A Look Back: Annie

“Not Another Teen Movie” has a scene where the prom goers perform a impromptu synchronized number, and a bystander remarks on how amazing it is that so many people who attend his school appear to be professional dancers. As a young kid, I had a similar reaction while watching (the original) “Annie” in the theater. Apparently, there was a strong correlation between being an orphan and possessing musical/gymnastic talent. Orphans, I would also learn, particularly girl orphans, tended to have creative gifts in abundance, in general, whether it was through music or words. Now there have been studies of eminent people showing that a high number lost a parent early on in life, but I’ve never seen a real life connection between creative gifts and orphanhood. But it was easy to get the wrong idea as a kid. I remember thinking that all the orphans would have to do to escape forced servitude was to run away and join a vaudeville act. Even in the Depression, they’d be likely to be a hit.

The plot is simple: preteen orphan Annie lives in an orphanage in New York during the Depression era and believes that her parents will one day show up and claim her – as they’ve left her with half a locket around her neck.  Her nemesis is the evil Miss Hannigan, who forces the orphans to clean the entire place in the middle of the night and is desperate to have sex with the delivery man (and about every man we see after that except her brother, Rooster/Tim Curry).  One day, a stylish woman shows up saying that she’s millionaire Oliver Warbucks’ secretary, and she’s going to choose an orphan to spend a week with him (for publicity reasons).  She winds up taking Annie, who proceeds to win the hearts of all the staff and Warbucks himself.  However, Annie insists that she wants her biological parents, so Warbucks conducts a search.  The parents who do show up turn out to be imposters, so Annie winds up being adopted by her benefactor after all.  “Annie” raises some serious topics like poverty, unemployment, even con artists who directly threaten the life of the main character – but because it’s a musical, nothing can’t be solved without a song and dance number.

“Annie” bothered me a bit, though I loved the film at the time it was released, because I didn’t have what I assumed was the expected reaction to two of the main characters. For one, I just felt sorry for the orphanage head, Miss Hannigan (played with mustache twirling gusto by Carol Burnett) instead of being scared of or disliking her. First of all, she was extremely outnumbered; second, it was clear she had no other options jobwise; and third, she just really seemed to be desperate for a sexual relationship with any halfway receptive man. And she does redeem herself in the next to last act, when she attempts to rescue Annie from her evil brother and his girlfriend who plan to kill the kid.

I also couldn’t help but notice that even though I liked Annie (Aileen Quinn) and her endless spunk and courage, she seemed very manipulative. Now when it comes to standing by her dog and refusing to visit Daddy Warbucks (Albert Finney) mansion unless he came with her, that was cool. But not so much when she decides to matchmake Albert and his secretary, Grace (Ann Reinking).  In one scene, she persuades them both to take her to a movie at Radio City Music Hall and promptly falls asleep after the opening.  As a kid, this puzzled me.  Was she genuinely tired or was she doing it so that Albert and Ann would feel free to cuddle?  Anyone, anyone?  One might reasonably argue that children, however precocious, aren’t really equipped to be matchmakers for adults.  But in the movies, their instincts are always mistake-proof.

The main thing that bugged me was how opposite the message about orphanhood was.  “Annie” made being an orphan look like a blast.  Sure, the head was mean, but you had plenty of company, and there was always someone there to buck up your spirits when you felt down.  And how taxing could those chores really be, if they had the energy to dance, sing and do flips worthy of Nadia Comaneci?  Plus if it got really bad, you could always get the laundry pickup man to smuggle you out to go roam the streets of the city.  Also, if you waited long enough, a millionaire would show up and decide to adopt you, at least if you were musical (as happened in the later TV show “Rags to Riches”). I rest my case.

Not being at all familiar with the comic strip it’s based on, the movie took a rather Twilight Zone turn for me when Miss Hannigan’s brother and his girlfriend announce that they plan to kill Annie.  Is it just me or deciding to dangle a tear-stained Aileen Quinn over the side of a building, and have Punjab (Geoffrey Holder) tell her “A child without courage is like a night without stars,” a little sadistic to all the preteens watching?  Couldn’t they just have forced Annie to do more cleaning until she escaped back to Daddy Warbucks?  It’s a great movie to see when you’re a little kid, but it’s rather bipolar.  Still, the soundtrack was terrific at the time.

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