanage on sight in the middle of a fire is a bit harder to swallow. And, really, with all the ways that bullet could go, it happened to hit a cat, the smallest target, in such a way as not to kill it? And Ann gets no punishment for concealing her part in the accident?
My favorite part of the movie, of course, is the part that takes place in a movie theater. We see quite a bit of the “movie-within-a-movie,” which seems to be poking fun at a number of different tropes of the era. More importantly, we get a look at what an audience of that time accepted as a realistic depiction of a small-town movie theater. By 1916 some “movie palaces” were starting to spring up in larger cities, but this is a much more intimate affair, with a small screen and a pianist near the bottom right corner. The seats are fixed in place, unlike the folding chairs we often saw in movies with Nickelodeons, and they may be angled a bit so that people in back rows can see over the heads of those in front (it’s hard to tell from the camera angle). Ingraham (or Griffith) uses a back-and-forth editing sequence to show the movie and the audience’s reactions, giving us some of the only close-ups of Marsh and Harron that we see in this sequence. Harron was a bit of a scene-stealer; I often found myself watching him react when Ann was supposed to be the center of action. Perhaps this is a marker of his star power and acting, which holds up 100 years later.
Director: Lloyd Ingraham (D.W. Griffith listed as “producer”)
Starring: Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Mildred Harris, Elmo Lincoln, Madame Sul-Te-Wan
Run Time: 1 Hr, 4 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music, weird double-image)