The latest cinematic adaptation of the 1977 Broadway musical hit Annie wastes no time at all kicking sand into the eyeballs of the title character's creator, the newspaper comic-strip legend Harold Gray.
The film begins with a head-faking close-up of an orange-haired, freckled-faced moppet named Annie punctuating an upbeat classroom report on William Henry Harrison with a little soft-shoe ta-da, as her New York City public schoolmates roll their eyes. Then a more contemporary-looking girl named Annie B. heads up to the front of the class and the center of the film. But this is not the insult in question.
No, what would enrage Harold Gray is what comes next—arguably the most succinctly awful encomium to the New Deal in Hollywood history. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president, Annie informs us in her interactive, percussive presentation, almost everybody was poor. "Pretty much just like now, but without the Internet." (Pretty much! Except without the bread lines, the 15% unemployment for a decade, the absence of stuff like air conditioning, etc.)
To illustrate her point, the plucky tyke then divides the class between rich and poor, with only the front row representing the haughty moneyed types who thought they were smarter and better than the foot-stomping masses of poors behind them. Thankfully, as Annie demonstrates by high-fiving her comrades from the 99%, FDR triumphed over the grumpy fatcats, gave jobs and money to the people, and everything got better. Why, when the poor were finally allowed to have their fair share, even the rich got richer!
It's not just that this bowdlerized version of the 1930s would trigger apoplexy among narrative-challenging economic historians such as Amity Shlaes (to the extent that they care about the classroom spoutings of fictional pre-teens, of course). But as comics nerds and old free-market hands could tell you, Harold Gray was the exact opposite of an FDR cheerleader.
Little Orphan Annie, which ran under Gray's hand from 1924 to his death in 1968, "was…one of the few popular voices raised in opposition to the New Deal," Reason Senior Editor Brian Doherty recalled in 2009. And Gray's opinion of FDR was brutal: "I…have despised Roosevelt and his socialist, or creeping communist, policies since 1932, and said so in my stuff, so far as I was allowed to do so," he once wrote.
Writer/director Will Gluck is not the author of Gray's reinvented New Deal politics, of course. That honor lies chiefly with the Broadway-Annie book-writer Thomas Meehan, who, in the approving words of theater critic Lucy Komisar, managed to turn "a right-wing, anti-union story by a conservative free-enterpriser who hated Roosevelt into a pro-New Deal musical where FDR has a cameo role." (Quite a bit more than a cameo, actually: As fans of the musical and 1982 John Huston movie can attest, the president basically kickstarts the New Deal thanks to Annie's successful lobbying efforts on a reluctant Daddy Warbucks, and the three join together in celebratory song.)
To wrap your head around the enormity of the ideological switcheroo between Depression-era Little Orphan Annie and the musical four decades later, imagine someone in 2014 making a Broadway hit about Doonesbury with show-stopping numbers in which Richard Nixon would wrap his arms around Zonker and sing the praises of the Silent Majority. It's that blatant.
What's interesting in the 2014 experience, aside from the usual pleasures of watching anti-1% lectures financed by Jay-Z and Will Smith, is that a slew of critics are zooming right over the perversion of Harold Gray's artistic intent, and instead complaining that Gluck's update on class warfare did not go nearly far enough.
"Considering this musical has its roots in Depression-era American, Gluck's contemporary take on the material is eerily lacking in observations about the rich/poor divide in this country," lamented Christian Science Monitor critic Peter Rainer. The New York Times' A.O. Scott, after praising how the original musical "made room for Roosevelt and ended on a note of harmony between government and private enterprise," complained that "This 'Annie,' moving the story out of the '30s and into a smoothed-over version of the economically anxious, politically polarized present, gives Roosevelt a brief shout-out and then flees from any implication of historical or social relevance." Even Variety expressed regret over the C-word, with Ronnie Scheib averring that "Only David Zayas' turn as Miss Hannigan's eternally ignored but defiantly working-class suitor brings a believable if simplistic sense of class division to the film."
(It should be added that the lovable Zayas character also drafts Annie into committing the crime of changing the expiration dates on milk cartons, a lapse in ethics that my six-year-old found shocking. [Bonus fun fact: Did you know that milk-carton sell-by dates were reportedly the brainchild of another Depression-era character, Al Capone?])
Gluck thought he was demonstrating political virtue with the FDR opening; as he explained to Time's Lily Rothman, "The one thing I wanted to keep is the socioeconomic divide of the Depression, which sadly has even gotten bigger now and sadly is not going away." But by eschewing any of New York's ample supply of real-world squalor, and ignoring the inequal application of justice (fueled by messed-up government incentives), Annie's latest interpreter was left with little more than some standard-issue corporation-bashing—the real danger to our privacy, one character informs us, comes not from government but from cellphone companies—and that unconvincing soliloquy at the start.
"Annie does not inspire the President to believe that there really are plenty of shovel-ready stimulus projects out there," Rothman laments, tongue I hope at least partly in cheek. "[T]he audience doesn't come away singing a song about Obamacare."
But maybe we should all ease up on the ideological litmus tests here. No person of healthy mind truly wishes to see a song-and-dance routine about a national health care system, unless maybe they're British. Encasing cultural works in ideological or artistic amber is a recipe for irrelevance if not extinction; you don't hear many libertarians complaining that Captain America has evolved into an acerbic critic of the U.S.-led surveillance state, nor do all but the most joyless of music fans decry what Jeff Buckley did to Leonard Cohen or Elvis to Big Boy Crudup.
And if Spike Lee couldn't bring himself to portray the grim edges of ghetto life in a race-riot film about 1980s New York, we might be asking a bit much for a 2014 version of a beloved children's musical from the director of Friends With Benefits. As A.O. Scott grudgingly acknowledges, "I suppose a family entertainment needs to play it safe and avoid inflaming any public sensitivities."
Of course, if Hollywood's armchair Occupiers really wanted to inflame sensitivities, they'd be agitating for a version of Annie that openly reflected the iconoclastic politics of her creator. But we are probably all better off that producers of commercial entertainments, whether they be cartoons or movies, give first priority to the qualities Brian Doherty once hailed in Harold Gray's original strip: "lively and vibrant storytelling skills, …vivid characters, and…celebration of the timeless virtues of optimism, love, and pluck."