Everyone who has seen the Broadway musical Annie knows that Little Orphan Annie was rescued from Miss Hannigan's miserable orphanage by billionaire Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks and lived happily ever after in his mansion, where everybody got "A New Deal For Christmas" and President Franklin D. Roosevelt belted out the deathless anthem, "Tomorrow."
Well, perhaps on the stage, but not on the comics page, where Annie's "Hard-Knock Life" went on and on, from 1924 to 2010. Annie's origins are dramatically different from what Annie author Thomas Meehan, composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin concocted, and it's doubtful Little Orphan Annie creator Harold Gray would have applauded the musical inspired by his comic strip. Annie and Daddy Warbucks whooping it up with FDR? That would have been almost as likely as Michelle Obama and Michele Bachmann planning a Girls' Night Out, since Gray's politics were ultra-conservative and adamantly anti-Roosevelt.
The theme song for the real Little Orphan Annie would not have been "the sun will come out tomorrow" - it might have been much closer to one of Daddy Warbucks' sayings, "Always remember: the worst is yet to come."
So throughout the strip's peak period - the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s - the beleaguered but feisty Annie (who never aged during the 40 years Gray wrote the strip) was constantly finding herself separated from Warbucks and forced to fend for herself. She escaped from assorted foster parents, toiled in a circus, evaded the meddling Sisters of Suppression, endured numerous kidnappings, performed in vaudeville, donned blackface to star in an ersatz Tarzan movie as Inky the Native Princess, organized a group of Junior Commandos to help the war effort and languished on a desert island where she nearly died from a tropical disease. And let's not forget that time when Annie was convicted of murder, a plot twist that sparked a reader revolt in 1945.
As for Daddy Warbucks, he proved to be both rich and strange, frequently zooming off on business trips and leaving Annie to wander through Depression-dazed America on her own. Daddy had his own trials and tribulations, as he dumped his snotty, social-climber wife (who despised Annie), lost all his fortune, was backstabbed by business associates, indicted by a grand jury on a trumped-up conspiracy to defraud charge and sent to prison, killed and raised from the dead, and blinded in a traffic accident while pretending he knew how to drive a truck (it's a long story).
Gray hated happy endings and, although Annie's enemies frequently wind up humiliated, imprisoned or in the graveyard, there is often a bitter twist at the end of each story cycle that leaves Annie in a tough spot. For instance, in an adventure that ran from late 1936 into early 1937, Annie befriends Ginger, an elderly flower vendor in a metropolis ruled by racketeers like Snorty Smith, who shake down merchants for "protection" money. Annie learns that Ginger was once the British noblewoman Lady Tiddleswamp and that she'd been hailed as "the greatest stage beauty in all Europe."
"Then she got older and she wasn't so pretty anymore," Annie explains to Sandy. "And she lost her fair weather friends and she lost her money. From bein' at th' top she slid all the way down to livin' over an old stable and peddlin' flowers on th' street."
In her next breath, Annie sums up much of Gray's philosophy: " Well, I guess it's easy to be kind and generous and cheerful and everything nice when you've got ever'thing - but bein' all those things when you've lost ever'thing - bein' able to take it - that's the test o' real class…"
In the strip that follows, Ginger serves as Gray's mouthpiece, commenting as she watches morning commuters swarm through the streets, "They all believe the only way to true success is through honest work, and every one of them is reaching for success."
Despite her optimistic outlook, Ginger doesn't return to the luxurious life she knew as Lady Tiddleswamp: instead, she's gunned down by Snorty Smith's associate, Turtle Peotone.
Fearing for her life, Annie runs to anti-crime crusader J. Preston Slime for protection. Slime feigns sympathy, only to immediately turn her over to Snorty Smith and his gang, who've been paying off Slime. Only the surprise intervention of Daddy Warbucks and his own hired gunmen saves Annie from being "bumped off" by the mob, one of several times that vigilante violence effectively solves problems in the strip.
Time and again, authority figures, politicians, police officers and the like are revealed to be opportunistic, two-faced or simply impotent in the face of real danger. When Annie puts her trust in them, she is invariably let down, as when she gives prosecutor Phil O. Bluster inside information on the bank-robbing Ghost Gang in a bid to spring Daddy Warbucks from jail, and Bluster double-crosses her without a twinge of remorse.
"Annie is tougher than hell, with a heart of gold and a fast left, who can take care of herself because she has to," Gray once told an interviewer. "She's controversial, there's no question about that. But I keep her on the side of motherhood, honesty, and decency."
Anyone who thinks Depression-era audiences only wanted escapism and fantasy would be taken aback to learn about the incredible popularity of this frequently downbeat, even grim comic. The escapades of Little Orphan Annie were reprinted in bound volumes each year from 1926 to 1934 by publishers Cupples and Leon, and recounted in the hugely popular Big Little Books produced by Whitman throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Annie made the jump to radio in 1931 (where, as we all know from A Christmas Story, she was sponsored by Ovaltine) and continued for more than a decade. Annie dolls, games and coloring books filled toy stores.
Yet unlike Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy and many of her comic-page colleagues, Annie never found her place in the movies. In 1932, RKO Radio Pictures cast Mitzi Green as Annie in Little Orphan Annie, inspired by a storyline from the strip in which Annie tried to take care of an orphan named Mickey. It flopped. Paramount took a shot six years later with its own Little Orphan Annie, in which Ann Gillis took the title role. Originally titled Little Orphan Annie and the Champ, this film bore almost no resemblance to the comic strip and made no impression whatsoever with moviegoers.
Annie would not return to the silver screen until 1982, when Columbia Pictures sank a fortune into the first filming of the Annie musical, which did not become the blockbuster it was designed to be.
Thirty-two years later, Annie is back in cinemas, in the form of former Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. The latest Annie (slated for a Dec. 19 release) is a contemporary update of the Strouse/Charnin musical, with a more racially diverse cast and several new tunes. However, some things never change: Annie may have turned 90 this year -- but she still doesn't look a day over 11.