George Sidney’s Annie Get Your Gun is far better than anyone might have expected it to be given the numerous problems it faced getting to the screen.
The Production: 4/5
When composer-lyricist Irving Berlin was faced with the criticism that his new show Annie Get Your Gun starring Ethel Merman was old-fashioned, he replied, “Yes, a good old-fashioned smash,” and he was right. The Broadway run was almost three years, and it toured the country for almost as long, the first year of it with Mary Martin as Annie. MGM paid handsomely for the rights to film it, and the $3 million George Sidney production, after many stops and starts and production snafus, premiered in 1950 to great acclaim and big box-office. The Warner Archive Blu-ray release of the film shows off all of its strengths: a talented cast, gorgeous Technicolor, and a grand production that doesn’t stint on showstopping moments. The show is still marvelously old-fashioned, and one wouldn’t wish it any other way.
Ohio backwoodswoman Annie Oakley (Betty Hutton) finds that her skills with a rifle outpace even the dazzling sharpshooter Frank Butler (Howard Keel), the top-billed star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill (Louis Calhern) talks her into joining the show, and because she is instantly smitten with the handsome Frank, she readily agrees while Bill and publicity man Charlie Davenport (Keenan Wynn) secretly construct for Annie a dazzling new act that will bring in more customers. When Annie finally performs it thinking her boy friend will be proud of her accomplishments, Frank is overcome with jealousy and ego deflation and quits the show leaving Annie heartbroken. Buffalo Bill and company leave for a European tour while Frank joins Pawnee Bill’s (Edward Arnold) rival western show leaving the lovers separated by a vast ocean and miserable without one another.
As hard as it might be to understand, Hollywood of that era rarely filmed Broadway shows faithfully replacing either the books or the scores (or both) before bringing them to the screen (early talkies The Desert Song and Rio Rita, the 1936 Show Boat, and Best Foot Forward being the notable exceptions). Annie Get Your Gun changed all that. Though several songs from the show score were dropped (likely to cut the movie’s running time to less than two hours), Sidney Sheldon’s screenplay hewed quite closely to the Broadway libretto by Herbert and Dorothy Fields. George Sidney, the third director who took on the task of bringing Annie Get Your Gun to the screen after Busby Berkeley and Charles Walters, captures much of the rambunctiousness that made the stage show such a big hit. He also uses montages brilliantly to speed us through Annie’s transformation from bedraggled illiterate to a fresh-faced young lady ready for love (to the tune “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” the film’s most famous anthem) and to chart the Buffalo Bill troupe’s triumphant (in all ways except monetarily) European tour. And Sidney uses the film medium to enhance sequences in ways the stage never could: the filming of Annie and Frank’s first shooting contest uses a variety of camera placements both high and low, frontwards and backwards to keep things vibrant, and Annie’s big act and the climactic merging of the rival wild west shows couldn’t be more cinematic.
Director Sidney does occasionally film songs rather routinely without much camera movement. With a whirlwind like Betty Hutton bouncing around the set as Annie Oakley, it might be expected that “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” or “I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning” would be filmed rather statically. He does better with the opening “Colonel Buffalo Bill” as we’re introduced to Charley, Frank, and Buffalo Bill who will all play major roles in the movie, and Frank’s “My Defenses Are Down” is also creatively staged first as a solo and then with an accompanying male chorus on horseback adding to its intensity. Frank and Annie’s love song, “They Say It’s Wonderful,” is shot with an explosively orangey sunset as the backdrop (though the rear screen projection frames the actors in obvious and somewhat distracting haloes), but “There’s No Business Like Show Business” makes for a rousing anthem, first to convince Annie to join the show and later more inwardly personal as Annie warbles it to give herself courage.
Though her voice wasn’t quite suited to the ballads in Irving Berlin’s marvelous score, Betty Hutton otherwise handles the musical, comedic, and dramatic chores for her mammoth role quite masterfully (though one can’t helping wondering what the film might have been like with the originally cast Judy Garland). Howard Keel was appearing in the London company of Oklahoma! when he was recruited to be Frank Butler, and he was a terrific choice with a stalwart baritone voice that easily handles Berlin’s rangy score. Louis Calhern replaced Frank Morgan after the latter’s unexpected death after filming had begun, and his is a gentle, understanding performance as one of Annie’s surrogate fathers (along with J. Carrol Naish’s politically incorrect but nevertheless funny Sitting Bull). Keenan Wynn has pluck and confidence as road manager and P.R. dervish Charlie Davenport.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. You’ll be most impressed with the increased sharpness from the DVD (hutton’s freckles really stand out now in the early going) and the eye-popping Technicolor hues that blaze forth almost from the start (the Indian headdresses and outfits truly impress whenever they turn up on camera). Contrast has been dialed in superbly, and there are no registration issues to be seen. The movie has been divided into 40 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix seems just the tiniest bit lacking in oomph. The sound is clear and without issue in terms of audio anomalies such as hiss, crackle, hum, or flutter. But it also seems to be a little underpowered necessitating an increase in volume. Dialogue is certainly clear throughout as are the song lyrics, and the Oscar-winning musical adaptation lacks only that last touch of fidelity to bring it in line with some of the other MGM musicals that have gotten the lossless treatment on Blu-ray.
Special Features: 3/5
Susan Lucci Introduction (4:40, SD): the actress who played the matinees in the 1999 Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun gives background on the life of the title character as well as other representations of her story on stage and film.
Video Outtakes (SD): Judy Garland’s renditions of the scenes featuring “Doin’ What Comes Naturally” (5:42) and “I’m an Indian, Too” (3:50); the original filming of “Colonel Buffalo Bill” with Geraldine Wall as Dolly Tate and Frank Morgan as Buffalo Bill (2:56); the deleted “Let’s Go West Again” with Hutton and company (4:03).
Audio Outtakes in Stereo: the Wall-Wynn-Keel version of “Colonel Buffalo Bill” (2:33), Hutton’s “Let’s Go West Again” (3:12), and the dreadfully poor attempt of Garland, Keel, Wynn, and Morgan to get through “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (3:29) without missing cues and rushing the tempo.
Theatrical Rerelease Trailer (2:41, HD)
Song Selection Menu: instant access to thirteen musical moments in the film.
George Sidney’s Annie Get Your Gun is far better than anyone might have expected it to be given the numerous problems it faced getting to the screen. The Warner Archive Blu-ray is a gorgeous visual reminder of the film’s faithfulness to its wonderful source material and comes with a hearty recommendation.
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