Tuesday, December 09, 2008

missed opportunity: Andrew J. Kuehn's "Lights, Camera, Annie!" (1982)

A friend recently sent me a VHS copy of a remarkable documentary about the making of John Huston's criminally underrated (misunderstood?) 1982 film version of "Annie."

Directed by Andrew J. Kuehn, "Lights, Camera, Annie!" is a must-see for any movie-musical aficionado who has ever fantasized about going behind-the-scenes and on set during the making of a film musical. It helps to have an appreciation of Huston's film, of course, but that's not necessarily a prerequisite. This is juicy fun. Period.

First off, before continuing, let it be known that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Huston's "Annie." It definitely improves on the truly grating stage show and it's inarguably preferrable to the watered-down tube version prepared by TV musical masters Neal Meron and Craig Zadan.

Fact is, Huston's work is head-and-shoulders above any other production of the material that I've seen. The veteran director, new to musicals, had some obvious fun with the genre, instructing Carol Burnett, as Miss Hannigan, to "play it soused" throughout (which she does quite wittily) and advising Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks to affect Huston's own vocal delivery (which he also does quite wittily). And a deep bow to Huston for also showcasing two stage stalwarts - Ann Reinking, excellent as Grace, Warbuck's executive secretary, and Bernadette Peters, as the vamp Lily St. Regis. Reinking excels in the wonderful "We Got Annie" number, one of many fine musical moments here that the director allows to overshadow the "Tomorrow" anthem, wisely downplayed here.

Best of all, in Aileen Quinn, he found a spunky kid to play Annie who could have stepped out of a 1930s Warner Bros. street film. Too bad that Huston couldn't quite get the Rooster Hannigan of his choice - his almost-son-in-law at the time, Jack Nicholson. Hollywood's most shameless ham would have been a hoot, although Tim Curry, who ultimately played the role, is perfectly fine - wildly theatrical and juicily evil.

Curry, of course, performed in the showstopper, "Easy Street," with Burnett and Peters, which is staged in the finished film in an unusually intimate way. Turns out, it wasn't meant that way - and that's one of few choice bits of information shared in Kuehn's documentary.

Joe Layton, who oversaw all the film's musical numbers, and Arlene Phillips, who choreographed the movie, originally put together a bigger production number, set outdoors and with scores of dancers. Aparently, it was done along the lines of "Who Will Buy?" from Sir Carol Reed's 1968 version of "Oliver!" (choreographed by Onna White). But producer Ray Stark reportedly wasn't entirely happy with the finished product and asked that the song be refilmed - this time, in an indoor setting.

There is ample footage here of Huston, Layton and Stark, all of whom are now deceased, and Phillips discussing the reinvention of the number, as well as other insider insight into the making of a musical. Kuehn's work, narrated by Gene McGarr and produced by Jim Washburn, probably was made to promote Huston's film, but the filmmaker goes beyond the promotional documentary genre and sneakily slips us into meetings and on-set discussions, giving us a fly-on-the-wall vantage point.

There are also on-set interviews with Finney, Burnett, Quinn, Peters, Curry, Reinking and Geoffrey Holder and an extended sequence devoted to the auditions for the title role among scores of little girls. The casting director got the job done expeditiously by going up and down aisles of little girls, having each one contribute to a on-going, non-stop version of "Tomorrow." Each girl picks up where the previous girl left off.

I'd love to know why Sony Home Entertainment didn't include Kuehn's documentary on its recent reissue of the "Annie" DVD as a bonus feature. And exactly what happened to the footage of the original version of "Easy Street"? Why didn't Sony at least include that? I mean, room was found for an unnecessary music video of an updated "rap" version of "It's a Hard-Knock Life" by some generic teen group. Yeesh.

Note in Passing: Speaking of "Annie," in an otherwise fine piece on the state of the modern film musical, freelance writer James C. Taylor wrote a piece of The Los Angeles Times, titled "Movie Musicals Are Whistling a Happy Tune" (August 10th, 2007), in which he states, rather arbitrarily and ridiculously, "while the film version of 'Annie' helped signify the decline of the movie musical, this TV 'Annie' would be the main reason for its return." Say what? Since when? Prove it.

(Artwork: Aileen Quinn, with Sandy, is Huston's "Annie")


John said...

I actually liked both versions of "Annie". The Huston version will be arriving sometime tomorrow from Amazon. In widescreen. Came across it by accident after reading The Passionate Moviegoer. I never knew about an alternate version of Easy Street, I always
thought the stills I saw were from a deleted scene only.

Godard said...

I posit that a large amount of ill will towards Annie has to do with the nearly unwatchable pan & scan copies that circulated throughout the '80s and '90s. Those of us who grew up with this boisterous musical (I was born in '73 and this is the only version of the story I've ever seen) not only look back at it fondly, but marvel at the bright widescreen images on DVD. It's ripe for rediscovery, as is (not to bring up another sore point) Altman's Popeye.

joe baltake said...


"Popeye" is a marvelous film musical - less conventional and less old-fashioned than "Annie." Altman was definitely experimenting with a new-style film musical here. It is solipsistic and unique and altogether wonderful. I love "Annie" because it has Huston stamped all over it - although its detractors are blind to this fact. Given that Huston was not a musical hand, he did a much better job than Rob Marshall did with the lackluster TV version.

Stephen said...

Rob Marshall was prematurely hailed for his at-best competent direction of the TV "Annie" and he's now experiencing a backlash for his big-screen work on "Chicago." Talk about hero reduction in record time!

jbryant said...

My guess is that Taylor means the success of the TV "Annie" paved the way for producers Meron and Zadan to get "Chicago" done as a feature. Don't know if it's true, but it probably didn't hurt.