Overproduced and underinspired, "Annie," op ning today at area theaters (including an engagement in 70mm and six-track Dolby Stereo at the Uptown), blunders out a niche for itself in the Museum of Musical Dreadnoughts.
As a Broadway musical "Annie" was such a small endeavor, ultimately dependent on the charm of seven little girls, the responsiveness of a mutt and the melodious uplift of two distinctive, bound-to-be-overused show tunes ("Tomorrow" and "Maybe"), that it never figured to profit esthetically from lavish Hollywood treatment.
The flimsy but serviceable material contrived for Broadway could have used a bright, playful rewrite. Evidently, producer Ray Stark preferred to play a pat hand with Thomas Meehan's undernourished Broadway book; screenwriter Carol Sobieski restores the characters of Punjab and Asp, Daddy Warbucks' vaguely sinister henchmen, but it's impossible to detect anything else that helps reinforce or improve the meager Meehan outline.
At the same time, Stark failed to engage an experienced or even aspiring director of movie musicals to take command of this prestigious theatrical property. Presumably hoping to repeat the same lucky formula that worked for "Funny Girl" when Herbert Ross was hired to stage the musical numbers under the overall supervision of director William Wyler, Stark finally settled on Joe Layton to handle the staging under the general authority of John Huston, an old client and crony. Bewildering at the time, the selection of Huston was rationalized on at least one occasion as an effort to ensure period authenticity by having someone in charge who actually remembered the ostensible historical setting of the show, the dawn of the New Deal in 1933.
Stark seems to have overrated Huston's qualifications as a stickler for authenticity. The elaborate, dismaying wrongheadedness of the movie is summed up in one peculiar sequence added especially for the film version. Constructed around a new Charles Strouse-Martin Charnin song (one of four negligible additions to their original score) called "Let's Go to the Movies," the premise is a night out at Radio City Music Hall.
To set the scene: Annie, played by Aileen Quinn, has been liberated from the orphanage by Daddy Warbucks' secretary Grace, played by Ann Reinking, who hopes to improve her employer's image through charitable gestures. The original gesture toward poor orphans--a one-week visit at Daddy's mansion--becomes a permanent arrangement when Annie and Daddy (Albert Finney, affecting a vocal imitation of director Huston) hit it off. As before, Annie's new status provokes a conspiracy by the three comic villains; Carol Burnett as the dipso Miss Hannigan, who runs the orphanage, joins Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters as her brother Rooster and sister-in-law Lily in their scheme to make a killing by pretending to be the lucky little orphan's long-lost parents.
Shortly after ingratiating herself at the Warbucks establishment, Annie is treated to the Music Hall. In fact, Daddy buys out the house so that he, Grace, Annie and her dog Sandy end up watching a private performance by the Rockettes and a private screening of Greta Garbo in "Camille." Just about every aspect of this would-be exuberant sequence is puzzling and/or inept. For anachronistic starters, internal evidence suggests that the action can't be set later than mid-1933, since Annie is described as a 10-year-old and her birthdate given as the summer of 1922. Nevertheless, here she is at a movie that wasn't released until Christmas of 1936.
Forget that and the fact that "Camille" didn't play the Music Hall. Even forget the fact that Garbo's chin keeps disappearing at the bottom of the frame because the excerpts have been so grotesquely cropped and inserted for modern wide-screen projection. The real mystery is the choice of "Camille" itself, which would not have seemed appropriate for a kid at that time and has no apparent affinity with "Annie," unless one is meant to equate Camille the kept woman with Annie the kept kid, who wins herself one swell sugar daddy. To quote a lyric sung by Daddy Warbucks himself, "You've wrapped me around that cute little finger."
The movie seems wretchedly composed right from the start. The camera cuts away from Burnett, for example, just as she's about to turn back and complete a comic situation by flashing some kind of funny expression at another character. The moment when Annie spares Sandy from the dogcatcher by getting him to run across the street to her is muffed by maladroit camera angles and cutting. The dance numbers choreographed by Arlene Phillips tend to emphasize vertical movement--there's a lot of business up and down staircases, for instance, and a considerable amount of jumping up and down by the corps de orphans--but the photographic frame is defiantly and oafishly horizontal.
Burnett's performance as Hannigan is the closest thing to a saving grace discernible in "Annie." Her drunken hostility to the little inmates at her mercy gives comic charge and unpredictability to the opening reel. One of the few kicks in the show is her reading of the line "Some day I'll step on their freckles," and it's probably enhanced by the show-biz ickiness of Quinn and the other juveniles, all would-be Annies or Annie runners-up who evidently can't be prevented from giving you their auditions every time the camera points their way.
On stage, "Annie" had a degree of charm that went much further commercially than it deserved to. The film version squanders even that lucky, overextended resource while wasting fresh resources like Carol Burnett and Ann Reinking. "Annie" has become a synonym for "deadly."