Annie Get Your Gun

Annie Get Your Gun (1950)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Betty Hutton, Howard Keel, Louis Calhern
Extras: Susan Lucci Introduction, Three completed numbers with Judy Garland, Deleted Number, Recording Sssion Takes, Trailer

Broadway’s decline in new musicals has been our gain in revivals of some of the true classics. One of the most successful of recent years has been "Annie Get Your Gun, " reworked to give more substance to the real-life tale of famed frontier sharpshooter Annie Oakley.

As famous as "Annie Get Your Gun" is, it had always been a lug-headed take on history. Rodgers and Hammerstein as producers had optioned the story for a musical. The team offered the property to Irving Berlin, who in 1946 delivered one of Broadway’s all-time greatest hits with Ethel Merman flamboyantly at its center.

MGM lost no time in acquiring the property, and no sooner was the show’s three-year run over than production began. Merman had made many movies but never commanded the screen in a lead as she had on stage. A search for Annie’s rival and love interest Frank Butler yielded Howard Keel his first major role. With the movies’ greatest female musical talent Judy Garland under contract to MGM, it was a foregone conclusion that ’Annie’ would be hers.

Assigning Busby Berkeley can only have been a calculation on the studio’s part to counter Garland’s increasingly disruptive personal behavior with a disciplinarian certain to stand up to her. If so, it was a miscalculation. Though Berkeley’s talent as a dance director was undisputed, he’d produced no successes of note as a director.

After a month into production and more than $1 million spent, the sudden death of Frank Morgan (as Col. Buffalo Bill) capped it; producer Arthur Freed and the studio fired Garland, dumped Berkeley and shooting abruptly ceased to restructure the production.

It’s hard to think of anyone besides Betty Garrett from MGM’s own roster who’d be remotely suited as Annie. In the bold import of Betty Hutton from Paramount there was potential for danger since Hutton was thought to be insecure as a performer at the best of times. Never before or since was so much riding on her shoulders.

Replacement director George Sydney was known for eliciting high-octane performances (he certainly got the most out of Ann-Margret in ’Bye Bye Birdie’), and he proved right for Hutton. Her notorious hyper kinetic energy really pays off here!

Obviously, the show had the benefit of second thoughts. Once the production got its second wind, it clipped along at breakneck pace. The haste shows in mismatched shots here and there. For a movie honoured with an Oscar nomination for Art Direction, the show looked uncommonly artificial. After we detect that Buffalo Bill’s enormous Wild West show is meant to be all prop scenery, it is unnerving to find it sometimes hard to distinguish its fakery from that of the rest of the film. The set dressing is so perfunctory you can even see seams in the sod laid out in front of the Wilson House hotel!

The movie adaptation trimmed an already simplistic plot still further, dropping a few songs along the way. Still, nothing could keep 1950’s critics and audiences alike from taking MGM’s most expensive musical to their hearts, thereby making it one of the studio’s highest-grossing to date. Despite every obstacle to success, the musical went on become one of the highest-grossing in MGM history.

Then it just up and disappeared. Rumours to account for "Annie Get You Gun"’s long unavailability tended to center on Irving Berlin. As the individual who’d almost single-handedly defined America in music, Berlin’s position in the pantheon of greats was assured. Although respect for his accomplishment never diminished, he could only witness demand for his unprepossessingly style recede from the public’s taste. Times had changed irrevocably as he struggled throughout the Sixties to produce one last opus, an original screen musical, "Say It With Music." His disappointment was bitter when Hollywood failed to deliver on the project.

It was an event when MGM’s "Annie Get Your Gun" was announced for an isolated telecast in 1973, but this was exactly the wrong time to reintroduce to a new generation his greatest work. The movie had not wholly met his expectations to begin with. Chopped up with commercials as it was in pasty 70s NTSC color, it was a bad way to see it as well. To add insult to injury, the national telecast’s sound was out of synch with the picture. It was a disaster.

Tantalizing glimpses of the film in MGM’s latter two "That’s Entertainment" anthologies held out no real hope that the public would see the whole film in the foreseeable future. Berlin’s iron will seemed to hold firm even from beyond the grave (he died in 1989 at the age of 101). Its triumphant struggle free of rights problems now bodes well for the two most highly anticipated video holdouts still remaining, "The High and the Mighty" (1954) and "Porgy and Bess" (1959).

"Annie Get Your Gun" has been so long anticipated and its larger-than-true-life myth so built-up that it may not measure up to high expectation. Tiresome political correctionists will have their work cut out for them. The show’s depiction of native Americans is gauche, to say the least. However, the crowned heads of Europe (up to and including Queen Victoria!) don’t fare much better so it would be churlish to add a badge of shame to the medals Annie plasters on her bosom. Anyway, there’s a thimbleful of insight in its depiction of travelling wild west shows of the late nineteenth century.

The show’s rough charms ought to more than suffice. The digital transfer from "restored elements" is sharp and vivid. Latterly, some individual shots exhibit what appears to be grain from the original print. Otherwise, after minor artifacting and video noise during the opening titles, the picture settles in as one of the better of Warner’s consistently improving transfers. Color registration errors surface now and again, in single frames or fleeting frame sequences suggesting that effort has gone into sprucing the show up. The <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2-channel mono for the feature is undistinguished but serviceable. The French track is somewhat duller.

As a ’special edition’ well worthy of the term, we start off with an introduction by Susan Lucci. Presumably, the fact that she was replacement lead in the Broadway revival was sufficient pretext. The introduction is informative and, at under five minutes, concise. I could have lived without Lucci’s synthetic ebullience, but she’s beside the point and in one respect her participation is welcome. Under the shadow of Merman’s monumental origination of the role (much as was Rosalind Russell’s Mama Rose later in "Gypsy"), Hutton was mildly chided for overkill in the coveted lead. To say that she gives her all would be an understatement, but she connects with the material, her co-stars and us, and that makes all the difference.

Garland’s ’I’m an Indian, Too’ was at long last released to the public in MGM’s fascinating compendium of rarities, "That’s Entertainment III." The expanded LaserDisc edition gave us Garland’s more laboured ’Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly.’ Here we’re treated to the complete version and we get to see it within the context of action before and after the song. This affords us a considerably more sympathetic regard for Garland’s performance.

It certainly doesn’t take Garland’s exasperation at the end of ’Natur’lly’ to see that things are not all they should be on set. Her costuming and fright wig aren’t characterful, they’re depressing. What’s more, here she was almost back at Square One with Berkeley, punishing task master of the musical series with Mickey Rooney she’d graduated from nearly a decade earlier.

In ’I’m an Indian, Too,’ we have a gem. It’s hard to imagine what could have made Garland a memorable Annie Oakley, but Robert Alton’s lustrous choreography reflects on her pleasingly. It easily bests Hutton’s version, which had been inexplicably restaged…badly. ’Colonel Buffalo Bill’ features Frank Morgan before his death and Geraldine Wall whose role was recast. What the public has never ever until now experienced is Betty Hutton’s ’Let’s Go West Again,’ written for the original show and filmed for the movie, but ultimately trimmed from both.

There’s an Easter egg in the Special Features section. Audio-only studio sessions of ’Colonel Buffalo Bill’ and ’Let’s Go West Again’ are here, both in true stereo, modest but with noticeably more breadth and even depth than the film soundtrack. ’There’s No Business Like Show Business’ feels rather surreal since the rousing number carries on at some length until it comes to a solo moment fluffed by Garland. The recording proceeds through halts and starts including Garland’s good-natured remarks to music director, Roger Edens. The session ends with engaging humour that belies the production’s tribulations.

The original theatrical trailer rounds out the DVD’s offering. Production stills and dailies were amongst extras touted by Warner Home Video, and early word also had it that George Sidney had done a commentary. None of these items turn up on the disk, though bits can be glimpsed in the Lucci introduction. Anyway, we have ’the sun in the morning and the moon at night’ with the choice items we do get to experience for the first time even in so polished and complete a state as we do here.

"Annie Get Your Gun"…free at last!