It's easy to look back with pleasure on an era that looked forward with hope. "Annie," the Ray Stark Production of a John Huston Film for Columbia Pictures, is a return to the optimism that characterized America in the 1930s. People didn't have new clothes. Sometimes they didn't have the rent. They also didn't have nuclear proliferation, an angry Third World, hazardous wastes, or computers. Everything didn't cause cancer. What they did have was tomorrow. "Annie," which stars Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, Ann Reinking, Tim Curry, Geoffrey Holder, Edward Herrmann, and Aileen Quinn in the title role, is very much in the American grain.
In this film, directed by Huston and produced by Stark,and based on the hit Broadway musical, the heroine is a plucky little red-haired orphan who is our kind of heroine--not a martyr like Joan of Arc, not merely a survivor, but a winner. That is one of the reasons why "Little Orphan Annie" was one of America's favorite comic strips from the time it first appeared in the New York Daily News on August 5, 1924, and later became a pioneer radio serial. Drawn by Harold Gray, it appeared at its peak in more than 500 newspapers with a combined circulation in excess of 47,000,000. A survey by Fortune Magazine in 1937 showed it to be the most popular comic strip in America.
The Broadway musical it inspired won 22 major awards, including seven Tonys. Written by Thomas Meehan, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin, it is now in its fifth year, one of New York's longest running hits. Touring companies have taken it to 50 U.S. cities and 14 foreign countries. The comic strip was essentially an upbeat morality play. The Broadway show humanized it. "Annie," the motion picture, draws on the tradition while going a step further, focusing more sharply on the relationships and making them more realistic.
In addition to producer Stark and director Huston, the film had Joe Layton as executive producer and creator of the musical sequences, Carol Sobieski as writer of the screenplay, with musical staging and choreography by Arlene Phillips. Dale Hennesy was production designer, Richard Moore was -director of photography, Margaret Booth was supervising film editor, Michael Stevenson, film editor, and Howard Pine was executive in charge of production. Basically, our film is a love story, says producer Stark,"between a little girl with nothing but the courage to dream and an adult with everything except someone to share it with. She opens him up to human emotions, and he becomes the father she has been looking for all her young life.
"The screenplay by Carol retains the warmth and humor, the basic theme and emotional thrust of the play," Stark says. "She made the people believable by rooting them, and the story, in reality. Not realism, but reality." Mrs. Sobieski amplifies on this. "In the play, Annie is close to Pollyanna, a grownup's edition of the perfect child. It would be unacceptable on film. I gave her a rough edge. She's determined and willful and independent. Warbucks would fall in love with a real child." Stark, who was given the Irving G. Thalberg Award for a lifetime of achievement in film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has in John Huston the most honored living American director.
Huston, who has 13 Academy Award nominations, says, "I hate to use so pompous a phrase as 'American folklore,' but I guess 'Annie' comes under that heading. It's comic book in origin, and we've attempted to keep it very broad but pointed and funny. Crucial to the film's success was finding the right girl to play Annie. Aileen Quinn, a freckled, 10-year-old, 55-pound bundle of talent, won the role after a year-long search by casting executive Garrison True. Rivaling the quest for Scarlett O'Hara some 40 years earlier, the talent hunt covered 22 cities in the U.S. plus Toronto and London. More than 8,000 girls were interviewed. Most of the hit songs which made the L.P. from the show the best-selling original cast album in 1977 and 1978 are also featured in the movie, with four new ones added.
The opening number is the poignant "Maybe," as Annie tells her fellow-orphans, for the hundredth time, about the note her parents left at the orphanage with her, promising to return, and about the half-locket she wears which will match the half they have kept. Desperate to find her parents, she tries to escape but is caught by the gin-soaked, man-hungry Miss Hannigan, tyrannical ruler of the orphanage. Miss Hannigan fancies herself as Simone Simone, but she's more like "Simone" Legree.
Carol Burnett plays the role in broad strokes, noting that, "She doesn't think of herself as a villain. She thinks of herself as a big-hearted woman taking care of a bunch of rotten little kids." Actually, hard as she may try to be mean, the kids generally more than hold their own, presenting their side of the story with "It's the Hard-knock Life."
Annie finally escapes in a laundry truck and has hardly gone down the street when she rescues an old dog, Sandy, from the local toughs who are tormenting him. In the play she sings "Tomorrow" to him; in the film she sings a new song, "Dumb Dog." Sandy is far more important than he was in the play, with a greatly expanded part, and, like many another star, he showed off to advantage in a bubble bath scene. Sandy is played by Bingo, a six-year-old Otterhound, trained by Moe Di Sesso. Annie has to save the dog once more, this time from the dogcatcher, but then she herself is collared by a policeman and returned to Miss Hannigan's tender mercies. Sandy manages to sneak in and join her, but is discovered by Miss Hannigan.
Retribution is averted when a gorgeous 1930 du Pont Royal Town Car pulls up at the orphanage and a goddess descends from the machine in the person of Ann Reinking, as Grace, personal secretary to the billionaire Oliver Warbucks.
The du Pont was one of only 489 ever built; fewer than a dozen of the luxury cars still exist. It and Warbucks' 1929 Duesenberg Dual Cowl Phaeton (which sold new for $14,000) were obtained from Harrah's Automobile Collection in Reno, Nevada, selected from the 1,000 antique, classic, vintage, and special interest automobiles on display. The vehicles are all in fine original condition or precisely restored. Miss Reinking's mission is to bring an orphan back to her employer's house for a week to help his "image." Over Miss Hannigan's violent objections, Annie charms Grace into taking not only her but also Sandy, and off they go to Warbucks' mansion--played by the administration building of Monmouth College in West Long Branch, N.J., and rented by the film-makers.
Formerly the home of Hubert T. Parson, president of the F.W. Woolworth Co., and built on the site of Woodrow Wilson's former summer White House, the structure was built from 1929-30 at a cost of $10.5 million.
It has 130 rooms, 19 baths, a 100-foot Venetian stained glass ceiling, and such accoutrements (many no longer in use) as an indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, ballroom, and chapel. An outstanding example of French architecture in the manner of Versailles Palace, it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
It was furnished for the film by set decorator Marvin March, who filled three and a half 45-foot trucks with appropriate pieces, mostly from the studio, to be shipped to New Jersey. They included a $75,000 Aubusson rug, two porte torcheres valued at $120,000, a few works of art (very impressive copies of the Mona Lisa and Winged Victory among them), and a specially built 25-foot dining table.
"That house sucked up furniture like a vacuum cleaner," March says. The musical number, "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here," serves as a vehicle to take the audience on a first-class tour of the building.
Warbucks, however, doesn't think he's going to like having her there; orphans, he tells Grace, are boys, and Annie should be taken back. Grace stalls till morning. The orphanage and its erratic mistress are too awful."Little Girls," as sung by Hannigan between belts of bathtub gin, reveals why. It is a comic number which does what songs in a musical are supposed to do: either advance the plot or, in this case, reveal the character. Those kids are driving her nuts. "We moved the song farther up in the movie than it was in the play," Mrs. Sobieski explains, "in order to create a certain amount of understanding and sympathy on the part of the audience before their attitude to Miss Hannigan becomes completely negative." The song sets up an unexpected visit from Hannigan's reprobate, jailbird brother, Rooster, and his "little friend," Lily St. Regis.
Rooster is Tim Curry, very convincing in his first role as an American, and Miss St. Regis (" named after the hotel") is Bernadette Peters, wide-eyed but far from innocent in the role. Meanwhile, back at the mansion, Sandy has helped Warbucks' bodyguards, Punjab and The Asp (Geoffrey Holder and Roger Minami) capture a Bolshevik who was attempting to assassinate Warbucks. Without trying, Sandy and Annie are slowly ingratiating themselves, and Warbucks is maneuvered into giving the little girl a treat.
"Let's Go to the Movies," another song written expressly for the film, serves as the springboard for a lavish production number in which Warbucks buys out a performance at Radio City Music Hall for them. To film it, producer Stark and his crew bought out the Hall not for a night but for six days. "Movies and movie palaces were very 1930s," Layton says. "People may have stood in breadlines, but they also stood in line for the movies. The number allowed us to show some of the affluence that existed side by side with the poverty."
The scene also points up the beginnings of a family unit with Annie, Warbucks, and Grace, and establishes the beginnings of a romance between the two adults. The romance develops rapidly. Warmed by their mutual affection for Annie, and egged on by the child's not too subtle matchmaking, Warbucks begins to melt as he becomes aware of Grace's charms.
In a scene of great physical beauty--the dogwood in the formal gardens of the college were briefly in bloom during the filming,and Ann Reinking, in a stunning dress by costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge, never looked lovelier--Grace persuades him to adopt Annie. In the play, Grace gets the papers signed; Warbucks and Miss Hannigan never meet. Given two performers like Finney and Miss Burnett, the omission would have been a sin. In the movie, Warbucks goes to get the papers signed.
"The scene seemed too short," relates Carol Burnett, who has a genius for comic invention. lilt needed a song to really payoff. I started pushing for one like crazy. Albert started pushing like crazy. It was push and shove right up to the last."
The result was "Sign," a patter duet in which Warbucks is trying to get her to sign the adoption papers and she is trying to instigate a romance. Rehearsed with the ink on the music still practically wet, it was filmed two days later and is what would be called it a show-stopper" on Broadway. While Warbucks was emerging triumphant from his battle with Miss Hannigan, Grace had been dispatched to Tiffany's to buy Annie a present.
The scene in which Warbucks tries to explain to the little girl how he feels about her and offers her the gift, a locket, only to have it rejected is perhaps the most emotional in the film. Her old locket, she tells him, is her link to her real parents, "and I just gotta find them." All in a day's work for an actor of Finney's caliber, skilled and experienced, but a little girl, only nine years old at the time? "She's quite remarkable--alert, intelligent, and she has an incandescent quality on screen, Finney remarks admiringly of his young co-star. The two developed a warm relationship during filming.
"Before takes we'd laugh and stuff, crack jokes, tickle each other under the knees," Aileen says, laughing at the memory. "But when it came to 'picture,' we got serious." Warbucks will move heaven and earth to help her get whatever she wants, even to the extent of going on the Bert Healy radio show and offering Annie's parents a $50,000 reward if they will come to claim their daughter.
The show itself is a splendid and affectionate parody of the old radio shows of the 1930s and '40s, complete with a singing group, the Boylan Sisters, who back up the unctuous host in a ditty called "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile." A mob of reward-seekers begins to form outside the mansion. To get her away from all these imposters and grifters, and to satisfy her long-standing wish to meet the President, Warbucks takes her off to Washington in the autocopter.
The White House Rose Garden scene was filmed on the grounds of the college's library, formerly a mansion owned by one of the Guggenheims. This time nature did not cooperate, and the movie's greensman had to wire 6,000 rosebuds individually to plants that refused to bloom in time.
Later, inside, Annie begins to sing the show's biggest hit, "Tomorrow,ti very quietly and a cappella. She is joined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and, at FDR's insistence, by his wife, Eleanor, and by Warbucks, whom he has been trying to persuade to run one of the New Deal's programs. Filming shifted to California and the $1,000,000 tenement street which had been designed by production designer Dale Hennesy and erected for the film at The Burbank Studios. Construction of the fou.r-story street, which is closed at both ends like a city block to allow 360-degree filming, took five months and employed more than 130 carpenters, plasterers, painters, laborers, and heavy equipment operators.
Some 250,000 board feet of 2x4s and 2x6s and other chunks of lumber were utilized, as well as 125,000 square feet of plywood wall surface, 400 cubic yards of concrete, 38,000 square feet of fiberglass and resin bricks, $14,000 worth of glass, and 58 telephone poles anchored in concrete to keep the whole thing from blowing over. It is a permanent set, the largest at the studio. At the center of the street is the orphanage which combined features of two buildings Hennesy had found on New York's Lower East Side. One actually had been a Children's Aid Society home built in the late 1800s.
Inside the orphanage--actually on an interior set constructed in one of the six huge sound stages used by "Annie" for filming and rehearsing--the villainous Rooster, his venal girlfriend Lily, and the volatile Hannigan conspire to relieve Warbucks of the reward and the child.
The orphans have overheard the plot and try to escape to warn Annie, but Hannigan catches them and locks them up. Meanwhile, provided with the other half of the locket by Hannigan (Annie's parents have been dead for years), Rooster and Lily successfully pass themselves off as her father and mother. Grace helps Annie pack, and the little orphan reprises "Maybe. It's obvious that these "unreal" parents mean nothing to her, and she realizes now that Warbucks and she are united by ties of affection that transcend those of blood.
It is too late. She goes off with Rooster and Lily. They are joined by Miss Hannigan. Annie realizes it's a trick, but she can't get away. The orphans, however, did and are heading up Fifth Avenue to Warbucks' house as Annie is being taken down the same street. Sandy sees the little girls, leaps out of the back of Rooster's pickup truck, and leads them to the mansion. Warbucks and his staff spring into action, alerting everyone from the F.B.I. to the Coast Guard, then take off in the autocopter. Annie manages to tear loose, but is hotly pursued by Rooster.
Miss Hannigan finally realizes that he actually intends to kill the girl and tries to intercede but he knocks her down and continues the chase: straight up the air on an old railroad drawbridge. Located by the Passaic River in East Newark, the bridge is nearly vertical, perhaps 85 degrees. Many of the ties, used like rungs on a giant ladder, were rotting. Fog and rain made the ascent more difficult and dangerous; when it didn't rain, a fireboat wet down the structure.
Not only did the stuntmen and Jim Arnett, the second unit director and stunt coordinator, have to climb, but also all the men and equipment needed for filming had to go up the same way. A cameraman who would attempt it, Ray de la Motte, was brought out from California; working on a five-foot beam at the end of the span, the others had to hang over the edge, out of his way, when the camera rolled. A camera plane, a Bell Jet Ranger, captured the action from the air.
While the rescue is the climax of the show, the finale is a spectacular July 4th party. Warbucks' friends are there, President and Mrs. Roosevelt, Annie's orphan comra4es. The mansion and grounds are illuminated by 10,000 light bulbs; a circus has been hired for the occasion complete with tightrope walkers, firebreathers, clowns, a roller-skating elephant.
The orphans find homes; Grace and Warbucks find each other; even Miss Hannigan, perhaps, will live happily ever after. The billionaire and the penniless orphan manage a wicked tap dance as they sing, iiI Don't Need Anything But You." It's true, and that's the happiest part of all. Fireworks fill the sky. "Annie" was two years in preparation, began filming April 29, 1981, and concluded principal photography September 4. It cost more than $35 million. An estimated 1,913 people worked on the movie, among them 117 dancers, 82 actors, some 1,000 extras, 225 crew members, 190 construction workers, 59 police and security guards, 65 musicians, and 175 people from Radio City Music Hall: stagehands, Rockettes, musicians, and all.
Frequently there were more people watching than working. A crowd conservatively numbered at 1,000 watched evening filming in New York's Greenwich Village area; hundreds more gathered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Library, and Plaza Hotel. There were even 500 watching the finale in New Jersey.
Among the more notable set visitors were former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, current Nigerian Vice President Joseph Wayas, and New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne, who helicoptered in to the location to sign a bill allowing more flexibility for night filming with minors. "Annie" not only had its own law, it had its own horse race, the fifth race at Monmouth Park June 10. Dubbed the "Annie Stakes" by the track, it was attended by Stark and Finney, both racing fans.