"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Annie Get Your Gun (MGM, 1950)

A travesty of Annie Oakley

I dislike Annie Get Your Gun not because it’s an bad film (though it is), nor because Betty Hutton as Annie roars out her songs like a wounded heifer (though she does), nor even because there isn’t a comma in the title (because it needs one) but because the basic picture of Annie Oakley is all wrong. Hutton, taking the role Ethel Merman had in the Broadway show, plays her as a hillbilly tomboy, a sort of sharpshootin’ Doris Day-style Calamity Jane, and it’s quite wrong. Oakley was a demure, proper person who skillfully projected a persona of “little miss”, even as a married woman in her thirties, but she was never less than a Victorian lady in all matters of propriety and dress.
The real Annie with her gun
It is true that I am biased. I don’t care for musicals at all. I find them inherently silly and don’t like the style of music (though I love opera and have no problem with musical drama as such). But these tawdry Hollywood versions of garish Broadway shows are painful. I only watched it because of its vaguely Western subject matter, out of duty.
Doris Day, Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers were all considered
The love of Oakley’s life was the marksman Frank Butler (1847 – 1926), who fell for her when she beat him in a shooting contest, invited her into his show and soon gave her all the limelight. They were married and worked in variety together for years before joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. In the musical, they join Cody right away. Butler (Howard Keel) is a flashy Tom Mix-style dude cowboy who takes umbrage when bested by the young girl and goes off in a huff to join Pawnee Bill’s show. He and Annie love each other but are kept apart for most of the movie and Annie goes to Europe alone. There is no sign of Annie’s rival Lillian Smith either; Annie gets all the glory and meets all the crowned heads.
Frank Butler
Louis Calhern is Buffalo Bill. As a singer, he makes a great actor. (The others can sing but act poorly). Calhern did at least look the part; he was tall, distinguished and aristocratic-looking. It was to have been Frank Morgan but Morgan died just as filming began. Calhern was in fact in a proper Western as well as this junk: he had second billing in the excellent Anthony Mann-directed Devil’s Doorway the same year. he is really the best thing about Annie Get Your Gun.
Yes, well, if you like that sort of thing...
The Indians are portrayed offensively, in a 1950 ‘comic’ way. They are greedy and coarse. Sitting Bull (J Carrol Naish) introduces himself with an “Ug”. He provides the money for the show, investing revenue from oilwells he has (I know, but that is the least of the sillinesses of the storyline).
A non-comic Sitting Bull
Buffalo Bill’s manager, a principal part, is one Charlie Davenport (a fictional character) played by Kennan Wynn. He tells Bill that despite the European tour the show is broke. They hatch a plot to merge with Pawnee Bill’s show to pay their debts, not knowing that Pawnee Bill (Edward Arnold) is broke too and wants to merge to get his hands on Buffalo Bill’s supposed wealth. Or something. The plot is too daft to recount further. This business does at least give rise to one of the few good lines in the screenplay (by Sidney Sheldon and Herbert and Dorothy Fields) when the mutual impecuniousness is discovered and someone says, “They haven’t got as much money as we haven’t got.”
Butler & Oakley, Hollywood-Broadway style
For a big-budget musical there is surprisingly little spectacle in the Wild West show, the ‘biggest’ scenes being one where Annie saves the Deadwood stage by shooting Indians (she didn’t) and the finale as riders surround the happy couple.
You may like this movie if you like colorful musicals. It has at least There's no business like show business and Anything you can do in it. With Irving Berlin (replacing Jerome Kern) and Rodgers and Hammerstein involved (and Busby Berkeley directed quite a few scenes but they were excised or reshot) it couldn’t be all bad, but it could be mostly bad, and it was. As a Western, of course, it’s nowhere, but you can’t fairly blame it for that (though I do).



  1. Wow, partner, dem’s fightin’ words!

    Seriously, though, there are many of us here who love Annie Get Your Gun. I think your antipathy comes from your dislike of the musical genre itself. But if you don’t like it, it shouldn’t categorically be dismissed as bad. For instance, I am not an opera buff, but if someone who is knowledgeable about the form tells me that Wagner is magnificent, I’ll take it as something of a given. In that light, trust me, Annie Get Your Gun is not only a great musical, but one of the greatest of American musicals. It produced more bone fide standards than most any musical, and elements of the score have been re-recorded to this day! It is often revived on Broadway … heck, even Christopher Lee has been recorded singing Sitting Bull’s numbers.

    As for its qualities as a Western. Well, Calhoun is probably the best Buffalo Bill on film – warm, kind, slightly bogus, vaguely Shakespearean. He’s terrific. (One wonders what Morgan would’ve done with it – Cody-as-Wizard-of-Oz would also be a very acceptable take.) And while there are HUGE liberties with Annie’s story (the musical that is most like her life would be My Fair Lady – as Butler essentially crafted her image and persona), it does get the two Bills, the European tour and the incredible success of the Wild West show mostly right. And while Sitting Bull is admittedly a comic figure in Red-Face, the historical Bull LOVED Annie and was a good friend to Cody, as well. They get points on getting the emotional truth if not the literal truth.

    But … when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

    Thanks for your wonderful blog!

    1. Hi Bob
      I've probably been too harsh. It's just that musicals are not my thing. More, I actively dislike them. I tried to watch Oklahoma once, for this blog, but couldn't get beyond the first reel, it was so awful. You are doubtless right, and Annie is one of the great American musicals but where musical drama is concerned I think I'll stick with Cosi' fan tutte.
      As for Calhern's Buffalo Bill, OK, maybe he was good. He certainly looked the part. But I don't think the writing gave him much of a chance to show the real Cody.
      Anyway, thanks for your comment, and happy New Year!