|pretty sure that's Aileen Quinn's head photoshopped onto someone else's body|
Format: Amazon Watch Party
Director: John Huston
Little Orphan Annie is a weird property that, frankly, I can't believe hasn't resurfaced in the past decade of "re-imaginings". If you can have Archie Andrews battling supernatural forces, and... the same with Nancy Drew, it seems like a junior, globe-trotting adventurer with a dog and a potentially diverse cast seems like a pretty easy sell for a franchise.
But for people to know that was what the strip was about would mean people read newspapers and therefore comic strips. Instead, most of my generation knows the character from either the 1982 film Annie, or from one of the thousands of local theatre group productions of the musical upon which the movie is based (I've never seen it live).
The comic strip was canceled in mid-June 2010 after running for about 85 years. You never know what people will mourn or shrug at, but as Annie ran in only 20 newspapers at the time, it was treated as a curiosity rather than the end of an American institution.* After the creator died in the 1960's, the comic was on hiatus a few times, but was carried by a number of creators in multi-year sprints, including comics maker Alan Kupperberg.
I saw the movie Annie in the theater during its theatrical release, but only knew who Carol Burnett and Aileen Quinn were - Burnett because: T.V. Quinn because the studio made sure kids knew her name. I did not know, for example, the film was directed by John Huston (yeah, that one). That it co-starred Albert Finney or who he was, who Tim Curry was, or that "the pretty lady" was Bernadette Peters, who I had or would see in The Jerk around that same time thanks to laissez faire parenting at a friend's house and the invention of VHS. I believe I knew Geoffrey Holder - who, as a native of Trinidad, is curiously cast as Indian-born Punjab - from his omnipresent 7Up commercials of the era. And for years tried to figure out why the lady, Ann Reinking, who played Grace wasn't a big movie star before figuring out "oh, right, Broadway".
We returned to school in the Fall of 1982 to a bit of Annie-mania. I would have been 7 at the time, and so my classmates were wearing replicas of Annie's locket, as well as the occasional Annie dress. One girl did the whole she-bang for Halloween (no one was surprised, she was obsessed) complete with make-up freckles and a wig. Frankly, it worked and we all gave her the thumbs-up.
Anyway, I've seen the movie plenty over the years, but if it's been a while, it's hard to remember: this movie was huge. It was clearly intended to never feel cheap, and so went in for massive sets, extraordinary choreography and terrific cinematography. Everything in it is gigantic and bigger than you remember -It's a big-ol spectacle of flick.
You don't have a half-dozen orphans, there's, like 80 little girls running around the orphanage. Warbuck's stairwell is bigger than my house. There's gyrocopters, vintage cars, and Rockefeller Center bedecked with Rockettes.
Flying right over my head as a kid are the cartoon politics of the show. Annie is the spirit of the New Deal, Warbucks (his name a none-too-subtle wink at war profiteering) is a part of the establishment Republicans - ie: Hoover. And the movie, for kids, talks openly about the differences in broad language. I mean, there was a time we could laugh about this stuff. And it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that a cheery song about hanging on in tough times might sway a Republican to assist in recruiting for the WPA - and is kind of frank about the influence of the wealthy in any flavor of American politics.
But, yeah. See FDR played by Edward Hermann, something he'd done on TV in the 1970's. And a great scene with an attempted bombing by a Bolshevik. Because, you know, for kids! (Weirdly, I remember basically getting all that when I saw the film because I knew a dirty commie when I saw one).
Like movies did until the mid-90's, there's a horny lush in charge of children (and she hates the kids, and it's hilarious). People faking that they're parents to take advantage of a kid. It's a world where kids aren't quite people and the entire agenda of the adults isn't ensuring the moment-to-moment happiness of the kid characters.
The racial politics are a mixed bag of dealing with legacy characters from the 1930's, when even showing a minority character, let alone as a person, was fairly progressive - to the early 1980's, which were 45-50 years on from the characters' first appearance but, again, Punjab - a sort of "Eastern Mystic" type from India is played by the famously Caribbean-born Geoffrey Holder just doing his natural voice but in a turban. It's buckwild. Add in they crammed in The Asp from the comics (but not the actual play) and you may be like "why doesn't the camera ever show that guy in close up?" and I don't know. It's weird. But, certainly, there's a not-approved-for-2021 approach to race and exoticism of non-White characters.
For a family movie that expected kids to be enraptured, this thing is long. It's just over two hours, and it had plenty of places it could have cut. Why do we watch multiple scenes from Camille? Could some of the conversations with the orphans been shortened? I dunno. It takes a full hour before there's any conflict in the movie, and it feels like maybe somewhere in the first hour, something could have been trimmed. But baked in, the songs do advance the plot, so what to cut? And you can't cut a showstopper where it DOES stop, like "It's The Hard Knock Life". It's beyond me. (You could cut the "Sandy" song?).
But, yeah, it was still kind of weirdly fun. I had a good time watching it again, in no small part just blown away that studios made movies like this, and well, in my lifetime.
Prior to this film, there was the comic strip, but Annie hit the radio as early as 1930 (drink your Ovaltine!), and would begin appearing in films by 1932. The musical hit Broadway in 1977 (eventually starring Sarah Jessica Parker), and of course this is the first filmic adaptation. A sequel I've never seen was straight-to-video in the mid-90's. In the late 1990's, a TV version of the musical hit with an all-star cast. My memory is that the 1982 version was briefly very hard to find for a while after as Disney flooded the market with their all-star TV movie (I recall my only beef with what I saw of it was that Annie didn't have curly hair for some reason. It co-stars Alan Cumming, Victor Garber, Audra MacDonald, Chenowith and Kathy Bates, which is probably a good reason to check it out again.) And, in 2014, a completely updated version was released starring Jamie Foxx and - I read today, totally unrelated - Cameron Diaz's final film role.
So. Rumor is there's a new version in the works for one of the NBC live musicals. And, man, those are alternately very not good (The Sound of Music) to okay (The Wiz: Live!). But I'm told it will have Titus Burgess as Rooster. So, hope springs eternal.
Aileen Quinn didn't wind up with an extensive career after the film. She definitely did stage and film, but these days she appears to be in a band called Aileen Quinn and The Leapin' Lizards, and that is awesome.
*Annie and Warbucks have resurfaced in the panels of Dick Tracy from time to time.