The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Nine

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Annie Get Your Gun

May 17, 1950   MGM    107 minutes

It seems every aspect of the entertainment world is ripe territory for musical treatment, and where Show Boat effectively captured a particularly unique and American aspect of performance that would otherwise likely be unknown to us today, Annie Get Your Gun preserves the mercifully obsolete Wild West show—-part circus, part rodeo, with staged action sequences stunningly free of irony.

What struck me so peculiarly hard this time is that the real love story in Annie is the love of firearms.  If this isn’t the official musical of the NRA, it should be.  It’s shocking how casually guns are waved around throughout, and in the public exhibitions Frank and Annie fire their rifles on targets entirely in the direction of spectators without the slightest regard. Their bullets may hit their targets but then where do they fall? Once you notice this, you can’t be anything but appalled. More astounding still is Sidney Sheldon’s script—which apparently is modeled closely on the original Hebert & Dorothy Fields’ libretto. Hugh Fordin reports there was concern about Indian sensitivities, but if what they left in is any indication of “sensitivity,” then one can only shiver at the slurs they took care to remove. It’s doubtful any Native American actors are among the hordes (you can see the Caucasian chorus boys under their makeup in the tribal dances, and J. Carroll Naish plays Sitting Bull), most are likely Mexican and some look Filipino, plucked off the streets of LA no doubt. There’s one you can see chewing gum behind Hutton during the last bars of “Sun in the Morning.”  The jokes at the Indians expense are in line with minstrel and coon shows, dutch comics and the deeply-biased ethnic caricatures dragged thru Vaudeville.  I mean, when introduced, Sitting Bull says, “How!” and later “Ugh.” Does it get any lower than that? There’s the Jewish/Indian joke where even Sitting Bull has a cardinal rule: never put money into show biz. One gag I did like tho, which seems more George Abbott than George Wallace, is a quick-crossing Indian using his tomahawk to spear an apple from a fruit bowl. On the other hand Indians are constantly pictured as opportunistic gluttons—a scene of them devouring French éclairs is too much. You get the sense if they could have gotten away with it, they would have portrayed them as insatiable drunks too. Unfortunately you can’t really get away from it thru-out, as the film begins with a song glorifying a pageant in which white men massacre Indians, for the whole family to enjoy—which I can accept in the context of 1885, but by 1950 there still seems to be not the slightest comprehension that the  systematic invasion and destruction of a native race might not be something to huff with pride. OK, now I get why Peter Stone had to revamp the book for the 1999 Bway revival. But was a book so blatantly offensive unapologetically used up to then? —I mean, the show was done all the time.  I first saw a high school production in 1968—Or was Sidney Sheldon’s script simply egregious?

The film was an enormous success in its initial release, the fifth highest grossing movie of 1950, which in perspective with today would be the equivalent of Twilight: New Moon. I suspect this was more the fame of a pre-sold title, than the quality of the film itself.  Irving Berlin who virtually wrote a national songbook over the first half of the century was already lending his songs to jukebox film musicals as early as the 1930s. But in the late '40s, spurred by the seismic shift of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Berlin wrote 3 integrated Bway musicals in short order and Annie Get Your Gun, though fairly simple-minded, had a stunning collection of character songs that transcended characters to become a veritable one-show hit parade.

It also sealed Ethel Merman’s iconic status on Bway, but despite, or more likely because of, her previous film experience she was never considered for the MGM movie.  Judy Garland was of course Hollywood’s musical queen, and she got thru a few weeks of production before it all fell apart, presaging her final breakdown and split from MGM. They were actually considering Betty Garrett (fresh off On the Town), and she might have been credible, but she certainly lacked star wattage. Betty Hutton was from the Paramount pool of musical talent, which tells you plenty about Paramount’s quality in the musical field.  There are people, and more than a few, who really like Betty Hutton.  I am not one of them. 
She certainly is pretty enough. In her simpler, quieter scenes she exudes a genuine warmth.  I was shocked how much she kept reminding me of Chloe Sevigny. She’s not a bad actress either when she has a fairly unemotional scene to perform. But then the song begins…and suddenly she’s playing to the balcony, which is odd considering her lack of stage experience.  [It’s great fun and a real eyeful to compare the outtake scenes on the DVD of Judy’s two filmed numbers with those of Betty. With Judy it’s instantly apparent she hasn’t a clue or a hook into the character, and looks hideous to boot—it’s almost shocking; you can see her breakdown happening before your eyes. Her scene reading is in such stark contrast to that of Hutton’s, and so clueless as to almost become an acting class lesson.  But then she opens her mouth to sing, and where Hutton excelled in the dialogue, Garland trumps in song—even if here, in a fright wig, she is less than her usual exciting self.] Alas, Betty Hutton. Perhaps her problem was in lip-synching to pre-recorded tracks; she seems to channel her energy into jerks and grimaces in lieu of using her voice. When she launches into “Doin’ What Comes Nat’rally” it’s with enough hillbilly frenzy as to make Irene Ryan’s Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies’ seem like Ethel Barrymore. Even after she’s transformed herself into the toast of Europe she comports at a society gala like Mammy Yokum in Li’l Abner. Watch her graceless thump up the staircase, at the end of “Sun in the Morning” holding the train of her gown like a roll of toilet paper she then tosses between her legs. And yet when she stands before a lovely painted red sunset on a rocking train and sings “They Say It’s Wonderful” I can see the buried charm; I almost like the girl. 

Howard Keel, plucked out of London’s Oklahoma! won over John Raitt, as a fresh new singing stud. He isn’t so great here; he’s certainly right for the role, but he’s also stage-bound, and a little overbearing in scenes requiring some intimacy. But it was his first film after all. And he’s stuck with some of the ugliest Western duds you’ve ever seen.  The yellow shirt he wears in the sunset train scene is so unflattering in every possible configuration you just have to marvel and laugh.
George Sidney, who directed a number of film musicals I’ll be viewing in this survey, directed Annie after Busby Berkeley and Garland ankled the project. By then he had Anchors Aweigh and The Harvey Girls under his belt among others, and he does a satisfactory if uninspired job here.  One thing I’ve noticed about his style; he’s especially good in staging and moving large crowd scenes (i.e. “Atchinson, Topeka & Santa Fe” from Harvey Girls.) and here in evidence again with a similar scene, the opening arrival of “Colonel Buffalo Bill.” Neither Hollywood nor Irving Berlin dared to toy with the score, except to pare it down a little.  The show was so full of hits it seems ridiculous they’d leave “I Got Lost in His Arms” behind (which they did with no real damage) along with a couple of other lesser songs.  But for the most part this is the most complete Bway score to survive Hollywood treatment since the 1936 Show Boat.  It is a wonderful score—the only reason the show is still around—but nowhere here is it performed with much thrill or excitement. A popular property in perpetuity, Annie Get Your Gun was featured on an NBC “spectacular” in October 1957, starring Mary Martin and John Raitt; and ten years later again on NBC, the famed 1966 Lincoln Center revival with a 58-year-old Merman, now playing the 20-something Oakley as Mother Courage, was broadcast in living color.

Next Up: Call Me Mister 

Report Card:     Annie Get Your Gun
Overall Film:      B-
Bway Fidelity:  A-  Some cuts, but it’s the show
Songs from Bway:  10
Songs Cut from Bway:  4
Standout Numbers: “Colonel Buffalo Bill”
                              “They Say It’s Wonderful”
Worst Omission: “Lost in His Arms”
Worst Addition: Huttons reprise of
                              “Girl That I Marry”
Casting:              Credible but unexciting
Cast from Bway: None
Standout Cast: Hutton?
Direction:          Inoffensive
Choreography:  Hillbilly, Hollywood Indian
Ballet:                 None
Scenic Design:  Lots of dirt but nice dioramas
Costumes:          Women: OK/Men: Hideous
Titles:                  Very 1940s
Standout Set:    The Wilson House hotel
                              Sunset, then moon, on train
Oscar Nominations: 4; 1 win: scoring

2 comments:

larryr said...

To me Betty Hutton will always be the definitive Annie Oakley. Certainly the most authentic. And I've never much cared for her in anything else she was in. But in this movie, it was a marriage made in heaven.
She tried playing a similar character again on TV in Satins and Spurs. It was so embarrassingly bad, it ruined her career.

Darcey Rosenblatt said...

Loving the blog! I viewed this about 8 years ago (preping the kid for an audition) and was appaled at what felt like racial slurs - would love to see hte outtakes but dont think I could bare renting it again!