Written Carol Sobieksi
Directed by John Huston
The 1970s were a fruitful period for Huston, with several acclaimed films and an expansion of his aesthetics to fit a modern style. Huston also worked in front of the camera as the iconic villain Noah Cross in the neo-noir Chinatown. He voiced Gandalf in the Rankin-Bass animated production of The Hobbit. Huston even starred as the lead in Orson Welles’ final & delayed film, The Other Side of the Wind. On the bleaker side of life, Huston was diagnosed with emphysema in 1978, which would plague him for the rest of his life. He’d been a heavy smoker since he was a young man, so it was only a matter of time until it caught up with him. In the early 1980s, Huston was approached by producer Ray Stark to direct an adaptation of the Broadway musical Annie. Huston had never made a musical in his forty years directing, so he decided to give it a shot.
Annie (Aileen Quinn) is an orphan during the American Great Depression. She lives in an orphanage run by the miserable Ms. Hannigan (Carol Burnett), who works the girls like slaves. Annie has no idea who her parents are, with half a locket at the only memento of their existence. After running away one morning, something Annie often does, she befriends a stray dog whom she names Sandy. On her way back to the orphanage, she sees a limousine has arrived, and a woman, Ms. Farrell (Ann Reinking), emerges to talk with Hannigan.
It seems billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Albert Finney) requires an orphan to live in his home for a week. He’s been told a photo op with a needy child would improve his public image during this time of suffering. Despite Ms. Hannigan’s warnings, Annie is chosen, and she begins her new life. It takes a while, but Warbucks eventually warms to her and asks what she wants. Annie says she wants to be reunited with her birth parents. Warbucks is forlorn but issues a media blitz, offering a reward to anyone who can prove their parentage of the orphan. Hannigan’s brother, Rooster (Tim Curry) & his gal, Lily (Bernadette Peters), concoct a plan to use orphanage records to fake they are Annie’s parents. Of course, we know this plucky orphan will win in the end.
Annie is entirely & total fluff. It is very charming and has some great moments, but it’s like cotton candy at the end of the day. A little too sweet and dissolves with little effort. Aileen Quinn, while a talented singer, gives off strong showbiz kid vibes the whole film. She is not a great actor here, which might not seem to fair to a kid. However, she is the lead character, so we need her performance to be on par with the adults in the picture. When you are a child yourself, you might not notice the weakness of her line delivery, but as an adult…oof! It’s embarrassing at some points. But, as I said, she is an excellent singer so in the songs she delivers.
Huston assembled quite an all-star cast here, and everyone does a great job. However, there is one standout who steals the movie, Carol Burnett. Her Ms. Hannigan is the best part of the picture. However, Burnett’s portrayal and much of the film didn’t sit well with the original lyricist Martin Charnin. In the 1990s, he stated that the movie completely distorted the original vision & themes of the Broadway musical. He found Burnett’s “man-crazy drunk” distasteful and called Albert Finney’s Warbucks “an Englishman who screamed.” Apparently, the song “Tomorrow” was downplayed in the film production because Stark thought it was “too corny.”
The one big takeaway I have is what an over-produced mess the whole production was. Apparently, “Easy Street” was shot as a big number that moved from inside the orphanage and out to the streets with 400 extras. Reviewing the dailies led to the idea that it needed to be simplified. When Annie goes to the movies, we get such a gratingly bloated musical number that culminates in the Rockettes performing on stage. I think the Broadway production is a very good musical; those original songs are catchy. “Hard Knock Life” is one of my favorite show tunes, but because we get that right away in the story, the rest of the movie just goes on and on.