The soft spot I continue to have for John Huston’s Annie (1982) is either firmly situated in my heart or in the back of my head. It’s a gargantuan musical, a genre for which I have an affinity when done right, but a general contempt when overblown or undernourished. Curiously, Huston’s Annie is a little of both, and yet I find myself having a very tender bias toward it. Based on the perennially popular stagecraft by Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan, and more directly, on the longstanding Saturday morning comic strip, Annie is “the movie of tomorrow”…at least, so Columbia’s top publicity men thought when poster art was being designed to promote the picture. Carol Sobieski’s screenplay is not exactly faithful to either the serialized comic or the Broadway show. In fact, it’s practically an entity unto itself. The play is set in the 1920's and takes place in and around the Christmas holidays. The film’s timeline advances into the ‘30's and the Great Depression, in the weeks leading up to the 4th of July. The play has a song dedicated to President Hoover; the film, a chance meeting between Annie and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but with no song specific to his presidency. In the play, the wrinkle to kidnap Annie is thwarted by the President’s Secret Service. The film allows the perpetrators to get away – temporarily – before Warbuck’s personal man servant, Punjab (Geoffrey Holder) stages a dramatic rescue atop the B&O Bridge (actually the NX Bridge near the Passaic River). In hindsight, it is probably easier to enjoy Annie - the movie - if you know absolutely nothing about Annie - the Broadway original. The major revisions Huston and producer, Ray Stark have made do not hurt the story, although purists have continued to frown on them while dismissing the movie as over-inflated tripe.
One thing the purists and I have in common: we both agree John Huston was the absolute worst choice to helm a musical. In his 40 plus years of making movies, Huston had never done a musical before and his inexperience with the necessary accoutrements of the genre shows. He makes mincemeat of Joe Layton’s woefully inept dance sequences, using obscure angles, panning and cutaways from the principles as they kick and cavort about Wilson Hall, the gargantuan administrative building at Monmouth University that serves as the Warbucks’ mansion. Worse, Huston seems to wallow and waffle during dramatic sequences while glossing over others equally as important. The scene where Oliver Warbucks takes his young charge to the movies segues into a prolonged series of scenes excised from Garbo’s classic, Camille (1936) co-starring Robert Taylor. I suppose we are meant to relate to Oliver and Grace’s tearful reactions as illustrations of how captivated American audiences of this particular vintage were with those shimmering celluloid images on the screen. But the sequence has no flair or style of its own. It’s just a series of reaction shots inserted into what amounts to an abbreviated trailer for Garbo’s movie.
So, why do I still like Annie? Again, I’m not quite sure I can qualify my affections for this film in any articulate way that would make sense to the casual reader. Certainly, I think Eileen Quinn – who received the Razzie for worst performance in 1982 – was, and is, sadly underrated. As the carrot-topped, curly-haired moppet of the piece, Quinn is precociously sweet, though never entirely veering into pure saccharine. And the film has a stellar cast to back her up, beginning with Albert Finney’s charmingly stern Oliver ‘Daddy’ Warbucks. Physically, he’s the right type – the living embodiment of Harold Gray’s pug-nosed billionaire philanthropist in the comics. But Finney’s also a brilliant actor, and proves it again with his commanding presence. His Warbucks has both stature and heart. Carol Burnett’s perpetually drunken Miss Hannigan is a veritable potpourri of mean-spirited ineptitude, but as only a comedian of Burnett’s stature could have made so endearing with her tightly honed timing. At the time of Annie’s general release, Ann Reinking received the most scathing reviews; the biggest criticism heaped upon her, that she was ‘wasted’ in a ‘thankless’ part. But Reinking’s Grace Farrell – private secretary to one of the richest men in America, for whom she has also fallen hopelessly in love – is tenderly endearing, with a hint of manipulative sultriness about her; at least enough to exploit her position and her young charge to garner her austere employer’s respect, and eventually, his love.
Okay, there is no getting around it: the cast is mostly working from archetypes. There is no subterfuge to any of what they say or do; the dialogue ‘on the nose’ and doled out with heaping dollops of sentiment as propriety and the screenplay demand. The most problematic of the lot remains Tim Curry’s Rooster Hannigan and Bernadette Peter’s Lily St. Regis; two apparently wicked reprobates who might pull off a kidnapping greater than the Lindberg baby if only they could find their brains with their two hands and a compass. Played strictly for laughs, the villains aren’t particularly villainous until the final reel, when Rooster undergoes an instant and rather bone-chilling transformation, obsessed with murdering Annie after she has destroyed his last chance to live high on the hog at Warbucks’ expense. Ruthlessly beating his own sister unconscious, Rooster scales the B&O Bridge with beady-eyed resolve. Herein, Curry is truly frightening as he attempts to hurl the frightened and tear-stained child from the top of this raised precipice.
Annie ought to have been the big and glossy razz-a-matazz show of shows that sends audiences from the theater with a toe-tapping afterglow. Alas, ill-timing, the wrong director, and a simplified screenplay all conspire to blunt both its dramatic and musical potency. The picture never devolves into a complete artistic failure, mostly because Huston – even, when hopelessly out of his element, cannot help but make a competent stab at the sort of big and bloated song and dance revue for which Hollywood has always harbored a yen, if not the guts to make good. Despite what many critics of the day argued, the picture’s best-selling feature is its cast; particularly Albert Finney and Aileen Quinn, and, to a lesser extent, Geoffrey Holder’s balletic mystic/man servant. Even Ann Reinking has her moment of glory – brief, but memorable, as she corners Oliver into openly admitting he has already suffered a change of heart, from robber baron capitalist to adoring father-figure for this down, but never entirely out, orphan he has elected to entertain for the week, initially and merely to build up ‘his image’. And Reinking is given two plush numbers that she warbles magnificently; ‘Let’s Go to the Movies’, and ‘We Got Annie’; tomes to the stars and her own personal victory over picklepuss Hannigan.
Herein, I am reminded of the crackling exchange between Carol Burnett’s saucy maven of the orphanage and Oliver, upon his second visit. “I want to talk to you about Annie,” he coolly insists. Having once tried to seduce the industrialist, and miserably been given the kiss-off as she sunk deeper into a basin of bathtub gin, Hannigan now cruelly teases, “So, yah wanna trade up and forget it?” “I want to adopt her,” he replies un-phased, to which Burnett casually excuses herself to let out a positively hilarious/hellish scream from behind closed doors, emerging only a moment later, attitude seemingly unchanged as she ushers Oliver into her private office. It’s a great ‘silly’ moment. And Annie is a picture imbued with such minor jabs of pleasure. I suspect these were enough to amuse an eleven year old who loved going to see anything at the movies back then. Yet, upon repeat viewings, I still get a crooked little smirk of fiendish delight from them; whether waiting for a seemingly demoralized Annie, teased by a pack of dead end kids, to suddenly haul off, belting one in the chops and sending another ass over teakettle into a metal bin with a few choice blows to the gut; or quietly observing Geoffrey Holder’s finesse as he picks up a lit bomb like a shot put, hurled through the drapes of Oliver’s study by a Bolshevik, sending it right back on a trajectory sure to startle its attacker, before casually straightening his turban and waist sash with an air of noblesse oblige. And finally, recalling the orphans arrival at the Warbucks’ mansion, too late to prevent Annie’s kidnapping, but utterly transfixed by the sight of Punjab in his full regalia; one – Molly (Toni Ann Gisondi) informing Oliver, “But they wasn’t her parents, Mister; they was bad people!” before passing out in Punjab’s arms. It’s moment like these – and there are plenty of them scattered throughout – that make Annie highly watchable despite its transparent misfires and disruptively leaden tedium.
And then, of course, there is production value to reconsider. A lot of Annie’s allure has to do with its vintage trappings; particularly, the superbly staged sequences inside the Warbucks' mansion; Dale Hennesy’s production design and Richard Moore’s vintage-looking cinematography going an awfully long way to recreate the tenor of Depression-era America. The Warbucks' mansion looks utterly ravishing, even when decked out in its garish circus trappings for the climactic 4th of July celebration; complete with acrobats, jugglers, a water fountain, and, a fireworks display to put any rockets shot off at Disneyland to shame. Less successful are the inexplicable long shots of modern day Manhattan, looking transparently circa 1982, as Annie warbles the orphan’s manifesto, ‘Maybe’ through an open window at the orphanage by the dawn’s early light; or the idiotic use of wholly unconvincing miniatures for the climactic chase through the streets in pursuit of Miss Hannigan and her cohorts. I am, frankly, at a loss to explain how Huston, generally a perfectionist, could have let such obvious lapses in good judgment and bad continuity fall by the waste side, simply hoping the public would not sit up and take notice.
Plot wise the Carol Sobieski screenplay begins with our pint-sized heroine, Annie (Quinn) perched on the second story ledge of Hannigan’s orphanage, envisioning her parents. “Betcha they’re young. Betcha they’re smart. Bet they collect things like ashtrays and art.” We later learn Annie’s parents placed her in Miss Hannigan’s care with the intention of coming back, but were later, accidentally killed in a house fire. This news has been kept from Annie by Hannigan, who apparently has at least some heart buried under her beads and feather boas. But Annie is a handful. In fact, she constantly presses her luck with botched escapes from the orphanage, getting into all sorts of trouble with the local authorities that infuriates the perpetually drunk and oversexed Hannigan, who is presently attempting to seduce her laundry service provider, Mr. Bundles (Irving Metzman). On her travels through the city, Annie saves a stray from a pack of Bowery Boys, tormenting the pooch with tin cans tied to its tail. She later names the mutt, Sandy, but nearly loses her newfound companion to the local dogcatcher. Smuggling Sandy into the orphanage is not exactly as easy as smuggling Annie out in one of Mr. Bundles’ laundry carts. Discovering the dog, Miss Hannigan threatens to send Sandy to the sausage factory. But Annie’s luck is about to change with the arrival of scissor-legged Grace Farrell (Reinking). The slinky, though officious Farrell has come to the orphanage to select a child to share the week with Oliver Warbucks III, a billionaire industrialist hoping to dispel his public image as a money-loving ogre.
Despite Miss Hannigan’s various attempts to discourage Grace from choosing Annie for the assignment, Grace retaliates with a threat of her own, suggesting that the orphanages’ President of the Board of Directors, Mr. Donatelli and Oliver were only yesterday discussing other viable candidates to assume Hannigan’s duties. “It’s a terrible time to be out of work, isn’t it Miss Hannigan?!?” Grace insists. Although there is no truth to this, Miss Hannigan is unwilling to take the chance. And so, Annie is paroled from the locked closet in Hannigan’s office and allowed her respite at the Warbucks’ mansion for one week. There, she quickly encounters the stern and slightly manic Oliver. At first, Oliver orders Grace to take Annie back, insisting that orphans are boys. But then Annie works her magic on him too; an ingenious manipulation, echoing her approval of Warbucks’ cleverly marketed PR campaign, even if she isn’t his ideal candidate to partake. Unable to find fault with her logic, Oliver reluctantly agrees to keep Annie, placing her in Miss Farrell’s care, so long as Annie stays out of his hair – or lack, thereof. But soon Oliver cannot help but become mildly perplexed, and later enchanted by his young charge’s unrelenting and very precocious charm. “Girls are easier to get used to than boys,” Annie insists. And despite his misgivings, Oliver soon agrees with this assessment.
Annie is given free rein on the estate, indulging in playtime with Warbucks’ servants; chauffeur, the Asp (Roger Minami) and Punjab (Geoffrey Holder); an Indian mystic with miraculous healing powers who can levitate inanimate objects about the house and cast a trance over Sandy to prevent him from barking. After Warbucks reneges on his promise to take Annie to the movies, insisting he is much too busy, Annie elects to also stay behind. Knowing he is being manipulated, though nevertheless unable to resist, Oliver feel guilty for his neglect. In response, he buys out the house and takes Grace and Annie to Radio City for the world premiere of Camille (1936); starring Robert Taylor and Greta Garbo. Apparently the film’s tragic love story has a transformative effect on Oliver, who begins to appreciate both Grace and Annie as the two women in his life. Thus, as the week draws to a close Oliver’s heart is sufficiently softened to accept Grace’s plea to adopt Annie. To their great surprise, Annie politely refuses this kindness, explaining she has been waiting for so long for her real parents to come and collect her. It’s been a lifelong dream and one she cannot surrender without knowing the truth of what has become of them. Heart sore but understanding, Oliver launches a full scale nationwide search for Annie’s folks.
Oliver takes his cause live during Bert Healey’s (Peter Marshall) popular nation-wide radio program; a botched broadcast that nevertheless gets the word out. “Hey Dapper Dan. Hey hobo man, your clothes may be out of style, but brother you’re never fully dressed without a smile…ah, the lovely Boylan Sisters!” But I digress. Alas, Oliver’s promise of a sizable annuity brings out every crackpot and con artist. While Grace stays behind to field inquiries from these frauds, none aware of the heart-shaped locket Annie’s parents gave her at birth, Oliver takes Annie to Washington to meet President Roosevelt (Edward Herrmann) and Eleanor (Lois De Banzie). The president is inspired by Annie’s resilience. But upon returning home, Oliver discovers that despite his generous reward, Annie’s parents have not been found. In the meantime, Rooster Hannigan (Tim Curry) and his latest fling, Lily St. Regis (Bernadette Peters) have come to Miss Hannigan with a devious plan – to impersonate Annie’s parents, collect and then split the reward three ways. Miss Hannigan confides the truth about Annie’s parents to Rooster. Unbeknownst to them, another orphan – Molly (Toni Ann Gisondi) has overheard their conversation. Rallying the rest of the orphans to help save Annie, they arrive too late to stop Rooster and Lily from claiming Annie at the Warbucks’ mansion. Just beyond the estate’s wrought iron gates, Rooster picks up a blind beggar in his jalopy, revealed to be Miss Hannigan. Realizing she is in peril, Annie attempts to scream, but is silenced by Lily.
Oliver alerts the authorities to the kidnapping and launches a full scale search. In the meantime, Annie has devised her own escape route. She tells Rooster she has to go to the bathroom. But once free from the car she steals back the check Oliver has given Rooster and tears it to pieces. In response, Rooster becomes obsessed to murder Annie. After punching out his own sister, who has apparently suffered a relapse of conscience, Rooster takes off after Annie. The two scale the metal scaffolding of the raised B&O Bridge. In the nick of time, Punjab rescues Annie from the brink of death. Rooster and his accomplices are apprehended by the police and Annie, having been told the truth about her parents, happily agrees to become Oliver Warbucks’ adopted daughter. The film concludes with a spectacular 4th of July circus and fireworks celebration on the Warbucks’ estate, staged in Annie’s honor, and for the benefit of all the orphans with President Roosevelt and Eleanor in attendance.
Annie won’t win any awards for high art, and yet there is something intangibly ingratiating about its eclectic assortment of larger-than-life characters. Despite the many changes made to its general premise, the story remains perennially appealing; the triumph of an impoverished waif and underdog set against oppressive circumstances, breaks the curse of Huston’s meddling and helps Annie frequently rise above his turgid direction. And the cast is really giving it their all. If only Huston had not elected to jettison the bulk of Charles Strouse’s original score in favor of 4 new songs that neither augment the plot nor enhance the story. Richard Moore’s cinematography is sumptuous. He fills the lens with some gorgeous scenery, even if Huston seems unable to fully comprehend what to do with it. And it is saying much of the original source material that despite the film’s obvious flaws, the affecting framework retains an air of the fable, impossible to stamp out entirely; this pint-sized Cinderella and her singing cohorts, cheerily loud, occasionally obnoxious, but always amiable enough to warm the heart. When Annie finally finds a permanent home where she is loved, after all those years of enduring the hard-knock life, it is a moment to stand up and applaud. In the final analysis, Annie warms the heart, primarily because of this elusive and intangible ‘feel good’, bypassing the artistic ‘kiss of death’ that so often brands too many musicals as heavy clunkers.
Sony Home Video has given Annie an impressive Blu-ray. Originally Sony released Annie in both widescreen and full frame formats on DVD; then inexplicably continued to repackage the movie multiple times but with only the cropped full frame presentation included. But now we get an impressive 2:40.1 widescreen image in hi-def. Framed properly, the film’s more melodramatic antics don’t seem so out of place, the canvas large enough to accommodate them. In 1080p colors are rich and vibrant. Contrast is impressive and film grain is accurately rendered. The film looks film-like. Age-related artifacts are gone, lending an air of opening night resplendence to this presentation. The 5.1 DTS is very solid, with the score benefiting greatly. Aside: Annie’s audio has always sounded strident, decidedly lacking bass tonality. This Blu-ray preserves that aural oddity. Extras include a brief featurette on Aileen Quinn, a musical performance of ‘It’s A Hard Knock Life’ by the teen pop group ‘Play’ and a sing-a-long feature that is forgettable to say the least. There are also trailers and TV spots to consider. It would have been good of Sony to provide a ‘making of’ or at least audio commentary – but alas, no. It was not to be. Bottom line: Annie is a movie that still makes me glad to be alive. It doesn’t really work as a musical, and yet it continues to worm its way into my heart. Does that mean it is perfect family entertainment? Hardly, but it has that keepsake fascination as a cherished heirloom and as such, gets my recommendation. If not ‘great’, then I suppose ‘good’ is no small feat.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)