Saturday, August 7, 2010

Was Annie (1982) Huston's worst movie?

Back in June, I got in an argument with people on the Internet Movie Database when I charged that Annie (1982) was "the favorite John Huston movie of everybody who doesn't know who John Huston is", and then I went one step further by suggesting that it was "the most expensive piece of cinematic waste of the 1980's", stating that even Cimino's Heaven's Gate was a more interesting film by comparison. Obviously I was being pretty full of myself, and I was taking advantage of the lack of cinematic knowledge of these people; but it was mostly out of frustration that Annie remains the most popular Huston movie of today's generation.

Of course, perhaps Huston was lucky to have even made a movie that today's generation would be familiar with at all (the average joe wouldn't be familiar with a single title by Ford, Hawks, Wilder or most of the other classic Hollywood filmmakers from Huston's era, barring Capra of course), but still... when people think of Annie, they don't think of Huston. That's what bothers me, I think. The one truly good thing that I think came out of Annie was Albert Finney's getting the chance to collaborate with Huston, as it resulted in their recollaborating on Under the Volcano--a far, FAR superior work.

Can you imagine being Huston and having to direct the sequence seen in the above picture, where Annie and Daddy Warbucks are singing at the White House with a (mysteriously healthy and robust) FDR? I probably would have wanted to kill myself first! If you ever get a chance to look at the Wise Blood Criterion DVD, go ahead and look at Huston's PBS interview with Bill Moyer: there's footage of Huston directing Annie. Somehow, for a sickly man in his late 70's, he looks perfectly sane directing this sequence, even though it looks like a real pain in the neck. Who wants to direct a scene where a little girl and three professional adults are singing "Tomorrow! Tomorrow!" over and over again? The actor playing FDR (Edward Hermann) has a smile so fake that it literally screams, "GET ME THE FLYING FUCK OUT OF HERE!!!!!!"

I haven't seen Annie since my middle school years, so I'm not about to attempt a review of the movie here--I just want to see some discussion on the movie itself. What do you think of it? Even though I still have yet to devour Huston's entire filmography, I'm just about ready to say that it may very well have been the worst movie of his career. The Unforgiven (1960) seems to be the only other potentially serious canidate for that title; it was the film from Huston's career that he openly confessed he disliked. I can't imagine him wanting to make it for any other reason except to reclaim his audience after the box office failures of Wise Blood and Victory.

Let's consider the time period Annie reflects upon: the Great Depression. You have to remember that Huston lived through this time, and suffered some pretty bad hardships--most notably an incident in 1933 in which he accidentally struck and killed a woman when he was driving on the road. It was not a good time for him, particularly when his screenwriting career was on the rocks and he and his father Walter would quarrel endlessly over money and unpaid loans.

Now look at the way Annie portrays the Great Depression: even though the movie has heroes and villains, the orphanage that Annie grows up in isn't really all that bad; it's not paradise, of course, but when you can sing along with the girls and drive the landlady crazy, what's so terrible about it? And then there's the rest of the movie, which is mainly about Daddy Warbucks and how Annie gets to live in the world of the privileged bourgeoisie. Isn't this capitalizing on the Depression a little bit? What did Huston think of the material?

As Ebert wrote of the film in 1982, "Annie is not about anything. It contains lots of subjects (such as cruel orphanages, the Great Depression, scheming conmen, heartless billionaires, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) but it isn't about them. It's not even really about whether Annie will survive her encounters with them, since the book of this musical is so rigorously machine-made, so relentlessly formula, it's one of those movies where you can amaze your friends by leaving the auditorium, standing blindfolded in the lobby and correctly predicting the outcome."

My high school friend Sarah, a fan of the original Broadway play, has a different opinion. She admires the movie for Carol Burnett's performance as Miss Hannigan, the attempts to adapt some of the elements from the comic strip such as the character of Punjab, and the added backstory of what happened to Annie's parents. Of the film's flaws, Luedloff finds fault in the overzealous villainy of Tim Curry's Rooster, Aileen Quinn's overly-saccharine portrayal of Annie, the pointlessness of the musical numbers, and even the absence of the politics that were in the original play. She actually prefers both the play and even Rob Marshall's 1999 remake (which I doubt I would like much better, since I dislike Marshall).

But what about the rest of you? I'd like to think of this movie in a better light, since, after all, Huston is my favorite American filmmaker. Anything special about it that I've overlooked? My antagonism towards the movie largely has to do with me having to explain to the people who don't know who Huston was that "he was the director of Annie"; that usually clicks off some familiarity for them, but totally the wrong kind. In a perfect world, of course, people would recognize titles like The Maltese Falcon, but I guess little orphan girls living in rich mansions is more appealing nowadays.

Just for the record: don't let some of the harsh things I've said here discourage any of you from contributing pieces on Annie to the blogathon, in case you're planning on doing so!


  1. I haven't seen Annie since I was like 8 years old (I guess I liked it at the time, but I'm pretty hazy on it), but there's no way it's worse than Phobia, which is a very mediocre take on the "psychologist group pseudo-slasher" (a la Schizoid and Color of Night), and I'm one of the biggest slasher apologists out there. I don't think too many people have seen it, as I've brought it up a few times to people who were big John Huston fans and they had never heard of it. If you want, I could contribute a review of it to the blogathon here. I enjoy rambling on about these types of films anyway. Otherwise, I was thinking of doing Reflections in a Golden Eye or Wiseblood, if I have time.

  2. Thomas, I would actually LOVE a piece on Phobia, if you'd be willing to write about it... even I've never seen it. I had been trying hard to find a copy of it in the months leading up to the blogathon, but my search was in vain. Feel free to write about that as well as Reflections in A Golden Eye or Wise Blood (the latter being one of my personal favorites).

  3. ANNIE isn't exactly WEST SIDE STORY, but I found it bearable. Leave it to many to always go after the musical when it comes to citing the worst of anything! Ha!

    I'm hoping to get something to you on THE DEAD, Adam!

  4. Can't wait to read your Dead piece, Sam.

    I actually must confess that I have an issues with a lot of musicals... of course, as you already know, Jewison's Fiddler on the Roof is an exception for me. I wish Huston could have made a musical as EPIC as that one.

  5. Hi Adam, 'Annie' isn't my favourite musical, but I think Huston's film of it is quite watchable, though I'd agree it is definitely one of his lesser films. Having just watched his early 1970s thriller 'The Mackintosh Man', I'd have to say 'Annie' is more fun! However, I'm not a big fan of watching Albert Finney sing - though he is probably better in this than in 'Scrooge'!

  6. Hi Adam, Great project here! I rewatched "Annie" a couple of years ago and I have to say I was stunned at how bad it was. I remember vaguely liking it as a child, but on another viewing I was just bored most of the time. Most of the musical numbers are silly ("We Got Annie!" Really?) and your friend Sarah is right: Aileen Quinn's performance is tedious and predictable.

    That said, I don't think it is fair to knock the movie for its saccharine portrayal of the Great Depression. It is, after all, based on a Broadway play that is based on a radio program that is based on a comic book that originated in the Great Depression. Little Orphan Annie was meant to be an escape for kids during those years without ignoring the realities of the time. Could the movie have dealt with a lot of the political and social issues better? Absolutely and it would have made for a richer film that would still have entertained children.

  7. Judy, it's good you mention The Mackintosh Man because that's another Huston title that has eluded me (actually, I've had a seriously hard time locating almost all of his late 60's/early 70's titles). I think Finney's singing is odd, too, though the one scene I remember liking of him is when he yells, "I WANT A BOY!" when they first take Annie to his house.

    Jason, pleased to meet you! The blogathon has been going very well so far. I agree that Annie would probably prove to be a dull experience were I to revisit it; as for the portrayal of the Depression, you're probably dead-on about that. Though surely Little Orphan Annie didn't please all children back then, did it?

    Remember what it did to Ralphie, for instance? "Be... Sure... To... Drink... Your... Ovaltine. Ovaltine??? A crummy commercial? Son of a bitch!"

  8. Ha! Good point, Adam. I'm not sure but maybe the radio program was more commercialized than the comic strip, but even so they were both extremely popular. There was something about a poor orphan being saved from poverty by a rich benefactor. Heck there still is. I'm still looking out for mine!

  9. I enjoyed reading your assessment of Huston's film version of Annie. I saw t years ago and frankly don't remember much about it. It definitely lacked Huston's signature stamp on it ; anyone could have made it. I recently saw his 1966 epic "The Bible", a movie some may categorize as among the director's worst films but in all honesty I found the movie to be fascinating in parts and a much better film than most critics considered it to be when it premiered. Though overlong and lumbering, it has some striking moments and it is visually awesome to look at. But "Annie" is simply dead on arrival, a movie with no soul, in my opinion.


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