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Annie Get Your Gun
In 1997, DVD Savant started as an experiment at MGM to do something with all the email the studio was receiving, and not really answering. Along with a rather silly concern for something called The Hanging Munchkin, there were a lot of letters asking about the lack of availability of a fondly-remembered MGM Musical from 1950, Annie Get Your Gun. One of the most popular movies of its year, AGYG was also considered one of the top Musicals, period, and yet it was nowhere to be seen on television or video. Savant responded with a couple of articles that 'covered' (read: evaded) the issue: ANNIE GET YOUR GUN - Where Art Thou?, and a generalized bit of fact-avoidance called Rights Issues and Unreleased or Edited Videos. The specific reasons MGM couldn't release AGYG weren't being discussed anywhere, so it was obvious that MGM didn't want me blabbing about them. Interest in the title soared with the release of 1994's That's Entertainment III, that showed part of a musical number from AGYG. The end titles stated clearly that every film represented was available from MGM Home Entertainment ... a goof that prompted a pile of mail and Email.
Savant himself had never seen AGYG, although personal copies circulated here and there in the Hollywood insider circuit of Musical fans. No authorized showings had happened since way back in 1973, when Irving Berlin refused to renew his contract with MGM. By 1950 the power of the studios was no longer such that it could buy up all rights for major Broadway talent; when a powerful property like Annie Get Your Gun was shopped around, superstar composer/lyricist Irving Berlin was able to write his own ticket. He was apparently sufficiently unhappy with the resulting movie (or disenchanted with the 1973 studio representatives) to simply refuse to allow MGM's license contract to be renewed. Berlin certainly didn't need the money. 1
After Irving Berlin passed away in 1989, negotiations didn't improve, as his heirs put an exhorbitant price on the rights to the film. Turner, which acquired the pre-1985 MGM library, had several rights headaches like this to contend with. Although AGYG was much desired by its fans, it still didn't come out.2 Only when the shift of the Turner library from MGM to Warners happened just a couple of years ago, did the logjam finally breakup. Casual filmgoers may be unimpressed, but for musical fans, this DVD release is a gift from heaven.
Annie Oakley (Betty Hutton) joins the famous Wild West Show of Buffalo Bill (Louis Calhern) by besting top marksman Frank Butler (Howard Keel) in a shootin' match. A sunburned hick from the stix, she quickly rises to star status, creating a jealousy factor which complicates their romance. Befriended by the show's other topliner, the real Chief Sitting Bull (J. Carrol Naish), Annie makes a whirlwind European tour before returning to New York to face-off with Frank and the high-toned, white gloved society gals he always said he preferred.
Annie Get Your Gun is a stage adaptation of a current hit at a time when MGM was recycling older Broadway material in musical-biographies, or doing what it did best, concocting its own cinematically-based original hits. Films like On the Town had original songs and lots of choreography in which the camera 'danced' along with the performers, creating explosions of movement and cutting that couldn't be reproduced on the stage. AGYG isn't part of that tradition - you aren't going to find the equivalent of a 'Broadway Ballet' here. It has its grandiose Wild West scenes, but only one number has anything in the way of standard choreography. The musical numbers mostly consist of the performers facing the camera and getting on with it.
What this picture does have is Betty Hutton, who more than compensates in every category. Loud, brassy, and spirited, Hutton is even more energized than Ethel Merman, her superior as a singer. Neither is Hutton the vocal equal of AGYG's original Annie, Judy Garland. Some will find her an acquired taste; Savant thinks she's tops. Her exaggerated hayseed as the early Annie is just too fun to be annoying (unlike Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a prime candidate for TWYMWTHOTHWAS.3 Part of the motivation for loving Betty Hutton is seeing her in Preston Sturges' The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, one of the funniest movies ever made. There she plays Trudy Kockenlocker, a swing-baby who becomes, uh, pregant by a soldier whose name she can't remember but sounds something like Ratskywatsky .... I digress. In that movie Hutton bounced around in a party dress as the happiest ditz alive, 100% endearing. The best number in AGYG, "I Got the Sun in the Morning", anachronistically gives Annie the same swing-era gestures and vocal inflections. She carries the whole thing, and the result is musical magic, that energy that lifts you up out of your seat. 4
The rest of the cast mostly plays support. Louis Calhern and Keenan Wynn are fine, and their replacement singing voices are remarkably convincing. J. Carrol Naish gives an integrity to his Sitting Bull that softens the thick ethnic humor (more on this below).
Howard Keel is also fine, although the Butler role requires him to basically play a jerk. His duets with Hutton are far less stiff than his average operetta-inflected vehicles. When it comes time for him to square off nose-to-nose against her in "Anything You Can Do", it's probably the best single number he's done. Am I forgetting anything?
Savant is told that the present Broadway revival of the show liberally rewrites much of the book, and drops the "I'm An Indian Too" number outright. Perhaps one reason the movie didn't get a theatrical reissue is its dated attitude toward Native Americans. There's a constant flow of Injun jokes, the kind that stereotype them as clowning savages. There's totem pole jokes and squaw jokes and papoose jokes - standard stuff in 1950, but not likely to amuse everyone now, witty or not. The backbone of the original Annie Get Your Gun is its equally dated prefeminist moral, where Ms. Oakley learns to stop competing with the macho Frank Butler. The final scene has her throwing a shooting match on purpose so that the Man can retain his pride. 'You can't git a man with a gun', is right up there with Carousel's 'There are some hits that don't hurt', when it comes to outdated messages that are just plain unconstructive!5
Warner's DVD of Annie Get Your Gun is a bright and happy show in a technically slick package. The elements for the film appear to have been well preserved; with the exception of a misregistered shot here or there, the picture is as sharp and bright as its original Technicolor incarnation. The sound is mono but beefy and full-bodied. A five-minute intro to the film hosted by Broadway Annie, Susan Lucci, presents some historical background about the real Oakley and briefly sketches the unfortunate first attempt to film the show with Judy Garland.6
Extra musical numbers, mostly never seen, provide the focus of attention, added value-wise. Hutton is seen singing 'Let's Go West Again', a song nobody will miss. Three more numbers are included from the abortive Garland shoot, done almost a year earlier at MGM. The first is an alternate to the opening 'Colonel Buffalo Bill' number that substitutes an actress named Geraldine Wall for Benay Venuta, and The Wizard of Oz's Frank Morgan for Buffalo Bill. The two Garland numbers are almost painful to watch. She looks like death warmed-over, to be direct about it - sickly, emaciated, exhausted. This was apparently the height of Garland's substance abuse problems, which were compounded by grave personal and professional upsets. The most energetic dynamo in musicals looks absolutely hopeless here. Garland's misery is transparently obvious ... the desperation, frustration and pain.
There are stage waits and slate takes in the That's Entertainment III boxed laser showing Garland filming The Harvey Girls and Summer Stock. In those outtakes she seems even more energetic and spirited than when the camera's rolling. Here she practically collapses every time 'Cut' is called. The footage plays like two weeks' of shooting where the studio knew they weren't going to get a screenable picture and were trying to find a way to pull the plug or to provoke Garland into quitting. Eventually she was plain fired - the woman who had just given the studio 18 years of brilliant work. These extra numbers are even more painful when compared to the final Hutton versions in the finished movie, with their improved costumes, choreography, blocking, everything. Thankfully, after the positive high of the feature, these archival clips don't become too depressing.
Like I said before, Savant hadn't laid eyes on Annie Get Your Gun until just last year, and seeing this top-rank MGM musical years after he'd 'thought he'd seen everything' was as if the movie stepped out of a time machine. Hopefully, all those nice old folks who just wanted to see Betty Hutton strut her stuff in those MGM letters, are still with us in 2001. If your tastes run to Road Trip, Savant's crowing about Annie Get Your Gun isn't going to make a bit of difference. But musical fans will find a real treat in this new DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Annie Get Your Gun rates:
Supplements: Intro docu, 4 outtake musical numbers, audio session recording track, trailer
English and French tracks and subtitles
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: January 1, 2001
1. This is not that unusual. The long-unseen 1956 English version of 1984 stopped being shown on television in the 1970s. The George Orwell estate controlled the rights for that film adaptation, apparently did not like it, and were more interested in Orwell's legacy than making the few dollars the movie would earn on television. An even better example are the films of Howard Hughes, Hell's Angels and The Outlaw. Readily available now, throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s, Hughes had them strictly pulled from exhibition. Sherman Torgan of the New Beverly Theater In Los Angeles unknowingly booked them in the late '70s; the first person in his ticket line was a lawyer with a paper preventing his show from going on!Return
2. Another rights story that can now be told: (total editorial comment, here) When Turner made its 1991 paean to the legacy of MGM, When the Lion Roared, Savant cut promos for it for home video. Right in the middle of cutting, a major change took place in the 3-part docu: all the scenes and shots of Fred Astaire (past a certain date) had to come out. Astaire's widow, supposedly following through on Astaire's instructions, demanded a high price for rights to his image and dancing under the legal language of the star's old MGM contracts. This is why Astaire clips are very rare in compilations, etc; the only place his later MGM performances can be seen is in the films themselves. Is Mrs. Astaire simply protecting his legacy from uncontrolled over-marketing? An Astaire clip shows up in the new movie Billy Eliot, accompanied by a fat end credit attributing its use to her. Turner has a hard time putting together Astaire retrospectives, but his estate can market clips for computer-altered television spots, where name products like vacuum cleaners are substituted for Astaire's dancing props! That's protecting his image?Return Return Return
5. Neither of these issues worries Savant much, when great modern morals like 'You mustn't kill people , but shooting them in the kneecaps is OK', are accepted by audiences without question. Then again, I'm in neither of the affected categories. Savant's not volunteering to show AGYG to an audience of Native American activists.Return
6. Savant edited this intro for DVD-docu producer Peter Fitzgerald last August. Early announcements touted a commentary from director George Sidney, who was too ill during production to do any recording.Return
Other Musically - oriented Savant articles:
Savant Review: Good News ...
Jump Cut 2: SINGIN'IN THE RAIN ...
A missing scene in
HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson