-or- Sysiphus for the modern era, (and by “modern era,” I mean the 1930s as seen through the lens of the 1980s which happens to be scarily reflective of today)
I have “Tomorrow” from the movie-musical Annie stuck in my head and I can’t get it out.
I don’t know why I put Annie on to begin with. It was suggested to me by Netflix because I had recently watched The Muppet Movie, (for reasons that are entirely Steve Martin related). Netflix must have assumed, based on this, that I have a fetish for movies about childlike characters living in squalor, who despite being completely vulnerable in a bleak and uncaring world, still manage to sing buoyantly about staring down unimaginable odds.
I’m not saying it was Netflix’s fault. I knew what I was getting into. I watched it enough as a kid while being babysat by my mom’s friend who’s two daughters loved musicals (and maintained a dictatorial control of the VCR). Annie was their favorite so much so that if any other musical was to be watched, like the ebullient Grease, or the hallucinogenic Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Annie had to be temporarily removed from its home in the VCR and then replaced once they were finished with the interloping film.
I used to pretend to hate it, but I secretly loved it for its melodies, colors, and the energy of the rambunctious street kids. For some reason the songs in those other musicals didn’t have the same effect on me as Annie’s did.
I really should have known better.
I should have watched anything else. I should have started Boardwalk Empire, Season 1, Episode 1, on HBO GO or Umberto D. which I have been meaning to watch and is available from the Criterion Collection on HULU. I’ve had a DVD copy of Jonathan Glazer’s 2004 creeper Birth laying around unwatched for like forever. It was Friday though, and I had let my guard down in that Friday sort of way. I was looking for some kind of intangible experience, but whether I wanted that experience to be escape or catharsis is unclear to me. Regardless, I pressed play on the film that starts with a song that would be stuck in my head for weeks after the final credits rolled.
Just to be clear, I am talking about John Huston’s 1982 version of Annie. It’s the one with a cast so good that it rivals one of those gimmicky anthology films they used to make in the ’00s that were named after holidays, or major cities, and featured big name actors who only appeared in one scene (Valentine’s Day: The Movie, I’m looking at you). Albert Finney brings the same bug eyed intensity to his role that he brought to everything from Tom Jones to Big Fish; Tim Curry creeps as the deranged Rooster; and Carol Burnett, though scrawnier than the iron bars on the windows of the orphanage, feasts on the scenery. At the center of the film is Aileen Quinn, a freckled extrovert who manages to not be all Jonathan Lipnicki about it, who plays Annie, the ragged, bottom-dollar-betting orphan with the indomitable spirit.
So, the film is great and full of superlative performances and it pulses with life and energy that fills the songs with blood in a way that the stifled and affected performances from, say, The Sound of Music do not.
Also, I love “Tomorrow” so much that it really shouldn’t be such a big deal that I have it stuck in my head. I’ve had songs stuck in my head before and I don’t really mind the experience. Some people claim that when a song is stuck in their head they end up hating that song, but that never happens to me. It can actually make me feel less lonely somehow, to be visited by some tune that seems to have a life and personality of its own, one that follows me around the apartment and comes with me to the grocery store like some kind of strange friend or stray puppy.
The only problem I have with “Tomorrow,” the reason its adherence to my brain is so unpleasant, is that it is probably the saddest song from what might be the saddest film ever made that is not called Old Yeller.
“But it’s about overcoming insurmountable obstacles,” you say. “It’s about pluck, and hope, and love,” you posit. “It’s a film about optimism!!!!” you exclaim, a bit ridiculously, what with the four exclamation points and all.
To your assertions I respond: It’s the optimism that makes it so sad.
The film certainly invites us to share in Annie’s optimism. It is relentless about this, in fact, not even having transitioned out of the Columbia Pictures logo before it starts in on the fantasizing, telling us to “hold on ’til tomorrow,” and “the sun will come out,” etc. The film asks us to ignore the disastrous job market; America on the precipice of war; the near statistical certainty that Annie’s adolescence spent in a developmentally inappropriate orphanage will lead to a substance abuse habit, flirtations with homelessness, or the prison system. It asks us to buy into this fantasy, even though we know, deep down that Annie is doomed. What is so cruel is that the film allows Annie, and by proxy the audience, to believe that things may actually work out.
The very first image we see is of Annie staring out of the window of the orphanage, imagining what her amazing parents must be like and explaining to the audience, and maybe more so herself, that her parents will be back to pick her up any day. She goes so far as to ascribe to them hobbies like needlepoint and collecting ash trays. She even hopes the kind of thing no parent-having kid would hope, “Maybe they’re strict / As straight as a line,” longing for some order to be placed onto the chaos that is her life.
The implication here is that she is living a life of chaos and misery, one from which only her dreams can keep her insulated. This chaos and misery is embodied by the woman who runs the orphanage, Carol Burnett’s negligently hyper-sexual Miss Hannigan. Not only is she dangerously lonely, but she also drinks so much that the kids in the orphanage start using her empty liquor bottles as toy microphones to sing into. So unbound is her libido that she spends a good portion of the film kvetching that “I’d like a man to nibble on my ear,” and while the orphans are forced to clean the orphanage, she is busy telling the laundry guy, Mr. Bundles, that “it’s time for a tumble with a bundle.” She also has an interaction with a police officer that can only be described as alarmingly lascivious, at the end of which she actually purrs.
This moment is immediately followed by Annie being dragged through the orphanage by her ear.
This bizarre juxtaposition of overt sexual mania with wicked violence is the emotionally and economically impoverished state from which we find Annie attempting to escape. Through circumstances that are so absurd they seem downright perverse, she finds herself adopted for the week as part of some sort of PR move by “Wall Street Tycoon Oliver Warbucks.” Upon arriving at the mansion, when asked by Warbucks’ uptight and beautiful assistant Grace what she’d like to do first, Annie eagerly explains that she will start by cleaning the windows, then proceed to the floors. This reveals that Annie assumed that she was being brought to the mansion to clean it, yet still willingly and enthusiastically accompanied Grace just to escape the horrors of the orphanage.
Escape is the key word here. Despite the well-choreographed song and dance routines of the orphanage, Annie wants terribly to escape. The movie makes no secret of this and this is important to remember for later. Despite her wide grin, aw shucks dimples, and apparent ebullience, she actually wants desperately to escape this emotionally toxic and, at times, physically dangerous place. The girls she lives with are so used to Annie’s escape attempts that they simply groan exhaustedly anytime she puts one of her endeavors into motion. These attempts regularly put her into danger, and not just fear of reprisal from Miss Hannigan, but also vulnerable to the violence and harm of what is depicted as a savage world full of pick pockets, roving gangs of teenage animal torturers, and shockingly negligent Model T drivers. Her escape attempts always fail, but she continues to try to remove herself from the frying pan and, despite immense evidence to the contrary, she has no expectation of ending up in the proverbial fire. If that is not the premise of an almost operatically sad film, I don’t know what is.
Where is she running to? Well, to a life with the strict, ash tray collecting parents she describes in the opening scene, of course.
What makes it even more sad is the fact that Annie doesn’t ever get discouraged because she is convinced that her fate is to get what she wants. Even when Warbucks shows up to tell Grace that he wanted her to procure a boy from the orphanage and to send Annie back (a command he later retracts for unimportant plot related reasons), Annie greets his gruff revocation with typical cheerfulness, telling him that even though she won’t be the orphan to benefit from his charity, she thinks adopting an orphan for a week is a “swell idea.” She makes no effort to retain the prize of living in the opulent home for week because resentment appears to be something Annie has had removed like it is some useless appendage, but also because Warbucks and wealth and comfort are not her goal. She could take it or leave it. This whole living with a billionaire thing is just a pit stop on the highway to reunification-with-my-family town.
As the world metastasizes around, she just beams.
In a 21st century America where even children have become cynics, so much so that every single television show seemingly must include an eye-rolling, sarcastic pre-teen to point out what fools all the adults are, the notion that someone as relentlessly positive and trusting of the world as Annie could exist is disarming. For the film to work on any level and for it to be so charming and not at all saccharine or dumb, or as naïve and unsophisticated as most films with a child protagonist is an achievement worthy of some kind of award or accolade. Too bad they don’t present Oscars for Best Emotional or Psychological Manipulation in a Comedy or Musical.
One of the few accolades the film did manage to procure was a Golden Raspberry, awarded by the brain trust behind the third annual Golden Raspberry Awards who attacked the film by nominating it for Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Actress, and Worst Screenplay. This was back before the Razzies were the storied award granting committee that they are today. At the time I think they were trying to make a name for themselves and the highly public and beloved musical was the perfect big game for them to ironically display on their mantle. Somehow though they thought it was a good idea to “award” the film’s Annie, Aileen Quinn, with the title of Worst Supporting Actress. The fact that the warm, precocious Aileen Quinn was given a Razzie (a dubious honor given to performers such as Alicia Silverstone for her slack jawed batgirl in Batman and Robin, Jessica Alba for her 90 minute Stephanie Tanner impression during Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and to Madonna for playing that same character she plays in every film she’s ever been in), makes the whole thing even sadder. Ironically the newest Annie, Quvenzhané Wallis who will appear in the 2014 film version of the musical, has already dealt with this kind of bullying when some “writer” for The Onion made a “joke” about her while she was trying to attend the Oscars after being nominated for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild.
(Speaking of the 2014 remake, nothing could make me sadder than the notion that talentless hacks like Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz, who are free targets for bullying due to their apparent adulthood and their complete and collective lack of talent, will be remaking the film.)
So, Annie, the film, is beset on all sides by the melancholy, and the depressing. It presents a bleak and troubling reality, with various songs that are secretly disturbing, or at least discomfiting, “Hard Knock Life,” and “Little Girls,” being two that come to mind, however, there is a deeply troubling existential horror to “Tomorrow” that other songs of the musical fail to create, one that embodies the subtext of the film. I’m not even the only one who thinks so. YouTube is filthy with tattooed and damaged young women playing deeply affecting minor key versions of the song.
They sing the song as if it is a cage for them to climb out of. Most of them do a really beautiful job, and they make my point for me because they all see in the song what I see, which is that it is a bleak reminder of what one does not have. What these dirges miss, however, is the absolutely saddest part of the song which is, as I stated earlier, Annie’s optimism.
This counterintuitive dose of existential depression is best expressed in the form of an old joke. It goes something like this:
“What is always on its way, but never gets here?”
Of course you know the answer.
And that’s the thing. Annie, by definition, wants something that will never arrive. She wants her parents, who are dead, to come and bring her to a home that we the audience learn has been burnt to the ground. Stated psychologically, she wants to be loved unconditionally, to bask in the warm glow of parental approval. Stated socioculturally, she wants to live in a world where she experiences Christmas and can participate in touchstones such as the collective belief of Santa Claus. Speaking temporally, she wants it to be tomorrow today. These are all the ways she wants to get to tomorrow, but these are all things that are not going to happen. She is a pint sized Sisyphus doomed by the gods to relive the same Hell every day.
The more she hopes, prays, and longs for tomorrow, the closer she gets, the more her anticipation builds, the more dangerous her circumstance becomes. Because when she wakes up in the morning, she is always staring up at the ceiling of Miss Hannigan’s orphanage, or at a panoply of toys she has no interest in in an opulent bedroom in the home of a billionaire who is using her to make him appear less like a money-making cyborg and more like an actual human. It is still today. It is always today. It is never tomorrow.
Yet, still the optimism persists. Annie is so optimistic that she charms everyone she meets, manipulating adults who should know better, like Mr. Bundles and the dog catcher, and convincing Grace to select her to be Warbucks’ PR opportunity without even having to speak. She even manages to coax Grace into undoing the up-tight bun in her hair even though not being uptight is seemingly anathema to her core beliefs. Annie is so optimistic that in the scene where “Tomorrow” is first sung, she gets dour Eleanor Roosevelt, who claims “I can’t sing,” and curmudgeonly Daddy Warbucks, who is a Republican, to harmonize with her and FDR in a rousing rendition of the impossibly positive, but also secretly virulent song.
The saddest element baked into the songs, the part that makes all of the songs from the musical, particularly “Tomorrow,” so sad is the fact that SPOILER ALERT it doesn’t work out for Annie. Oh sure, she ends up being adopted by Daddy Warbucks, but that isn’t going to make her happy. Being adopted by Daddy Warbucks is no tomorrow, it’s just one more today. Daddy Warbucks, cold and distant, a man who, by his own admission, is obsessed with financial success (“I love money, I love power,” he explains to Grace as an excuse for why he can’t adopt Annie halfway through the film), a man who acquired his fortune by being “ruthless, hurt[ing] a lot of people,” could never love Annie the way she so desperately wants. He could never offer the kind of unconditional love she trusts the universe to provide.
When Warbucks eventually does adopt her, he can’t even summon the words to explain what he has done. He explains his adoption as if it was a business deal, “what I’m proposing would involve a long-term agreement.” But Annie rejects him. She rejects him because she wants her “real” parents to return and take her home. Her own optimism stands in the way of the reality that someone wants her. She is damaged. Beyond repair. By hope.
After Annie rejects Warbucks, the film meanders to a conclusion via a trip to the talkies a couple more dance numbers and a kidnapping plot. I’m not going to get into the near Lynchian heights of horror the film reaches in its climax atop a bridge where the guy who played Pennywise in Steven King’s It makes you believe he is going to throw a preteen off a bridge while she begs for her life like Adam Goldberg in the finale of Saving Private Ryan.
I’m not going to explain to you that the finale to Annie is not the finale of a kid’s movie, nor the crescendo of a light hearted romp of a musical, but rather the climax of a Cronenburg-esque body horror picture. I’m not going to explain this to you because you already know it to be true. It’s why you secretly dread that part of the film. You always have and you are made uncomfortable by my mere mention of it, so I’ll just drop it.
Suffice it to say that Annie is eventually rescued. Punjab (Yeah. That is the dude’s name. So there is that…) appears in traditional deus-ex-machina fashion, dangling from a helicopter being lowered from the sky to make everything alright (…for now). This leads into a beatific, Busby Berkeley-style finale (with jugglers, fireworks and an elephant) where it is proven, beyond a doubt, that Annie is doomed.
“What?” you may ask. “How does this prove that Annie is doomed?” you ask, unable to think of any way to emphasize your words other than via italics.
Well, first we have Daddy Warbucks. He makes a big show of taking her in, but the film has already proven that he struggles mightily with showing real emotion. Sure he throws this party for her and even does a little song and dance, but this is an event being put on by a captain of industry. Oliver Warbucks is a man who is well familiar with the grand opening, the ostentatious event, the need to keep up appearances. Annie started off, after all, as a PR move. Do you think a little soft-shoe is indicative of true paternal love? At one point they even stop dancing long enough to shake hands.
Not only does Warbucks try to present a lavish party as a substitute for real love, but he uses his employee / employer relationship as a substitute for real intimacy, because at the finale of the film Warbucks has still managed to Won’t his Will They / Won’t They with the film’s love interest, Grace Farrell. They love each other, obviously. Annie can tell right away and she states explicitly that everyone knows that there is an attraction, but Daddy Warbucks never does anything about it. Grace and Warbucks never address the fact that they love each other. The film ends with Grace stoically and repressedly standing by his side. Sure he gives her a peck of a kiss, but it is no more familiar than the one he pecked on the cheek of the first lady. More importantly, by the time of the party Grace’s hair has gone back up into a bun which, in the parlance of the film, negates all the progress Annie had made earlier in the film in getting Grace to literally let her hair down.
After the credits role Warbucks, who is basically a Richard Branson-esque self-made billionaire of the Depression era, will return to working 100 hours a week, continuing to amass his fortune. What will his relationship with Grace Farrell be like?
“They’ll get married!!!!” you say, again with all the exclamation points.
Oh yeah? They’ll get married and then they will end up working with her all day, only to then take her to bed at night? Has that ever worked for anyone in the history of mankind? If he married her, which he certainly would not do, but if he did, the first thing he would do would be to fire her as his ass-kicking private secretary. He would fire the fuck out of her. And this is the late 1930s remember. Not only was it the Depression, but this is before Rosie the Riveter, before Betty Friedan, and all those waves of feminism. Do you have any idea what kind of fucked up shit she had to do to become Oliver Warbucks’ ass-kicking private secretary? You don’t even want to know. What’s more is she is a “private secretary” the way Sancho Panza is a squire, because the film indicates that she is running things in a whole lot of ways. Look at the way he relies on her, the way he screams her name anytime he doesn’t know what action to take, the way she handles his affairs, facing right into his bluster and guiding him to the right moves in all his business and personal affairs. Is she just going to leave that job, the one she fought and clawed to get? The one that has put her so close to the epicenter of all that political and economic power? She is going to leave that job just so she can be Annie’s babysitter? Has anyone asked her what the fuck she wants?
It doesn’t matter though, because that is not what happens between those two. The relationship between Grace and Warbucks will continue to be frustratingly professional until Warbucks fires Grace evidently for some trumped up slight, but actually because he finds out she is dating some patent attorney after having given up on him ever noticing her. After that, Annie will be raised by a series of servants, maids, au pairs, tutors and women who are like Miss Farrell, but who are far inferior to her.
Q: Do you know who Grace is, besides Annie’s surrogate mother and the only stable and responsible adult she has ever met?
A: Her only friend.
Once Annie leaves the orphanage, how often will Warbucks invite a building full of orphans to his home? Once a year? Maybe? And what if they actually get adopted, or run away themselves? I think it’s time to come to grips with the fact that the big party at the end of the film is the last time Annie will ever see most of her friends again. This kind of thing happens all the time, sure, and people move on. But where will Annie move on to? Will she be lovingly embraced into the bosom of friendship shared by the children of other rich kids who go to her posh boarding schools? Annie, the orphan, who is so animated she may as well be made with pencils and a rostrum camera and will perpetually be an outsider among her own social circle? No. Those kids will eat her alive and all that spunk and get-up-and-go will be scraped from her like the layer of exfoliated dead skin peeled away during an unnecessarily expensive facial.
Warbucks will inevitably marry and then divorce one of these replacements, forever cursing her and the amount of money she procured in the divorce despite what Warbucks was sure was a rock solid pre-nuptial agreement. And who will be the casualty of that war? You guessed it. Annie. Annie who is such a fucking orphan she doesn’t even have a last name.
But the even bigger and more troubling proof that Annie is doomed is that Annie never learns any lesson. She never learns, as we the audience do, that her parents died in a fire. She never expresses that she understands that Warbucks loves her, or indicates in any way that she will stop longing for her parents to come rescue her. Not unlike the cheerful raz-a-mataz of the orphanage that she was so intent upon escaping, this expression of joy does not indicate that she is content, nor that she plans to stay. As soon as that party with live animals and pyrotechnics that Warbucks throws is over she will look out the window of the mansion, a prison window not unlike the prison window of the orphanage that she looked out of in the first scene, and continue imagining what her parents look like and what their hobbies might be. The film does nothing to indicate she will stop this practice. Annie will deal with feelings of loneliness and abandonment her whole life and she will be perpetually waiting for a tomorrow where she will feel safe and happy and fulfilled, a tomorrow that will never come.
But hey. No big deal right? You’re only a day a way. You’re always a day away.