Combined Rating: 3.25/5
Anytime Frank actually suggests we watch a musical, no matter what it is, who am I to argue? (This one was technically my pick, though he mentioned we should watch it sometime several months ago.) I’d never seen it before, and all I knew about it was that it involved a redheaded orphan, and featured the song “Tomorrow.” But I can always bet that musicals prior to the era of “Rent” will be melodramatic, cheerful, and cheesy. Annie was no exception.
The story follows orphaned Annie (Aileen Quinn) and her fellow orphan girls, presided over by a lascivious and cruel Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett). The billionaire “Daddy” Warbucks (Albert Finney) wants an orphan to come and stay with him for a week as a publicity stunt, and his assistant-turned-love-interest Grace (Ann Reinking) goes to the orphanage to ask Miss Hannigan for someone suitable. Annie overhears this and endears herself to Grace so that she is chosen, even though Miss Hannigan hates her. When Annie shows up at Mr. Warbucks’s mansion and finally meets him, he tells her that he had expected a boy instead (a la Anne of Green Gables), but she convinces him to keep her for the week. Of course, that’s all it takes for Annie to win over Mr. Warbucks. He offers to adopt her (in a WEEK), but Annie reveals that she’s still holding out hope that her real parents will come back to claim her. In an act of unselfless love, Mr. Warbucks launches a nationwide search with a reward for Annie’s parents. Of course this induces all sorts of unscrupulous rabble to seek the reward money: particularly Miss Hannigan, and her brother and sister-in-law (Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters). Shenanigans ensue. The orphan girls pull together to help Annie in her hour of need (which is also quite touching considering Annie’s good fortune benefits them not at all!) And of course, there’s a triumphant happily-ever-after, complete with fireworks and a touching duet between Annie and her new “daddy.”
You definitely have to suspend your disbelief, but of course that’s to be expected for a musical from the early 80s. Also, I didn’t realize how many “Annie” references have become engrained in our culture. For instance, I thought they chose the character name “Daddy Warbucks” as a deliberately on-the-nose reference to a wealthy benefactor, but discovered that Annie was where that term came from in the first place! The term “Little Orphan Annie” has been a thing for what seems like forever, but apparently that’s the title of the comic strip upon which Annie is based. I feel just the tiniest bit more cultured now.
What can be cuter than a spunky ten year old orphan with a massive orange fro and her posse of neglected survivors? Who can resist innocent shenanigans perpetrated against their hapless, alcoholic caretaker, Ms. Hannigan, especially as portrayed by the hysterical Carol Burnett? And when little orphan Annie rebuffs adoption into wealth and merely longs for a “normal life,” who can fault even President Roosevelt (Edward “The Head Vampire” Hermann) from joining in the chorus of an infectious song that reflects both the hope of finding Annie’s lost parents, and the prospect of employing millions of depressed Americans through socialist programs? The….sun will come out, tomorrow! Even Daddy Warbucks’s cold, Republican heart is moved, and in record time.
While the most unbelievable part of this fairy tale to modern audiences might be the genuine friendship between Warbucks and FDR (scandalously featuring a Democrat attending a party at a Republican’s house), I was more baffled by the hair-brained scheme employed by Ms. Hannigan and her seedy brother Rooster (Tim Curry) and his fiancé (Bernadette Peters) to claim a $50K reward by posing as Annie’s parents. I mean, I guess it is the great depression and all, but the big conflict in the film is about as half-assed as they come. And why would Warbucks, a smart, careful guy, not think to have police investigate people he clearly suspects before handing Annie over to them? Warbucks launched the search for Annie’s parents by yelling for J. Edgar and the Chief of Police, but apparently, in the hubbub his lackeys dropped the ball on making those phone calls. If the key to positively ID-ing her real parents rests on finding the other half of Annie’s bequeathed locket, it should have been easy for Warbucks to discover what we come to find out…that Annie’s folks died in a fire…but the police should know that since they hand-delivered personal effects, including Annie, and the other half of the locket, to Ms. Hannigan at the orphanage. Revisiting the effects should have resulted in an easy case closed. But then we wouldn’t have a very un-musical climax where Annie, escaping her captors and pursued on foot by now unhinged Rooster, almost falls 200 feet to her death. Contrivances aside, I was just grateful for more Tim Curry screen time. I don’t know if there’s anything creepier than Curry with a greasy, 1930’s era pornstache.
Normally I’d say “a musical is a musical is a musical.” But this musical benefits from the experience of director John Huston, who, despite being out of his genre, lends as much gravitas as possible to such a local story. He paces the film nicely, alternating between well-sung and choreographed (if not overblown) numbers, and dramatic action, peppered with witty dialogue and eccentric performances, especially from our cadre of ne’er-do-wells. Despite some plot holes, the conflict is sufficient for self-professed lighthearted fare, and our little protagonist is just so likeable, especially when paired with a surprisingly nimble Albert Finney (Warbucks), with whom she has memorable chemistry. The entire cast looks like they’re having real fun, much as I had when my mom took me to the theater to see it in 1982. Unfortunately, young Aileen Quinn in the title role suffered the proverbial curse of the child star, pigeonholed, yet, with this role, etched into cultural eternity as one of few who can claim the mantle of a genuine “poster child.” Between that and a long career of diverse, yet forgettable roles, I’d take the etching.
Meal pairing: popcorn fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, and a helping of mixed veggies on the side.