“Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of…anything.” Which explains how John Huston, who memorably slurped out those disquieting words at the climax of Chinatown, snatched something like $50 million from Columbia Pictures’s vaults, auditioned and broke the spirits of countless rosy-cheeked stage brats, put Rohypnol into Miss Hannigan’s bathtub wading pool of gin, re-envisioned Daddy Warbucks as America’s favorite tantrum-throwing Republican teddy bear, and called the entire multi-headed Hydra “the movie of ‘Tomorrow.’” Annie, an unwieldy, mega-budget adaptation of one of the biggest Broadway hits of its era, is an irresistible train wreck of pigtail curls, bugged-out eyeballs, bomb-throwing Bolsheviks, Ray Stark-brand Great White Way nostalgia, and occasional Level 3 sex-offender cinematography. It’s a seminal text for Gleeks everywhere, and if you should choose to resist letting it steamroll you into a pink puddle, be prepared to slap away a whole lot of tickle monsters.
Taking great liberties with the original Mike Nichols stage production (even jettisoning some of Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s songs), John Huston’s Annie simulates exuberance at every turn, never quite managing to traverse Uncanny Valley. Everyone is always running or shrieking or running and shrieking. It apparently takes a lot of effort to blow out a comparatively simple, crowd-pleasing musical into a terpsichorean white elephant, and Huston makes sure everyone shows their pit stains. No one sprays the audience with more peppermint-y perspiration than young Aileen Quinn, a Tazmanian Devil of toxic charm playing the titular role of a precocious orphan with an unflagging sense of entitlement that helps her dance like a candy-apple Candide over the many pitfalls of Depression-era America and, incidentally, hammer out the details of the New Deal.
Her inciting spark during a summit meeting with Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt is as bold an act of revisionism as anything in the entire enterprise, being that Harold Gray, the creator of the original Little Orphan Annie strips, was a strident critic of what he termed the New Deal’s “socialist, or creeping communist, policies.” In this sense, Quinn’s tiresome exertions serve a specific function. Gray’s creepy, zombie-eyed Annie was a go-getter because she had to be to avoid blending in with the rest of the charity cases FDR’s plans ostensibly bred. Strouse and Charnin’s creepy, gape-mouthed Annie was a go-getter because there was constantly a line of up-and-coming cherubs and their gargoyle stage moms waiting to push them out of the spotlight at the first telltale mosquito bites of puberty. In each case, these orphans are always aware of their limited shelf life, despite the fact that quite of few of those pint-sized Eve Harringtons ended up in supporting roles among Huston’s Ten Commandments-sized cast roster.
Ironically, then, it’s the adult cast’s no less flagrant overacting that saves major portions of Annie. Albert Finney chews granite like a chrome-domed Decepticon as the perpetually pocket watch-checking venture capitalist Daddy Warbucks, who arrives in his first scene tossing press photographers around like Frankenstein’s monster and ends the picture with a flat-footed soft shoe worthy of Peter Boyle’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Ann Reinking, as Warbucks’s very personal attendant, lets down her hair at least three or four times to nice effect. As the two-bit moll Lily St. Regis, Bernadette Peters’s alabaster skin absorbs every blast from the grease gun Tim Curry shoots off playing Rooster, ne’er-do-well brother to Miss Hannigan (and, from the looks of it, uncle to John Waters, who returned the favor in one of Serial Mom‘s most memorable moments). But truly shooting the moon and harvesting its cheese is Carol Burnett. Her head-drooping, eyelid-twitching, equilibrium-seeking, boozy-swoony interpretation of orphanage director Miss Hannigan (“Did I hear…singing in here?”) may be definitive Pauline Kael bait, but it’s also a marvel of dazed, out-of-sync comic timing. If there’s one clear reason why some people have it in for Huston’s version of Annie, it could be because the professionalism of the movie’s adult cast ensures audiences could see America’s most beloved orphan am-scray to the sausage factory for all anyone cares.
Like so many family films, Annie has been previously presented in pan-and-scan format, ensuring home viewers only got to see $25 million of the $50 million production. Now making its debut on Blu-ray, Annie is restored to its 2.40:1 anamorphic aspect ratio. I've got to admit, the movie feels a little less awkward and stilted in widescreen, and the transfer is surprisingly naturalistic. There's far more grain than I expected, and the colors aren't contrasted out of proportion. More significantly, the black levels are rich and deep, giving of a believable atmosphere of the Great Depression. The DTS surround mix is lush without being overripe. The orchestrations sound particularly plummy. That's both an endorsement and a warning.
Here's where Sony fails to transcend the same old traps of packaging family home entertainment. In lieu of incisive, in-depth supplementary looks at the making of one of the most notable big-budget classic musicals of one of the form's most fallow periods (in many ways, the movie's reputation has served as a crucible for the era from whence it came), we get karaoke-style lyrics on the screen during the film's musical numbers and a bizarre teen-pop cover of "It's a Hard-Knock Life," both apparently aimed at luring a whole new generation of aspiring inchworm ingénues. Just ick.
Category fraud didn't begin with the Oscars. It began when the Razzies awarded Aileen Quinn worst supporting actress of 1982.