Know Thy History: Annie
Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie is one of those comic strips whose reputation in other media has eclipsed its original incarnation. The strip began in 1924 after debuting in the New York Daily News. Following the story of a naive young vagabond and her weird-looking dog named Sandy, Annie rose in popularity until it became the most popular comic strip in 1937 according to Fortune magazine.
The formula was simple: Annie got into some trouble with some malefactors, and her guardian, the famously bald-headed “Daddy” Warbucks, would swoop in to save the day. Rinse. Repeat. Still, for a very innocent strip, Little Orphan Annie made some powerful enemies thanks to Harold Gray’s brand of politics. Such as opponents of child labor. Hey, you lazy kids! Why don’t you go out and get a job like Annie, that little sweetheart?
Annie really did have a very colorful career. She fought gangsters and challenged crooked politicians. She commanded her own commando unit, which sounds crazy until you figure that Annie had a heck of a left hook. Also, in one instance, Annie blew up a Nazi sub. According to Susan Houston:
Her first mission is dramatic enough for any child on the home front longing for a real adventure. She and her friend Panda find a hidden U-boat in a nearby cove, and manage to drag a floating mine to dash against the hull and blow it up.
Little Orphan Annie ended only a few years ago in 2010. Apparently our bright-haired moppet was left stranded in captivity on the very last strip. Also, she was wearing jeans and her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, a pretty transparent attempt at trying to modernize the character. It’s kinda like trying to put Mickey Mouse in baggy pants and a hoodie, though: the red frock and the clown wig is so iconic that anything else is not very Annie. (Fortunately, she was still rocking those blank, soulless eyes right to the end.) Hilariously, “Daddy” Warbucks declares her dead. The very last panel of Annie reads, “And this is where we leave our Annie. For Now—” Seriously, that’s probably one of the most depressing ways for a strip to end. Even Brenda Starr got to retire with dignity.
Her disappearance was referred to in Dick Tracy this year, where it’s implied that “Daddy” Warbucks may enlist the great detective’s help in trying to find her.
Annie was an orphan who lived in Dickensian squalor until she’s adopted by the Warbuckses. (For those of you who are only familiar with her later incarnations, she was initially taken in by a Mrs. Warbucks as a publicity stunt.) Mr. Warbucks would take a shining on the girl, and soon he would be known as “Daddy.” Eventually, Annie would be globe trotting and going on adventures, while “Daddy” would be doing stuff like faking his death because f*** you, FDR! You and your New Deal are the death of America.
Eventually, the mysterious and be-turbaned Punjab was introduced, and Annie got up into some even crazier, mystical adventures. They were joined by Asp, who was a mysterious Asian, and Mr. Am, who was like a million years old.
However, such magical mumbo-jumbo was of no concern of Charles Strouse, Martin Charmin, and Thomas Meehan, who were the fellows responsible for Annie, the musical. Incidentally, Punjab would eventually reappear in the 1982 film version… because he’s Punjab! He’s awesome! However, if all of the sudden the theatrical Broadway version sneaks up on you, be warned that it is 100% Punjab free.
The musical focuses more on Annie as an orphan and zero on Annie as world traveler. She is initially under the care of the alcoholic and domineering Miss Hannigan. She’s street-smart and tough, qualities that catch the eye of Grace Farrell, “Daddy” Warbucks’ hot secretary. (Wait, what happened to Mrs. Warbucks? Does no one else find this suspicious?) Anyway, “Daddy” is hesitant to take this moppet under his wing at first. However, after a chance meeting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a rousing chorus on how the sun’s going to come up tomorrow, both Warbucks and FDR discover that Annie is the key to both ending the Depression and four consecutive four-year terms in office.
Eventually, some con artists, with the help of the villainous Miss Hannigan, arrive to try to steal Annie away. Thanks to the heroic privacy intrusion and wire-tapping efforts of the Secret Service, though, their plans come to naught. Annie is officially adopted by Warbucks, Miss Hannigan and the con artits get sent to Guantanamo, and Warbucks and FDR use their dual powers of capitalism and the New Deal to win WWII.
I should note that the 1982 movie version also kinda paints Miss Hannigan as not so much a villain but rather a somewhat sympathetic woman who’s in over her head. So no federal prison time for her. She even gets to be part of the big musical number at the end. Because, darn it, “Little Girls” and “Easy Street” are two awesome songs.
In 1977, Annie won 14 awards, including Best Musical, best Original Score, and Outstanding Lyrics… what ever that means. This, without scenes of world-spanning adventures and magical feats! The musical, in fact, probably had Harold Gray rolling in his grave by casting FDR as a likeable grandfather figure who makes peace with ultra-capitalist “Daddy” Warbucks through song (“A New Deal For Christmas”).
The musical Annie has picked up a lot of unlikely fans, including one Shawn Corey Carter, who some of you may know as Jay-Z. Mr. Z scored a hit by doing a hip-hop version of the musical’s “Hard Knock Life” … which is probably one of the most unlikely success stories in all of rapdom. Eventually, Mr. Beyonce Knowles would collaborate with developing a new musical with an African American Annie. Frankly, they have already broken my heart by not casting Chi McBride as “Daddy” Warbucks, and instead talking with Jamie Foxx as the differently named “Benjamin Stacks.” I mean, “Daddy” Warbucks is an awesome name! Was Sean Combs threatening to come down hard on the production or something? (Jamie Foxx does say his portrayal was inspired by P. Diddy, after all.)
Wait… Annie’s adopted name is going to be Annie Stacks? Wha—?
Even weirder, Annie seems to have inspired numerous cartoonists that their works can be set to song. Twitter follower Jimmy Jone sent me this link to the Doonesbury musical, which includes a Rappin Ron.
Not too long ago, Greg Evans had his character, Luann DeGroot, perform a song called “Im a Snot.” This link was tweeted to me by … Luann DeGroot? What the what?
And finally, Bill Griffith of Zippy the Pinhead did an entire album featuring his off-putting character. If you’ve ever wondered what Zippy sounds like — and why would you, ya weirdo — he kinda sounds like Bill Griffith doing a superhero voice.
Truly, when it comes to musicals based on comic strips, the sun will come out … tomorrow. Preferably when that Mary Worth musical finally gets made.