I’m starting to think George Sidney might be one of my favorite directors. From The Harvey Girls (1946) or Viva Las Vegas (1964), Sidney was a director who knew how to make a musical kinetic, fun, and catchy as hell. That could also sum up everything about Annie Get Your Gun, now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive. Aside from the fact that this is an utterly gorgeous restoration, this is easily one of the best Broadway adaptations around.
Annie Oakley (Betty Hutton) is a mountain woman in the 1800s who carts around her young brother and sisters to make ends meet. She’s roped into a shooting contest as part of Buffalo Bill’s traveling carnival where she falls for the sharpshooter Frank Butler (Howard Keel). The problem is that Annie’s talent intimidates the selfish Frank, causing the two to put love aside in favor of competition.
If you’ll recall, I talked about 1935’s Annie Oakley, with Barbara Stanwyck, a few years ago and found that a sentimental patronizing tale of the feminized Oakley having to deal with a man who can’t handle that she’s better than him. Per the world of Old Hollywood, women fell into three categories: saloon girls, good matrons, and tomboyish mountainwomen who were waiting to be turned into good matrons. Just three years after this film Doris Day’s Calamity Jane would bring up questions of gender and femininity, and become an example of queer coding in cinema.
What Annie Get Your Gun does isn’t quite go for the subversive, but it also doesn’t want to make Annie as schmaltzy as Stanwyck played her. If anything, this movie is pretty provocative and sexually charged for the 1950s. When we first meeting Betty’s Annie — perpetually sunburned and wearing a gunny sack dress — she sings a song about “doing what comes naturally” as a means of explaining her illiteracy. It’s also a song about how people didn’t need a manual to learn how to procreate (“You don’t have to know how to read or write / When you’re out with a feller in the pale moonlight.”)
Upon meeting Frank Butler for the first time Hutton’s facial expression says everything (and is a recurring gag that never loses an ounce of humor, even when she’s sleeping). Annie thinks, more than anything, that Frank is sexy. Her lyrics in the song “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” also remind us this. “Cause a man may be hot / But he’s not / When he’s shot,” sings Hutton. In a world where lyrics from the likes of Kiss Me, Kate (1953) were being changed for being too suggestive…..
“Annie Get Your Gun,” the film version at least, is best known for what never came to pass. This was meant to be a Judy Garland vehicle with the Wizard of Oz (1939) star filming for two months before leaving the picture due to health problems; Garland maintained she was fired off the picture against her will. Honestly, and this might be a controversial statement, but having seen the two musical numbers she filmed, Garland doesn’t hold a candle to Hutton. Possibly because Garland was so exhausted from her personal life, there’s very little personality to her performance and her musical numbers, while beautiful, lack the humor Hutton conveys.
Some say that Hutton just does a similarly broad performance a la original Broadway Annie, Ethel Merman, and that could be true. But as someone who loved Hutton’s broad expressiveness in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943), she goes to another level here. During the musical performances she’s athletic and exuberant, but in the moments where you are meant to learn about her character, like when she’s interacting with her siblings in “Doing What Comes Nat’urlly” or trying to learn to read, you see her innocence and authenticity. It’s also great to see her fight with Howard Keel to not let him upstage her; the two famously did not get along, allegedly because Keel (who made his feature debut here) thought Hutton wanted to steal scenes. The movie is called “ANNIE Get Your Gun,” Howard.
Keel, who would play almost the same character in Calamity Jane, is good and it’s amazing to think this was the first film he made. Him and Hutton are so grandiose in their personas and performance that it’s easy to see why they’d butt heads, on-screen and off, and it works towards showing why Annie is attracted to him but also why they’re fighting their attraction to each other. It is a bit disappointing that in order for them to find love it is Annie who has to sublimate her talent. Sure, it’s more as a means of boosting Frank’s ego, but still.
Annie Get Your Gun is such fun! Warner Archive’s bonus-packed Blu is just gorgeous to look at, highlighting the verve and color that’s found in the character and musical numbers. So glad I could cross this off my list!
Annie Get Your Gun releases on April 20.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.