Have you seen the promos for the new ANNIE movie? They are hellzapoppin’ in the best sense, from what I’ve seen … I think I will even go see it, though it is contending with THE IMITATION GAME (on cracking the Enigma code) and a bunch of other top-drawer stuff ~ Oscar contenders all ~ this holiday season. Meanwhile …
The advent of yet another ANNIE incarnation took me back. Waaaaay back. Around 1975, I profiled Shelley Bruce, who replaced Andrea McArdle on Broadway. She was the cover story for our Entertainment section in Shelley’s hometown paper, the Passaic Herald-News, where I was working … But my thoughts of Annie go way farther back, back to Sunday mornings after church, sprawling on the living room floor over the two sections of the Washington Post funnies, divided with my sister. Would you get the section with “Terry and the Pirates” first, or the one with “Little Orphan Annie”? Either way, the message was clear, as it was also with “Steve Canyon” and “The Phantom”: There was evil afoot, and it was totally MYSTERIOUS evil, but the good guys — our guys — would triumph in the end.
For an eight-year-old, this was probably at least as reassuring as whatever we’d learned in Sunday school that day. But now it comes back to haunt me: Who WERE those masked men? Who the heck, more pertinently now, WAS Daddy Warbucks, why were Punjab and the Asp his trusted sidekicks, and why was it so important to protect Little Annie and (Arf!) Sandy?
A search for their creator Harold Gray doesn’t yield much. He himself was orphaned early, and the comics pages of newspapers became his adopted family. He’s said to have started as a populist but grew deeply conservative after the New Deal ~ once a champion of the working poor, ending up deeply hostile to whoever might be undermining America by “taking handouts.”
What caught my fancy, however, was the name Warbucks. “Daddy” in the strip was a self-made man (can you say “war bucks”? This strip rose to its heights between the two World Wars, during the Depression era … ).So what we have here is a guy richer than Croesus OR the Koch brothers … with a heart big enough to take in an orphan and her mangy mutt … and a guy in a turban, that’s Punjab, and one of the Men in Black, that’s the Asp. And they all have … wait for it … BLANK EYES. Even the dog. As the Cold War came on, Gray was known to be interested in espionage, but cast of characters and their blank eyes long predate the CIA. They’re from the era when the Great Powers were carving up the Middle East.
So what exactly DO these three guys do when they’re not saving Annie and the world from the forces of evil? Beats me, but it all seems oddly pertinent. Maybe even prescient. And you won’t find it on the big screen this December. For any prophetic metaphor about the world we are living in right now — as depicted in a guy named Warbucks and his two shady sidekicks saving a damsel in distress — for that, well, we’ll just have to read between the lines.