She may have been a multimedia moppet, skipping from comic strip to radio to Broadway, but Little Orphan Annie is no movie star. Back in 1982, I was seven years old and unimpressed by the big screen adaptation of my favorite Broadway play, the first one I’d seen and nearly memorized song by song. Upon its release to tape the following year, John Huston’s Annie failed to entered weekly rotations on the family Betamax, alongside such staples as The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, The Muppet Movie, and Grease.
A belated 20th Anniversary DVD leaves me nostalgic for a few standout songs but mostly mournful, even though the disc is loaded with extras like sing-alongs, trivia, a music video girl-group remake of “Hard Knock Life,” and a bittersweet featurette, “My Hollywood Adventure,” starring all-washed-up Annie actress Aileen Quinn. As a first-grader, I didn’t know that this movie was considered a flop despite its all-star pedigree (John Huston directs!), or that the movie musical was then in its death throes (revived recently by Moulin Rouge and Chicago). Today, these bits of information only confirm my initial disappointment.
With few changes made between the play and film, Annie‘s familiar plot is watered-down, Depression-era Dickens, a rags-to-riches tale starring a 10-year-old redhead with a tragic backstory and major girl power. Scrubbing floors at a squalid orphanage run by cruel lush Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett) on New York’s Lower East Side, Annie lives for the mythical day when her parents will come to retrieve her. In the sweet opening ballad, “Maybe,” she fantasizes, “Betcha they’re good, why shouldn’t they be? / Their one mistake was givin’ up me.”
She gets extraordinarily lucky when she and her bedraggled dog Sandy are selected to spend a week at the palatial residence of Oliver Warbucks (Albert Finney), the hard-as-nails, self-made billionaire who counsels heads of state and industry all over the world. Her sojourn is meant to be an extended photo-op for the media-savvy tycoon, but Annie quickly charms him, his secretary/love interest, Grace Farrell (Anne Reinking), and the entire staff of servants.
A last-minute snag comes in the form of a kidnapping plot involving Miss Hannigan, her no-good brother (Tim Curry), and his floozy girlfriend (Bernadette Peters), but they’re quickly apprehended, and it’s revealed that Annie’s parents are long dead. The credits roll as Annie and Daddy Warbucks celebrate her official adoption in grand style, replete with acrobats and fireworks. Annie doesn’t exactly get her simple wish to be a “regular kid” with “regular parents.” Instead, thanks to charisma and chance, she becomes a capitalist princess.
So why doesn’t it work on celluloid? On a most basic level, Annie herself is to blame. Though hand-picked from a nationwide search of 8000 aspiring starlets, Quinn is a chirpy imitation of ’30s and ’40s child stars like Shirley Temple and Margaret O’Brien, prone to hokey gestures and elocution-lesson line readings. Annie may have been geared towards children, but that doesn’t mean the heroine, a pillar of indomitable optimism despite a hellish life, shouldn’t resonate emotionally.
It hardly helps that Quinn’s weak, half-spoken singing voice pales in comparison to those of her big-throated fellow orphans. This scrappy ensemble pulls off the film’s one exhilarating number, “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” The stomping battle cry of put-upon waifs everywhere enjoys the Busby Berkeley treatment in a rare moment of inspired cinematic kinetics: dizzying overhead shots, grand stairwells, and tight choreography involving dirty dishes, buckets, rags, mops, and tumbling orphans. These wretches may caterwaul about their “Empty belly lives / Rotten smelly lives / Full of sorrow lives,” but they sure know how to get their rocks off.
Unfortunately, the energy wanes when Annie, whisked away to the Warbucks mansion, has less squalor to complain about. When she quietly sings, “Tomorrow” with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House, the classic, gotta-belt-it-out tearjerker becomes a lame patriotic jingle for the New Deal era. This historic milieu is the subject of “The Age of Annie,” a trivia game available on the disc. Kids will get a kick out of factoids concerning 1930s fashion (zippers were cheaper than buttons), technology, architecture, and economics, but the interactive lesson underscores the movie’s failure to exploit this ripe decade “of extraordinary extremes.”
Still, Annie does offer Carol Burnett a chance to shine. Surrounded by miscast, underused actors, she pulls off a performance showcasing her singular ability to root physical comedy in a deep reservoir of pain and need. As she tortures her orphans (“Do I hear happiness in here?”), bumps into walls, swigs liquor from flower vases and soup ladles, and sloppily flirts with uninterested men, she manages to transcend the stylized conventions she’s mastered. By infusing Miss Hannigan with palpable loneliness and hopelessness, Burnett contemplates the seedy reality of the Great Depression. It’s thoughtful comedy at its best, deserving of a more substantial, satisfying context.