Friday, August 20, 2010

Little Orphan Annie

My earliest experience with Little Orphan Annie was the 1977 Broadway musical. I saw a touring production (at the Hanna?) in the late 70s, a copy of the soundtrack shortly followed. The second time the tour came through I saw it then, too - I asked to. I am not saying this as an excuse, but I was only ten or eleven years old at the time.

When the movie came out in 1982, like most people, I despised it. As a fourteen year-old this should not have been a surprise, finding something I liked as a kid to be cutsey and obnoxious, though I had developed an air for British actors and so convinced myself I was there only to see Albert Finney (because I was rakish and classy) and Tim Curry (because I was underground cool.)

What I knew I disliked at the time was how long it was, how boring it was, and how they changed the ending so much. Well. A couple years ago when we found ourselves with an evening in New York City and two very small, tired children on our hands (it was Easter evening, we had been parading all day) my wife slipped out to pick up something, anything at Border’s, and brought back that for the kids to watch on her computer DVD player.

If she had asked, I would have let her know about the 1999 for-TV version Disney made which is by all accounts superior. But today I learned something new about the original comic strip I did not know which throws a few things into perspective.

The 1982 version is the "Reagan" version, because it de-emphasizes the poverty, the Depression (like the Disney version, they cut the Hooverville song, which makes sense as it is the only song that is sung by an ensemble, and not by any of the main characters) and basically gives Warbucks’ grotesque wealth nothing to stand in contrast to.

One obnoxious added gag involves a “Bolshevik” attempting to throw a cartoon bomb into Warbucks’ mansion. After the bomber is dispatched (we won’t get into Punjab, who was at least an actual character in the strip, if not the musical) Annie asks Miss Grace why anyone would hate Mr. Warbucks.

Miss Grace sighs condescendingly and says, “He's living proof that the American system really works and the Bolsheviks don't want anyone to know about that.” glaring to me than that, when placed side-by-side with the Disney version, is how much the 1982 film wants to ignore New York City. You can’t even tell that’s where it’s set, it looks like California. When Warbucks decides to take Annie on the town, instead of singing a lovesong to “NYC” they sing an extended and wearying song (found only in this film) about how great the movies are, and he rents out Radio City for them to watch (get this) Camille.

And then (get this) we get to see a condensed, but not condensed enough, edit of Camille! Alone. In Radio City Musical Hall, all alone. An example of wealth and influence, but it looks cold to me.

The Disney version features Victor Garber singing (because Albert Finney really can’t) NYC and we get the whole thing. I mean, I get it, Disney bought Times Square and has been pushing the place ever since, but this is a pretty classy way to do it. And the 1999 version is a lot more sincere, less sloppy. The girl playing Annie is charming in her ordinariness, not obnoxiously optimistic like the freakishly freckled kid in the 1982 film.

And then there’s the matter of FDR, who is a honest-to-goodness superhero in the musical, as you know, he was in real life. In 1982 we do the FDR thing (including a hideous Eleanor impersonator who appears in no other version) but makes it clear he’s not relevant and we don’t see him again. In 1999 he’s front and center, the New Deal is the savior of the nation - and he even appears at the end, like Eliot Ness, with his G-Men blocking the door so the crooks can’t escape!

Now. The irony. Let us go over a brief history of Little Orphan Annie, the comic strip.

Created in 1924 by Harold Gray (following a number of “Little Orphan” variants by Gray and other cartoonists, ragamuffins with names like Little Orphan Otto and Little Orphan Rooney) creates an orphan girl with a doll named Emily Marie for a companion who escapes from the orphanage and survives in the street by sheer pluckiness.

A year later she meets Mr. - and Mrs. - Warbucks. Warbucks takes a shine to the little girl, and almost immediately urges her to call him “Daddy.” Mrs. Warbucks is a snoot who does not like the little girl, which eventually leads to Annie running away. Mrs. Warbucks eventually sees her selfish ways, apologizes … and then disappears from the strip, never to be mentioned again, as if she never existed.

Warbucks is the perfect picture of well-functioning capitalism. He despises snobs, treats his employees well and they all apparently adore him. It is this kind of world that Harold Gray approved of - one where those who were less fortunate would get ahead if they only applied themselves, and could one day be rich beyond their wildest dreams and perpetuate the cycle of endless prosperity.

He also approves of vigilantism and people getting what they deserve. As many storylines required getting in and out of scrapes with shady characters, Warbucks (and soon enough, Annie, too) would prefer to let criminals suffer any kind of grisly fate or terribly violent death than turn them over to the authorities.

Gray also made it clear through the comic that he despised the New Deal, FDR in particular, and the rise of the labor movement.

The 1977 Broadway musical, coming as it did during a bleak period in American history, was written to intentionally draw parallels between that time and the Depression, but to also offer optimism, and in the 30s a great deal of optimism arose from the promise of a “New Deal for Christmas.” Harold Gray luckily had passed away in 1968, or 9 short years later he surely would have heard that song and shot himself.

In 1936 the radio serial of Little Orphan Annie would broadcast a 15-minute episode on the Blue Network six days a week at 5:45 PM. It was the first children’s radio serial and wildly popular. The program was sponsored by … oh come on, you know who the sponsor was.

Talespinner Children's Theatre presents Adventures In Slumberland by David Hansen, Nov. 30 - Dec. 22, 2013.

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