Leapin’ lizards! The award winning Broadway musical based on Harold Gray’s comic strip reached the silver screen with legendary director John Huston at the helm. In mid-thirties, Depression era New York, feisty, redheaded little orphan Annie (Aileen Quinn) leads a hard knock life at the Hudson Street Home for Girls, run by boozy headmistress Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett). Miss Hannigan bullies the girls into backbreaking work, but amidst the drudgery Annie stays optimistic, befriends a lovable mutt named Sandy, and dreams of reuniting with her long-lost parents. To foster a humanitarian image, billionaire businessman Oliver Warbucks (Albert Finney) agrees to let an orphan spend one week at his palatial mansion, and his kindly secretary, Grace Farrell (Ann Reinking) chooses Annie (much to Miss Hannigan’s disgust). After a frosty start, Annie’s sunny disposition gradually melts Warbucks’ heart. She kindles romance between Warbucks and lovely Grace, convinces him to support President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and donates “Tomorrow”, her own show-stopping hymn to positive thinking as its anthem. Annie turns down Warbucks’ offer to make her his ward, and clings to her dream. But Warbucks’ offer of a $50,000 reward draws Hannigan’s con artist brother Rooster (Tim Curry) and his girlfriend Lily (Bernadette Peters). Posing as Annie’s parents, they abscond with Warbucks’ money and his beloved little girl. Thanks to the combined intervention of Annie’s orphan friends, Sandy, and Warbucks’ Indian manservant Punjab (Geoffrey Holder) everything turns out okay.
Nostalgia strikes again. Frequent childhood viewings of this sprightly musical left this writer more inclined to love it than most. Columbia Pictures paid a whopping $9.5 million for the film rights to Annie, the highest sum ever paid for a Broadway show. The stage version, produced by Mike Nichols, was a huge financial success and racked up numerous awards. However, Columbia’s agreement to postpone filming until the show ended its run, and the studio’s subsequent involvement in a check-forging scandal meant the movie was much delayed. Huston’s film, while not the blockbuster Columbia were hoping for, was not the flop it’s often made out to be. Detractors fall into two camps: those who prefer the Broadway show (adapted more faithfully by Rob Marshall in 1999), and cynics for whom the concept itself is the living embodiment of hell. As someone who does not have an aversion to ginger moppets or singing orphans, my take on Huston’s Annie is it’s bright, bouncy fun, with zestful performances all round.
Prior to this, Huston’s only experience with musicals were dance sequences in his Toulouse Lautrec biopic Moulin Rouge (1953) (Although he always wanted to make one). Huston is no Stanley Donen, some of his framing and staging is a little bland, failing to capture the energy of his cast. But one could hardly dismiss the man who made The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) as a hack. The “Let’s Go to the Movies” number lovingly evokes Busby Berkeley, “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile” packs a lot of pep, and the grand finale has Finney and Quinn tap-dancing up a storm amidst a delightful, circus atmosphere. The songs by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin are as appealing as ever. Parallels have been drawn between the rousing “Tomorrow” (indeed the show’s whole ethos) and Ronald Reagan’s presidential ad campaign “It’s Morning in America”. But this isn’t right-wing rhetoric. Unlike Rob Marshall, Huston has a real feel for Depression-era America (Note his cutaways to a forlorn crowd watching Grace, and later Warbucks get out of a limousine - both of whom are visibly stricken by glimpses of poverty), and captures the sincerity and can-do optimism of the Roosevelt years.
Some critics claim Huston’s sympathies lie with the villains, likening the film to Oliver Twist retold by Fagin. While a splendid Carol Burnett draws shreds of sympathy for her tragicomic monster (and even redeems herself at the climax), there is little evidence to show Huston doesn’t adore his heroes. Annie herself, like Sam Spade or Rose Sayer before her, is a fittingly Hustonian protagonist: a headstrong adventurer clinging to a dream, but who eventually trades false illusion for a dose of reality. Aileen Quinn performs with gusto, imbuing her songs with verve and emotion, although it’s a matter of personal taste whether one finds the character infuriating or enchanting. She’s paired with a fantastic Albert Finney, who proves similarly emotive, doing wonders with a gesture or a glance. Again his performance feels more real than showbiz. Broadway divas Ann Reinking and Bernadette Peters add a lot of class to proceedings, while the orphan girls are worth singling out. Roseanne Sorrentino (who played Annie on stage from 1980-81) as Pepper, Lara Berk as Tessie, April Lerman as Kate, Robin Ignico as Duffy, Lucie Stewart (a British actress) as July, and especially little Toni Ann Gisondi as Molly, are terrific. Huston must love them too, because he keeps cutting back to their antics at the orphanage (Disrupting the narrative flow, but what the hay). Their bouncy, wide-eyed rendition of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” has always been a personal favourite.
Far from a disaster, Annie ranks alongside Huston projects like Beat the Devil (1954), Moby Dick (1956), Casino Royale (1967) (a Huston film by proxy), and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) as films that have grown more appealing over time. One would argue it’s among the better, late period musicals, preferable to watching a bunch of thirty year olds pretend to be teenagers in Fifties America, or - shudder - A Chorus Line (1985).