Sunday, December 7, 2014

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Annie (1982)

I decided to watch this version of Annie as a refresher in case I felt like seeing the new one due out this month.  (I'm wavering: on the one hand, Quevenzhane Wallis was adorable in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but on the other hand, clips of Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan were disturbing.)

When I was little, I adored Annie.  Adored it.  Some of my earliest drawings were of blank-eyed, curly-haired Annie from the comics and her pointy-eared canine friend, Sandy.  I was Annie for Halloween.  I listened to and sang all of the songs all the time for what seemed like two years.

Then when I watched it again a few years ago?  Eh.  Looking back, I think what really drew me to Annie was aspiration.  Who wouldn't want to be a plucky orphan living in luxury with her adoring "Daddy" Warbucks?  Then there were the songs, the colors, those dance numbers.  In many ways, Annie was an antecedent to Punky Brewster, which premiered a few years later and also featured a plucky orphan in colorful surroundings.  As a kid, I looked up to both as role models.  As an adult, I see their flaws.

Annie has a lengthy history in American pop culture.  It began as a comic strip in 1924 entitled "Little Orphan Annie," where Annie lived in an orphanage run by Miss Asthma before being taken in by "Daddy" and Mrs. Warbucks.  A typical adventure involved Daddy Warbucks being drawn away on business, and Annie getting kidnapped or otherwise going on a big adventure.  At some point, Mrs. Warbucks was dropped, and Daddy Warbucks killed off, only to be resurrected after 1945.  Then in 1978 came Annie the musical, starring Andrea McArdle in the title role.  The musical established characters like Grace Farrell and Miss Hannigan, and in many ways seemed like a finger in the eye of the comic strip.  While the comic book creator, Harold Gray, was vehemently libertarian and anti-New Deal, the musical practically rubs the viewer's face in pro-New Deal sentiment, with Annie meeting President Roosevelt and the final number being "A New Deal for Christmas."  The movie would maintain most of the musical's changes, though it left out a number of songs, including "A New Deal for Christmas" and "NYC," while adding songs like "Let's Go to the Movies" and "Dumb Dog."  It also added characters from the comic strip, such as Daddy Warbucks's body guards, Punjab and the Asp.

Never understood why cartoon Sandy looked so
different from live Sandy when I was a kid...
I watched Annie again recently to see if I felt warmer toward it than before.  I determined that while the movie has many strengths, it also has a giant curly-haired stone around its neck that drags it down to the bottom of the pond, which is why I put it on the Wrong list.

Plot Synopsis

Annie is a 10 or 11 year old orphan living in an all-girls orphanage in 1930s New York City, run by the drunk, abusive Miss Hannigan.  Annie believes that her parents are still alive and will come for her someday, based on a note and a broken locket around her neck.  She repeatedly escapes the orphanage to go look for them, only to be dragged back by a corrupt cop.  One day, Grace Ferrell, secretary to the billionaire, Oliver Warbucks, appears at the orphanage seeking an orphan to spend a week with her boss for the sake of positive publicity.  Annie convinces Grace to take her and Sandy, and quickly manages to work her way into Oliver Warbucks's intimidating heart.  But when Warbucks tries to adopt her, Annie confesses that she's still holding out hope that her real parents will come for her.  Oliver Warbucks launches a nationwide search for them, drawing the attention of Miss Hannigan's loser brother, "Rooster", and his girlfriend, Lily.  All three concoct a scheme where Rooster and Lily will pretend to be Annie's long-lost parents in exchange for $50,000.

The Good

Lavish Production Values.  Annie has a lot of classy sets, from 1930s New York to the lavish Warbucks estate to even the White House.  The atmosphere of Depression Era New York is convincingly invoked, even if it does seem as though there are dog catchers and policemen hovering around every corner.

And there's dancing.  Lots of dancing.  Annie production numbers are filled with orphans doing backflips, servants swinging large brooms, and secretaries kicking up their legs.  In one memorable moment, the gardener for the Warbucks estate takes a flower and does a complex series of spin moves before climbing a wall to hand it to Annie.  There's something corny and ridiculous about it all, but at the same time, it's fun to watch and gives the movie a much-needed energy boost.

I also like the nods to the original comic strip, with Punjab and the Asp, as well as the moment where the "Bolshevik" throws a bomb into Oliver Warbucks's office and his bodyguards calmly dispose of it before it explodes.  (Though in the 1930s, wouldn't they be called "Communists"?)

Annie's "Sisters".  Whatever you might think of Annie's orphanage, it couldn't have been too horrible with orphans to hang out with like Molly, Duffy, and even Pepper.  These girls have your back.  They help Annie hide in a laundry basket to escape, smuggle Sandy inside the orphanage, and risk their necks repeatedly in order to warn Annie of Rooster and Lily's scheme.  They even make servitude look fun in "It's the Hard-Knock Life," easily the best song in the musical (sorry, "Tomorrow").  Who wouldn't want to mop the floors while doing aerial cartwheels?

While the girls as a whole are pretty cool, the standout to me is little Molly.  Toni Ann Gisondi, the actress who plays her, is capable of being vulnerable one minute and feisty the next, all the while a thousand times more natural than Aileen Quinn, who plays Annie.  I'm a little surprised and sad that she didn't go on to many other roles.  If Annie were played by Gisondi, I might actually care what happened to her.    

Most of the Adults.  As a kid, I just thought Miss Hannigan seemed threatening and didn't come to fully appreciate Carol Burnett's performance until recently.  She bobs and weaves through the orphanage, loathing kids and loathing herself, almost more indifferent than purposely cruel.  (Compare her to Kathy Bates's Miss Hannigan in the 1999 TV version, who seems more sober and ruthless.)  She's a kid's worst nightmare and an adult's greatest amusement.  That said, I thought her eleventh-hour burst of conscience was contrived, and she got off too easily for the damage she caused.

Most of the other adults fare well.  Albert Finney's Oliver Warbucks provides the growth and change and range of emotions that Annie never gives.  Quite a feat for someone who spends half of the movie screaming.  Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters are sadly underused as Rooster and Lily, but any movie is better off with them in it.  Ann Reinking provides much needed warmth and some nifty dance moves as Grace Farrell.

The Bad

Pointless Dull Sequences.  The movie has pacing problems that seem to have been self inflicted.  Most baffling was the choice to cut "NYC" from the musical in exchange for "Let's Go to the Movies."  Yes, let's go to the movies and sit in a disconcertingly large, empty theatre until it's time to watch segments of a boring black-and-white movie.  (I'm sure I'd enjoy Camille now, but as a kid?)  It certainly doesn't compare to the warmth and energy of "NYC."

Other drawn out moments include the orphans debating a name for a dog that already has one (complete with one orphan singing "Rover!  Why not think it over?" like she's a finalist in American Idol).  "Dumb Dog" was already kind of a lame addition, and then they basically extended it.

Annie Is a Creepy, Manipulative Little Shit.  Though this movie has other weaknesses, what puts it on the Wrong list is Annie herself.  As played by Aileen Quinn, Annie is, as Roger Ebert once put it, "the sort of child who makes adults run for the hills."  I know it must be tough to cast an actress for a role as iconic as Little Orphan Annie, akin to finding someone to play the onscreen version of Shirley Temple.  I know that Little Orphan Annie represents pluckiness and independence, that she was played onstage by the big-voiced Andrea McArdle.  But a movie requires different things, characters and moments to be smaller and more intimate.  Annie could be a construct in the comics or even onstage, but she should be a recognizable person in the movie.

And Aileen Quinn's Annie just isn't.  You can't fully blame Quinn, who was a kid giving it her all.  More fault lies with the director, John Huston, and the casting director for failing to find someone who, in addition to projecting spunkiness, could also naturally project sweetness and vulnerability.  With Quinn's Annie, all you get is spunkiness.  When she comforts Molly, when she talks about her parents, when she interacts with Oliver Warbucks or Grace Farrell, I don't believe for one moment that she gives a shit.  She recites her lines in the same style every time, like Marcia Brady in a school play.  To quote Ebert: "She seems more like the kind of kid who will get this acting out of her system and go on to be student body president."

If Annie doesn't naturally come across as a good kid, her actions take on a different flavor.  When she convinces Grace Farrell to take her to live with Oliver Warbucks, you can't blame her, but did she ever give thought to any of her orphan "sisters" like Molly?  When she convinces Oliver Warbucks that Grace Farrell likes him, is she looking out for Grace, or just stoking mischief?  For that matter, does she ever really think about anyone else?  How often do we see her truly missing the other orphans?  There is one moment where she decides belatedly to give them her "rich" clothes as she goes to leave with her supposed real parents.  But after the other orphans walked miles to warn Oliver Warbucks about Rooster and Lily and pretty much saved her life, she blows them off at her 4th of July rescue bash.

Compare Aileen Quinn's Annie with Alicia Morton's in the 1999 version.  Morton's Annie is more toned down and wouldn't look as natural on a cereal box, but who can't help feeling for her as she sings "Tomorrow"?  Aileen Quinn's Annie has a pleasant delivery with moments of toughness when the scene calls for it, but she's empty enough that you wonder whether this spunky orphan could be a closet sociopath.      

If the viewer doesn't care about Annie, then it becomes baffling why people go to such lengths for her.  Covering up for her when she escapes.  Buying out Radio City Music Hall so she can attend a movie.  Launching a national search for her parents.  Risking their safety to warn her.  Launching a full-on search for her.  At one point, I was on the side of Rooster and Lily.  What does that tell you?

That Annie is supposed to be spunky and tough is a given.  But she should also have a soul, and this Annie doesn't.  As a result, scenes that should be affirming, like when Grace sings "We've Got Annie," just seem leaden and pointless.  

Random Thought.  Annie has curly red hair and so does Miss Hannigan.  Maybe Miss Hannigan's reasons for being possessive and resentful aren't because she thinks Annie is a little shit who should be shown her place, but because Annie is really her daughter!  Maybe to avoid being fired, she pretended Annie was just another orphan in her care.  Yeah, I like that.  I'll go with that...


I'm not sure any version of Annie would have been a favorite.  However, I'd at least prefer a version where I actually want Annie to succeed, instead of having feelings ranging from indifference to hostility.   

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the OperaEvitaRENTAcross the UniverseRock of AgesHairspray, Jersey Boys

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: DreamgirlsLes MiserablesChicagoMamma

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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