Watching the musical Annie is something like a rite of passage for redheaded children. I’ve met so many carrot tops in my life who grew up humming the tunes of Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, kids who’d been exposed to America’s favorite orphan as a figure with whom they could identify amidst the blondes and brunettes who populated most entertainment. I know Annie’s ginger hair and pale complex drew my own mother to the film when she raised her four children, all of us with our own unique shade of red to compliment hers. And we did identify with Annie, much more than we did with that Parisian Madeline who felt worlds away or the tattooed likes of Pete and Pete who had hardly anything to impart to us except that we too could call our siblings “blowhole” if they ever crossed us. While kids like my sister would costume themselves and self-identify as an heir to the Warbucks fortune, I could only mull over the immense sadness I found in the film.
At ten years old, Annie has never known life outside of her New York City orphanage. Her parents left her on the steps of the Hudson Street Home for Girls with half of a locket and a letter promising they’d one day return to bring her home with them. When we meet the Annie of John Huston’s 1982 film, she’s sitting at a large window looking at the skyline, singing about every wonderful thing she imagines her parents to be. The song serves as a sad reminder to her and the other orphans of how much they want to know that they mean something to someone out in that big, bustling city that is struggling through the Great Depression.
I knew enough when I first saw Annie at eight years old that our heroine would find some sort of happiness outside the brick walls of the orphanage, but I never expected the cruel realities of her situation that comes to light as the film progresses. We find out in the third act of the movie that the sadistic lush who supervises the orphans, Miss Hannigan, has known that Annie’s parented died in a fire years earlier and she’s kept this information, as well as the other half of the locket, hidden from Annie all that time. I dread the revelation each time I revisit the movie, sick at the idea that Miss Hannigan could give Annie false hope of someone rescuing her one day. In the end, no one ever condemns Miss Hannigan for her deception. The revelation comes to the audience almost as an afterthought to explain why Annie’s parents never returned to her.
In that first viewing, Annie provided me with the hard lesson that all the best intentions and compassion often cannot stop the cruel realities of life. Annie has kindness in the world of the film, with the character often depicted against adults willing to hurt, mock, or con a child who has no means but her tenacity to avoid letting the hard knock life keep her down. For all her virtues like saving a stray dog, winning the heart of a bullheaded billionaire, and even mending the hard-headed ideological differences of Republicans and Democrats (who’d a thunk it?) — Annie’s uncommon decency cannot always shield her from profound heartache.
An individual’s inability to overcome and work his or her way past human suffering is not new territory for Annie’s director John Huston, an early Hollywood screenwriter-turned-director whose characters explore similar personal turmoil in the more than 30 movies he directed in his career. I need only think of his 1957 drama Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison in which a soldier and nun find themselves deserted on an island during World War II. They’ve come to respect and care for each other, but their relationship cannot go beyond their current companionship even as the soldier begs the nun to marry him if they ever find freedom. Similarly, the cadre of failed romantic characters that populate Huston’s film The Misfits are equally tripped by their inability to find personal freedom on the western plain. Love, happiness, spiritual enlightenment, financial success, and independence are all common goals among Huston’s protagonists, but none of them ever achieve these goals.
Huston fancied himself an Ernest Hemingway type, seeking every opportunity to bolster his credo as a masculine man. He boxed. He gambled. He hunted. He drank heavily. He caroused with glamorous women. At the start of World War II, he traveled to war zones to film documentaries for the war department. Huston considered himself a literate man in Hollywood, which you can see reflected in the collaborators he amassed and the writers whose work he adapted over his six decades as a writer/director – Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Herman Melville, James Joyce, Malcolm Lowry, Rudyard Kipling, Truman Capote, James Agee, Stephen Crane, and Dashiell Hammett. Huston even adapted The Bible when he made the film The Bible: In the Beginning…, a cheeky choice for an atheist, especially when he cast himself as the voice of God.
Huston, for all his blustering and self-importance, was never above directing a film to make some quick cash. You can see those films pop up regularly in the latter half of his career —forgotten titles like Phobia or The MacKintosh Man. Whether Huston even invested much time in any of these movies is uncertain. On the DVD commentary track for his adaptation of Catch-22, director Mike Nichols recalls shooting scenes from his movie on soundstages in Rome near where Huston was shooting The Kremlin Letter. He saw Huston in a phone booth placing bets with his bookie while the red light for the Kremlin Letter soundstage — indicating filming in progress — was glowing, all in the absence of the film’s director.
Annie marked one such instance of Huston working as a hired gun, selected by producer Ray Stark to helm the film despite the fact that Huston had never directed a musical nor had much experience working with children in his decades-long career. Huston had veered so far from his usual tone and themes that, the more familiar I became with his body of work, the harder I found it to rationalize that this titan of early Hollywood had made one of my favorite childhood films. Annie is Hollywood confectionary while Huston’s finest films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Misfits, or The Maltese Falcon are often grim, cynical character dramas about broken men and women who can’t be patched up, except maybe by the occasional stiff drink. So many of his characters are defined by their failures, such as the second-rate boxers of Fat City or the false gods of The Man Who Would Be King. What reason did Huston have to make a film about an enterprising orphan girl who warms her way into the heart of a cold billionaire?
Annie divides audiences for many reasons. Cinephiles quibble with Huston’s association to the project altogether, while Broadway purists rail against how the film takes liberties with the stage production by removing and adding songs, as well as rewriting the plot for the screen. Huston may have adapted some plays to film in the past, but he had never attempted the bombastic nature of a large-scale musical. Cast members like Carol Burnett and Albert Finney screech and holler through much of their screentime, as if no one told them they didn’t need to play to the cheap seats in a motion picture. At times, Huston seems to be supplanting the decency and adventure that made Annie an iconic figure for the last 80 years with excessive mugging from the actors, an overabundance of choreography (with a startling amount of orphan upskirt), and a creeping nasty tone. Some might argue that Huston was too much of a cynic for the material. It would seem that Hollywood tried to sugarcoat one of their most iconic curmudgeons in his twilight years. However, drawing on the man’s personal life would suggest that softer side existed, even as he tried to bury it beneath the bleakness found in his films.
Huston, in fact, played the role of Daddy Warbucks in real life. During the making of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston acquainted himself with a teenage boy, Pablo, who hung around the set during the Mexican shoot. Huston developed such an affinity for the both that he surprised his then wife Evelyn Keyes after the shoot by returning home with Pablo as a new member of the family. While Pablo Huston was never officially adopted, John Huston paid for his education and took care of him throughout the boy’s teen years. The story may lack a shaggy dog with the loyalty of Annie’s sidekick Sandy, but it speaks to the compassionate side of a man who preferred his public persona to be that of a gentleman rogue.
John Huston became an essential director to me as I grew older and identified more with his jaded, bleak world view. At the same time, I have retained that initial love I held for Annie because of that rare instance where Huston could deliver to his audience all these cruel realities that collide with our lives each day, all the while finding glimmers of decency in Annie’s relationship with her benefactor-turned-adopted father Daddy Warbucks. We won’t always get what we want in life, but other miracles might come upon us if we take notice. I feared age would weather away the optimism of any man, but I find it heartening, twenty years after seeing it for the first time, that John Huston could accept the tragedy while still finding unexpected happiness at the end of the last reel.