This was written in 1982 for The Movie: An Illustrated History of the Movies in the U.K., about a movie released the same year. — J.R.
“Little Orphan Annie,” a right-wing comic strip drawn by Harold Grey, was premiered in the New York Daily News in 1924, eventually reaching millions of people through syndication in over five hundred newspapers. In a 1937 survey this feature with its little red-headed heroine was declared the most popukar comic strip in America.
Given the parallels between the economic climate of the Eighties and the period represented in the strip, there is a temptation to translate the main political message of the film Annie as meaning, “Let ’em eat cake” — the essential thrust, after all, of many a Thirties Depression musical, when opulent splendor was largely what the impecunious audience was paying to see (in the Broadway show, this aspect of Annie was reportedly even broader).
An attempt to liberalize the original strip to fit in with the Eighties seems to be behind a central sequence in the film in which Daddy Warbucks (Albert Finney) takes Annie (Aileen Quinn) and his personal secretary Grace (Ann Reinking) to Washington DC to meet Franklin D. Roosevelt (Edward Herman) and his wife Eleanor (Lois de Banzie); they try (with the help of Annie singing “Tomorrow”) to persuade Warbucks to run one of the “New Deal” youth employment programs. Paradoxically, this scene and an earlier one — in which Warbucks leads a trip to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes and Camille — are the two which are the most accessible despite (or maybe because of) their profusion of period detail.
When Annie socks a couple of Lower East Side toughs, the graphic sound of her punches makes the cartoon-like stylization of the violence almost as pronounced as that of the bar-room brawls in Robert Altman’s Popeye (1981). But unlike that film’s revisionist approach to animated myth, which depends on collective memory and the passage of time, Annie has little room for psychological nuance (apart from the mugging of Carol Burnett’s rather touchingly vulnerable villainess) and seeks instead to make the characters as easy to read and as unambiguous as the original button-eyed drawings of Harold Grey.