MGM's screen adaptation of the blockbuster Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun features a bevy of show-stopping Irving Berlin tunes and plenty of spectacle wrapped in a big Technicolor bow, but Betty Hutton's over-the-top, nails-on-a-chalkboard portrayal of legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley often sabotages this splashy production. Thankfully, Warner Archive comes to the rescue with an impeccable transfer struck from a new 4K scan of the original nitrate Technicolor negatives, robust audio, and all the supplements from the 2000 DVD, all of which help us appreciate the merits of this classic musical and enjoy its many highlights. Recommended.
Countless movies have been plagued by production problems, cast and crew changes, studio interference, and friction on and off the set, but Annie Get Your Gun weathered more storms than most. Though the highly hyped screen adaptation of Irving Berlin's smash-hit Broadway musical about legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley scored big at the box office upon its release in 1950, it's hard not to rue what might have been if you know the film's turbulent behind-the-scenes history. The terrific tunes, glorious Technicolor, and lavish pageantry and spectacle produce an ear-filling and eye-popping film, but there's something missing from this western-themed musical that keeps it from scaling the heights we expect.
That something is Judy Garland, who was originally cast in the title role, worked on the movie for a month and a half, prerecorded the entire score, and shot two musical numbers - all while in ill health - before MGM summarily fired her, presumably for a spotty attendance record. Because no one else in its star stable could tackle such a demanding part, the studio borrowed Betty Hutton from Paramount to replace Garland. The decision worked out financially (Annie Get Your Gun, despite costing almost $4 million, turned a hefty profit), but misfired artistically. The brash, brassy, and boisterous Hutton turns Annie into a caricature with her constant mugging, goofy antics, and complete lack of sensitivity and respect for the real-life historical figure she's portraying. The performance is certainly spirited (Hutton reportedly had more comedy added to the script once she came on board), but all too often provokes cringes, sighs, eye rolls, and head shakes. Why director George Sidney couldn't - or wouldn't - tone her down and rein her in remains a mystery, but her bull-in-a-china-shop approach to Annie severely hampers and almost ruins what is otherwise a rousing, entertaining movie.
Garland's participation in the project seemed doomed almost from the start. MGM bought Annie Get Your Gun expressly for its prized musical star for the princely - and at the time record-breaking - sum of $650,000. Garland was healthy and eager to begin shooting in the fall of 1948, but production had to be postponed pending the availability of new MGM acquisition Howard Keel, who would be making his American film debut in the role of cocky rifleman Frank Butler, who romances Annie but then quits both her and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show when Annie's success and popularity begin to eclipse his. Never wishing Garland to be idle, MGM quickly rushed her into another musical, In the Good Old Summertime, then denied her any time off before quickly rushing her into Annie Get Your Gun.
By this time, Garland's marriage to director Vincente Minnelli had collapsed, the stress of personal problems and overwork forced her to rely more heavily on prescription medication, and she struggled to muster the physical and mental strength to start filming a big-budget, prestige musical. To make matters worse, producer Arthur Freed, in what can only be described as a bone-headed decision, tapped brutal taskmaster Busby Berkeley to direct the picture. (Several years earlier, Berkeley worked Garland like a slave-driver until she collapsed from exhaustion while shooting the "I Got Rhythm" finale of Girl Crazy.) More pressure fell upon Garland when Keel fell off his horse and broke his ankle on the third day of shooting, thus putting him out of commission for three months. That forced Berkeley to focus exclusively on scenes featuring Garland, who gamely took on the extra burden despite the severe strain.
About 12 days into production, Freed viewed the rushes and hated what he saw. He fired Berkeley and hired Charles Walters, who had recently directed Garland in one of her biggest hits, Easter Parade. Walters assured Garland she was right for the role and could complete the picture, despite her misgivings and insecurities, but before he shot a single foot of film, a colossal misunderstanding led to Garland's abrupt discharge and a complete production shutdown. After the frail Garland checked into a Boston hospital to recover from the ordeal, Walters was unceremoniously let go (he found out about his dismissal from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper!), George Sidney stepped in to clean up the mess, and MGM borrowed Hutton from Paramount to assume the title role. Then - worst of all - Wizard of Oz alum Frank Morgan, who was cast as Buffalo Bill, suddenly died of a heart attack! Louis Calhern replaced him, but if you look closely, you can still see Morgan for a couple of split seconds in the distance before Calhern's first shot early in the film.
Considering all the above calamities and strife, it's not only amazing Annie Get Your Gun was ever completed at all, but that it turned out as well as it did. Watching Hutton, it's tough not to constantly imagine the nuances, deft humor, warmth, and spirit - not to mention the peerless vocal prowess - Garland would have brought to the part, but that's water under the bridge. Hutton has her moments, but she lacks chemistry with Keel and the other actors. (She would later recall she never felt accepted by the cast, who - she said - treated her like she maliciously stole the role from their beloved Judy.) Part of that might stem from her broad, attention-grabbing performing style, which often keeps other actors at arm's length. She really goes overboard in the "I'm An Indian, Too" number (that sadly contains some very unfortunate negative Native American stereotyping) and the competitive "Anything You Can Do" duet with Keel. Granted, the latter song is supposed to be a blatant mutual display of oneupmanship, but as usual, Hutton takes it several steps too far, turning what should be a charming ditty into a crass display of histrionics.
The strapping Keel is perfectly cast and his barrel-chested bass-baritone fits Berlin's memorable score like a glove. He beautifully sings such standards as "The Girl That I Marry," "They Say It's Wonderful," and "My Defenses Are Down," and joins forces with Hutton, Calhern, and Keenan Wynn for the iconic anthem "There's No Business Like Show Business." Other memorable songs include the clever "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" and "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," as well as the exhilarating "I've Got the Sun in the Morning," all of which are ably belted by Hutton. As usual, Berlin's inspired lyrics punctuated by witty rhymes complement his catchy melodies, although a few racy turns of phrase had to be modified to satisfy the censors.
Perhaps because almost $2 million was spent on Annie Get Your Gun before Hutton even joined the cast, the film looks a bit chintzy when compared to most MGM musicals, as if the studio wanted to finish the film as quickly and cheaply as possible. It's always difficult to swoop in and rescue a troubled production, and maybe that's why Sidney's direction lacks the flair he brought to the similarly themed The Harvey Girls, the 3D Kiss Me, Kate, and the next movie on his docket, the lavish Show Boat remake. (Speaking of The Harvey Girls, the opening of Annie Get Your Gun depicts the arrival of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show by train in a scene that eerily resembles the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & the Santa Fe, with similar camera angles, almost identical cowboy garb, and some of the same chorus people. Take a look at the clip below.)
There's a lot to like about Annie Get Your Gun, but there's a reason it's almost never included in any discussion or retrospective of MGM's greatest musicals. The sublime score notwithstanding, the movie lacks panache. Not only do we wonder what Garland could have brought to the material (in retrospect, she might have dodged a bullet by getting fired), but also whether Charles Walters could have injected more style and creativity into Annie as well. (I'm pretty sure he could have.) In addition, the best musical numbers are front-loaded in the film's first half, leaving the second half to rely on the flimsy love story to maintain interest, and it struggles mightily to do that.
In the end, Annie Oakley may have been one of the best sharpshooters on the planet, but sadly, the movie musical that salutes her only rarely hits the bullseye.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Annie Get Your Gun arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
I'm running out of superlatives. Warner Archive knocks another classic movie transfer out of the park with an absolutely glorious 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering. The new HD master sourced from a 4K scan of the original nitrate Technicolor negatives yields an astonishingly crisp, vibrant, and lush image that instantly dazzles the eyes. Luscious reds, emerald greens, crystal blue skies, sunny yellows, and an array of pastels combine to create a cavalcade of perfectly timed color. Flesh tones look surprisingly natural, background details are easy to discern, and fine costume fabrics, fringe, feathers, and the frayed ends of rope all come through cleanly. Faint grain adds essential texture and a film-like feel to the picture, while rich, inky blacks and well-defined whites both offset and complement the bold hues.
Razor-sharp close-ups highlight Annie's freckles and the hair follicles, pores, and facial hair of the men. The image is so clear, it's easy to see the faces of the stunt doubles in the long shots. Not a single nick, scratch, or errant mark dot the pristine print, and no crush or banding intrude. A few scenes appear slightly soft and sport a tad more grain than others, and there are very noticeable orange-red-yellow borders outlining Keel and Hutton in the processed sunset train shot before the two sing "They Say It's Wonderful" (see photo below), but those are minor quibbles. It's impossible to imagine Annie Get Your Gun looking any better than it does here, and if you fancy sweet treats, this terrific transfer will certainly satisfy your craving for eye candy.
Robust sound with excellent fidelity and a lovely depth of tone distinguishes the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track, which really comes alive during the musical numbers. All the songs sound rich and vibrant, thanks to a wide dynamic scale that embraces all the highs and lows of both the vocals and Oscar-winning orchestrations without a hint of distortion. (Adolph Deutsch and Roger Edens took home the award for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture.) Keel's mellifluous bass-baritone easily fills the room, and though Hutton's harsh belting (screaming? screeching?) can be annoying (insufferable?), it's perfectly rendered. Sonic accents like gunshots and the Native American drumming during the "I'm An Indian, Too" number are crisp, and all the dialogue is clear, well prioritized, and easy to comprehend. A bit of surface noise can be detected during quieter moments, but any age-related pops and crackle have been erased. Warner Archive has always treated its musicals with the utmost care, and Annie Get Your Gun is no exception.
All the extras from the 2000 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release, which will certainly make Judy Garland fans very happy.
Introduction by Susan Lucci (SD, 5 minutes) - The iconic soap opera star, who briefly played Annie during the show's 1999 Broadway revival, provides a brief recap of Oakley's life, then chronicles the various film treatments of her story, including the dramatic 1935 biopic starring Barbara Stanwyck, the original 1946 stage musical starring Ethel Merman, and the 1950 MGM musical adaptation.
Outtake Musical Numbers (SD, 17 minutes) - Lucky for us, MGM kept all of Judy Garland's footage, and lucky for us, Warner includes the two numbers the legendary star shot for the film on this disc. (More raw footage exists, but it's choppy and of interest only to Garland's most ardent fans.) The "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" outtake includes not only the song, performed with plenty of spirit and humor by Garland, but also the bookended dialogue with actor Clinton Sundberg and Annie's young siblings, all of whom were recast after Hutton took over the role. Garland looks thin and frail, but still exudes her trademark warmth and nails the sprightly number. It's also instantly apparent she approaches Annie with more sincerity and naturalness than her more flamboyant and boisterous replacement, making us pine for what might have been all the more. Here's the clip:
"I'm An Indian, Too" was completely revamped after Garland's dismissal, so this Busby Berkeley interpretation is especially interesting, although one can easily understand how such a frenetic, cacophonous number could send a performer with frayed nerves over the edge! Garland gamely attacks the overblown routine, although it clearly doesn't suit her. "Colonel Buffalo Bill" gives us a chance to see Frank Morgan in the role (although he only appears briefly at the end), as well as Geraldine Wall as Dolly Tate. (Wall was replaced by Benay Venuta after Garland exited the production.) Finally, Hutton beautifully performs the deleted ballad "Let's Go West Again." Ironically, it's one of her most understated and heartfelt performances in the film, and the song certainly would have broken up the plot-heavy second half had it been allowed to remain in the final cut. "Let's Go West Again" was also excised from the original Broadway production, much to the chagrin of Irving Berlin, who successfully lobbied producer Arthur Freed to include it in the film version only to see it deleted again.
Audio Only Outtakes in Stereo (9 minutes) - Three selections are included and they all benefit from the marvelous stereo presentation. "Colonel Buffalo Bill" features Keel, Wynn, and Wall, and Hutton sings the lovely "Let's Go West Again" with plenty of feeling, but the gem of this mini collection is without a doubt a couple of takes of "There's No Business Like Show Business" with Garland, Keel, Wynn, and Frank Morgan that includes a couple of delightful fluffs and provides a fascinating behind-the scenes glimpse of the pre-recording process. Garland's uproarious and infectious laughter makes this rare track a special treat.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's reissue preview, which looks terrific in high-def, wisely showcases the classic Irving Berlin score.
Annie Get Your Gun features a rootin'-tootin' Irving Berlin score, plenty of pomp and pageantry, and glorious three-strip Technicolor, but Betty Hutton's overbearing, loud-mouthed performance in the title role makes this musical tribute to legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley all too often miss its mark. Warner Archive's eye-popping transfer struck from a new 4K scan of the original nitrate Technicolor negatives dazzles the senses, robust audio brings the songs to brilliant life, and a bunch of marvelous extras - most notably the two musical numbers Judy Garland shot before MGM replaced her - all help ease the pain of Hutton's portrayal. Though Annie Get Your Gun is far from the best screen adaptation of a Broadway musical, it certainly proves there's no business like show business. Recommended.