Monday, December 28, 2015

when bad things happen to good movies

© Sony Pictures
John Huston and his amazing "little girls" from "Annie" (That's title star Aileen Quinn on Huston's right and, directly next to her, is the late Amanda Peterson) The film, once unfairly reviled and discredited, is being rediscovered and reassessed

It's heartening to sense that John Huston's 1982 film version of the Broadway musical "Annie" is yet another hastily dismissed, misunderstood title that has been - at long last - "rediscovered" and appreciated for the terrific movie musical that it is.  Of course, it took more than 30 years and two inferior remakes to convince its detractors of its worthiness - a watered-down 1999 TV version and a grotesquely updated 2014 remake.

For the past three decades, people who don't "get" movie musicals - including professional critics whom one would think would know better (well, think again) -  have indulged in snarky derision and bad jokes, exhibiting their abject cluelessness.  And, for me, few things are as amusing as a dull white middle-aged male movie critic trying to be funny.

"Annie" joins a select list of movies initially written off, chief among them Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958) which, in its day, was harshly reviewed, to put it mildly.  So much (again) for critics and their educated tastes.

"Annie" could certainly be included among the films recently celebrated by the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BAM) in its "Turkeys for Thanksgiving" program, among them Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Cleopatra," Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate," Francis Ford Coppola's "One from the Heart," Robert Altman's "Popeye," Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love" and Charles Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux."  All really good films. "Folly or misunderstood masterpieces?," BAM asked in its promotion for the series.

Richard Brody, arguably the best movie critic writing today (although his official title is actually movie editor at The New Yorker), covered the BAM series on his New Yorker blog in a piece titled "These So-Called Bad Movies Prove the Urgency of Film Criticism," an essay you can read here.

But back to "Annie." It's popularity as a "family-friendly" Broadway show (when there were precious few back in those days) is a given.  Columbia Pictures sensed that it could be transferred rather seamlessly to the big screen and spent a then-record $9.5-million for the movie rights.

Producing chores were handed to Ray Stark, who had successfully overseen "Funny Girl" for Columbia years earlier, and Stark was given complete creative control to hire anyone he desired.  He could have picked among the usual suspects to direct this valuable property but he (wisely) settled on Huston, a decidedly non-musical name but a real filmmaker.

This was a shrewd trend in the late 1970s and early '80s which answered the question, "How do the few remaining denizens in Hollywood who actually like musicals combat critics who, sight unseen, immediately declare every new movie musical 'an unmitigated, unwatchable disaster'?"

Answer: You bring in the Big Guns - Sidney Lumet to direct "The Wiz," Milos Foreman (!) to film "Hair" and Sir Richard Attenborough to take "A Chorus Line" from stage to screen.  Surely, critics would approve, right?

Wrong.  The critics nitpicked, even though both Huston and Foreman hit all the right notes, with Huston delivering a throwback. an old-fashioned movie musical, and Foreman helming the definitive version of "Hair."

In the case of Huston, it was the perfect mating of filmmaker and material.  The director seemed to relate to his tough-willed little title character and, in nine-year-old Aileen Quinn, he found an effortlessly spunky kid who could have stepped out of a '30s Warners street film.  And Quinn handily nailed the role.

Huston's other smart move was to bring in the great veteran Broadway choreographer Joe Layton to oversee all of his film's musical numbers and the then-new British choreographer Arlene Philips to stage all the dances.

Philips' exuberant, acrobatic staging of the film's "It's a Hard-Knock Life" number is a jaw-dropping knockout - hands-down. It gets better with each viewing, equalled by her breezy staging of Ann Reinking's "We Got Annie."

Which brings us to Huston's shrewd casting - Reinking, Bernadette Peters, Geoffrey Holder and Edward Hermann and Lois De Banzie (spot-on and Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt) from Broadway; Albert Finney from international cinema; Tim Curry from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and of course, Carol Burnett from, well, every medium imaginable.

And thanks to reader Kevin Barry for the gentle reminder of the crucial role that the legendary editor Margaret Booth played in "Annie," another astute hire.  (Kevin's response is among the posted comments.)

That said, here are a few "Annie" factoids that add to the fascination of this terrific film:

Albert Finney's line-readings for Daddy Warbucks.  Stark reportedly joked that Huston himself would be the perfect Warbucks.  That gave Huston and Finney an idea: Finney appropriated Huston's vocal intonations for his performance. His line readings sound exactly like Huston speaking.

John Huston's own "cameo" in the film.  The sonorous voice of the actor on the radio soap opera who seems to be talking directly to Carol Burnett (just prior to the "Little Girls" number) is ... Huston's.

Carol Burnett's performance.  When the actress asked her director for a tip on how to perform Miss Hannigan, Huston made it simple: "Play is soused."  Burnett's performance is one long (witty) drunk scene.

Carol Burnett and Dorothy Loudon.  When Carol Burnett exited as a regular on "The Garry Moore Show" to do the 1964 Broadway musical "Fade In, Fade Out," she was replaced by Dorothy Loudon.  Loudon would go on to create the role of Miss Hannigan in "Annie" on Broadway and Burnett would replace her in the film.  A nifty, circuitous happenstance.

The casting of Rooster Hannigan: Huston had his heart set on his "almost" son-in-law Jack Nicholson for a smallish role in "Annie" - as Miss Hannigan's incorrigible brother, Rooster.  (Nicholson was romantically involved with Anjelica Huston at the time.)  That would have been a hoot.  Perfect casting.  But even though it would have been a quick shoot for Nicholson, he had a scheduling conflict and Huston moved on and subsequently nabbed Tim Curry for the role.  And Curry also proved to be a perfect Rooster Hannigan - wildly theatrical, juicily evil, in the role.

Prior to a recent TCM screening of "Annie," a Turner host erroneously reported that Nicholson was Huston's choice to play Warbucks. This misinformation (from the “Annie” page on Turner's website) could have been easily fact-checked: The Nicholson-Rooster connection was widely reported prior to production. No, Albert Finney was Huston's sole choice to play Warbucks, which seemed curious at the time (even though Finney had previously sung on-screen in 1970's "Scrooge"), but it worked. Finney is just witty enough as Warbucks and his eyes expose his affection for Annie.

And Nicholson also previously sung on screen., but his rendition of Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner's "Who Is There Among Us Who Knows?" was cut from Vincente Minnelli's 1970 film musical, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."  (Nicholson's song was included among other deleted movie musical numbers on an album released by Out Take Records.)

As for Huston and Finney, two years late,r they would collaborate again but on a film the polar opposite of "Annie" - "Under the Volcano," based on the Malcolm Lowry novel.

The return of two "Annie" characters from the strip:  Huston reinstated the characters of Punjab (Holder) and Asp (Roger Minami) for his film version  Neither character is in the stage musical. Which brings me to Carol Sobieski who adapted "Annie" for the screen, managing to honor not only Thomas Meehan's stage script but also the original Harold Gray cartoon strip.  Sobieski, who died in 1990 at age 51, had previously worked for Stark, writing the screenplay for the fine 1978 Walter Matthau film, "Casey's Shadow." Two of her screenplays were filmed after she died - Jon Avnet's hugely popular "Fried Green Tomatoes" (1991), based on the Fannie Flagg book, and John Cusack's "Money for Nothing" (1993).

The original "Easy Street" number: Two versions of this memorable number were filmed.  Philips originally staged it along the lines of "Who Will Buy?" from Sir Carol Reed's 1968 version of "Oliver!" (choreographed by Onna White), on an outdoor set and backup dancers (pictured directly below). But producer Stark reportedly wasn't entirely happy with the finished product and asked that the song be re-filmed - this time, in an indoor setting with a more intimate staging and with only Curry, Burnett and Peters performing (also pictured below).

I speculate the number also had to be re-recorded to accommodate the revised staging.

All of this was documented by Andrew J. Kuehn in his promotional documentary, "Lights, Camera, Annie!", which was televised by ABC and broadcast prior to the film's release. Kuehn's film 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 a prerequisite.

This is fly-on-the-wall fun. Period.

There is ample footage of Huston, Layton, Stark and Phillips discussing the reinvention of the number as something smaller, with a few shots of "Easy Street" as it was originally conceived. Kuehn's work, narrated by Gene McGarr and produced by Jim Washburn, goes beyond the promotional documentary genre and sneakily slips us into meetings and on-set discussions, giving us an insider's insight into the making of a musical.

There are also on-set interviews with Finney, Burnett, Quinn, Peters, Curry, Reinking and 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.

Carol Burnett discussed the filming of the two versions of "Easy Street" when she was a guest on Alec Baldwin's ”Here’s the Thing” podcast on October 10th.

Frankly, I'd love to know why Sony Home Entertainment didn't include Kuehn's documentary or the original "Easy Street" staging on its recent reissue of the "Annie" DVD as bonus features, instead of an updated "rap" version of "It's a Hard-Knock Life" by some generic teen group - an ominous inclusion that anticipated Columbia's dubious 2014 remake.

The song score: The stage songs dropped from the movie were "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover," "N.Y.C.," "You Make Me Happy," "You Won't Be an Orphan for Long," "Why Should I Change a Thing?," "Something Was Missing" and "A New Deal for Christmas."  New songs added to the film were "We Got Annie," "Dumb Dog"/"Sandy," "Let's Go to the Movies" and "Sign."  All songs, for both the play and the film, were written by Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics). Charnin has directed seemingly umpteen stage revivals of the show.  It's his baby.

Strouse also wrote the music for "Bye Bye Birdie" (with Lee Adams doing the lyrics) and I've a hunch that all those dropped "Annie" songs brought back unpleasant memories of when the same studio, namely Columbia, filmed (and unnecessarily truncated) "Bye Bye Birdie" back in 1963.

I can't say I particularly miss the deleted stage songs, but the "We Got Annie" number is wonderful, so wonderful that I'm surprised Strouse and Charnin never incorporated into the subsequent stage revivals of "Annie."

"Live" versus Dubbing: Although most of the songs for "Annie" were pre-recorded, there are areas of the film when the performers sung "live" on set, most notably Carol Burnett's rendition of "Little Girls."  Finney sings a "live" reprise of "Maybe" and the opening portion of "Easy Street" is sung "live" by Curry, Peters and Burnett.  Huston used the show's signature song, "Tomorrow," over the opening credits (in lieu of an overture), sung by Quinn who later in the film sings it "live" (sweetly and with no musical accompaniment) to Hermann and De Banzie. When Finney, Hermann and De Banzie join her in a quick reprise, the song is lip-synced and scored.

The film's one oddity: One of the film's highlights - the "Let's Go to the Movies," shot it the magnificent Radio City Music Hall - is marred when the film stops cold to screen assorted scenes from George Cukor's "Camille" (1936) with Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. Huh?  My assumption has always been that "Camille" was one of Ray Stark's favorite films - an assumption never confirmed.  I can't think of any other reason for its inclusion. Otherwise, it beats me.  But that one blemish aside, at least we get great shots of the Music Hall's cavernous lobby.  Gorgeous.

And there you have it...  All about "Annie."


John said...

I actually liked both the movie and TV 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.

Alex 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.

Sheila said...

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. "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.

McK said...

My all time favourite movie musical is John Houston's Annie. Carol Burnett was so creepy funny as Miss Hannigan, and I think that the score and choreography were intense and edgy, a good counterpoint to the cutesy aspect of the story line in general... it was the Depression after all!!!

Love your blog!

joe baltake said...

Sheila- You put it well. "Annie" indeed looks and feels like a John Huston film - only with songs and dances. He did much better by the material than Marshall with his bland TV version. And, yes, Altman's "Popeye" is (to quote you) solipsistic and unique and altogether wonderful. He was definitely experimenting with the form. And Alex - good point about the bad impression made by the scanning of the film for the old box TV sets.

joe baltake said...

Oh, and one more message - to McK. Interesting observation that Philips' edgy choreography served as balance to the more saccharin aspects of the material.

Kevin Barry said...

I love your intelligent pieces on undervalued movies. It was film editor Margaret Booth's idea to show the capsule version of Camille at the Music Hall. She edited both Camille and Annie. Camille, however, opened at the Capitol and never played the Music Hall, and it is shown in the wrong aspect ratio, a detail that apparently went unnoticed by both Ms. Booth and Mr. Huston. Also, another Loudon/Bunett connection: Dorothy originated the role in Noises Off that Carol recreated on screen.

joe baltake said...

Kevin! Yes, Margaret Booth, a name that I forgot to mention among those smart hires by Huston. Thanks for the heads-up. (I'm adding Booth's name to my piece pronto!) And thanks also for the info on the Booth/"Camille" connection, as well as the other Loudon/Burnett connection. Finally, yes, the wrong aspect ratio for "Camille" is indeed a worrisome flaw in the film. (I hope that you agree with me that its inclusion in "Annie" does stop the film cold, needlessly.)

richard l. said...

Hey, Joe- Thanks for the persuasive argument in defense of "Annie." I always thought it got a raw deal, critically speaking. And thanks for the cheer for Richard Brody, who I also think is great. But I would go with Dave Kehr as the best movie critic around.

joe baltake said...

Hi Richard- You'll get no argument from me about the merits of Dave Kehr. Wonderful critic and all-around good guy. But Dave hasn't been twinkling of late. He pretty much gave up regular reviewing when he took his gig at the Museum of Modern Art. And he is much missed! The NY Times was shortsighted not to have made Dave one of its chief movie critics while he was there but the years he spent at the Times writing his invaluable video/DVD column more than satisfied my need for intelligent, unpredictable criticism. Fortunately, Dave's archive of stuff is still available on line @

Marvin said...

Joe, what a fabulous "law review" style article on ANNIE; can hardly wait to see that film again. Also enjoyed re-reading the Diane Varsi piece. Marvin, an attorney

Kevin Barry said...

Yes, Joe, I totally agree that the Camille sequence brings Annie to a halt. It almost feels like a built in Intermission, like the Dodge City sequence in John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn. It's a very odd directorial choice.

joe baltake said...

Kevin- Apt analogy. -J

a.n. said...

After reading your piece on Houston's "Annie" I had to stop to applaud your bold, knowledgable critical style. While I don't really care for "Annie," (to be totally honest I hated the original Broadway show as well) your unapologetic defense of the film speaks of the type of originality one rarely sees in journalism today. So much of what passes for criticism is simply a rehash of sound bites pilfered from other sources. It seems that being a journalist today requires less original thought than it does an ability to distill consensus into digestible form.

It has long been a pet peeve of mine that once a prominent author states an opinion about a film, the statement of criticism suddenly loses its subjectivity and becomes fact. If I could use an example I find particularly galling: when did the musical "Singing in the Rain" go from being a lovely piece of nostalgia to become anointed the "best movie musical of all time?" Don't get me wrong, I enjoy "Singing in the Rain" but frankly I can think of a dozen other film musicals I would rather watch. Once a bit of critical praise like this reaches the ether it is repeated endlessly until it is formally acknowledged to be truth.

Your critical analysis of film includes none of this. You are a wholly original voice in the field who makes no apology for your opinions. Why should you? Your opinions are as valid as anyone else's and rendered with a background knowledge of the medium stronger than most.

I know that I've sort of wondered off the subject of "Annie," but I want you to know that in this world of mindlessly repeated sound bites, your intelligently original thought and criticism is greatly appreciated.

joe baltake said...

Wow! Thanks for the generous words. You pick up on something that bothered me throughout my career as a working movie critic: There is definitely a herd complex among film critics and it gets especially ugly when the "club" turns into a lynch mob. During my 30-plus years reviewing (I'm seriously dating myself here), I declined to be a member, prompting one of my best friends (another critic) to refer to me as The Contrarian. Yes, "Singin' in the Rain" is a pleasant film musical, but the all-time best? I politely disagree, but it's blasphemy to do so. The problem with critics - and, by extension, movie buffs - is that they tend to go back and look at a favored title over and over and over again until it becomes way beyond criticism. They keep looking for - and finding - things about the film that validate their first impression. This doesn't happen with "bad movies," which are seen once and remain fixed in their minds as something atrocious. That's one reason why I started this site, the main reason that it's largely devoted to the unheralded, the underrated and the maligned. Also, critics tend to latch on to a first crush and remain smitten for a lifetime. Hey, I liked Altman as a young critic but I eventually got over the infatuation and moved on. Finally, full disclosure: I don't like the play "Annie" very much either, but as you can tell, I think Huston's adaptation of it terrific.

Kevin Barry said...

I dislike the "all-time best lists" produced by the likes of the American Film Institute and Sight and Sound - Singin' in the Rain is the best musical, The Searchers is the best western, etc. Even the tired cliche that Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made frustrates me (Well, now it's Vertigo, apparently, and I'm not even sure it's Hitchcock's best work). These lists encourage lazy scholarship and send a message to those less informed that if you see The Searchers there is no need to see any other western. These movies are all great, but the history of the cinema is an embarrassment of riches and putting a select few films on a pedestal limits our vision.

joe baltake said...

Hi Kevin- For some bizarre reason, movie types love putting together gratuitous, pointless lists. Actually, most journalists in general seem to enjoy the process. That's one reason why I stopped renewing my subscription to Entertainment Weekly - I could no longer take the never-ending series of lists. Now, the internet does it ad infinitum. Oy. Yes, it makes those who are easily impressed (and not likely to question the process) very lazy. You and a.n. bring up criticism problems in your posts that lead to one impression - the reluctance of people (including critics) to embrace original thinking. It's easier to be told what to think and not question it. Again, it's the "herd complex."