Each week Elma and I give you 5 opinionated but culturally relevant choices, based on our experience of curating smart sticky stuff for Ovation, Trio, Bravo, A&E, Sundance, Fuse, and others.
Folklore or literature, comic book or movie – having an orphan as your protagonist immediately launches your story into an archetypal realm. Not to mention kicking up the emotional ante and promising a rollicking good tale.
We had fun with this one here at The Thread because we were reminded of endless of filmic orphans from James Bond to Frodo Baggins, Spider-Man to Luke Skywalker.
Try it – it’s a great eggnog-fueled parlor game.
From the time it was just a gleam in Jamie Foxx’s eye, this was a must-see for us because of our great affection for all the earlier versions, theatrical, cinematic and TV. We’re not quite musical theater nuts, but there are a few shows that we just can’t resist, and ANNIE is among them.
This new production is no exception. The advance reviews haven’t exactly been glowing. But none of the big film productions have been critical favorites – and we still came away singing from every one. If Quvenzhané Wallis is even half as plucky as she was in BEASTS, we’re sure to be singing in the shower the next morning.
So this is the classic one. Directed, oddly enough, by John Huston. Maybe it was the success four years earlier of OLIVER! (see below) that led producer Ray Stark to take a flyer on such an unlikely choice. Just for context, Huston’s next film was that lighthearted romp about a self-destructive alcoholic, UNDER THE VOLCANO.
Besides the songs, it’s cast that makes it – Carol Burnett, Albert Finney, Bernadette Peters, and Aileen Quinn as Annie. Like many child actors featured on this list, Quinn never had another big score at the box office. But that doesn’t really matter – her performance set the bar for the plucky frizz-head.
Dickens, of course, had the orphan thing down, and worked it – Oliver, Pip, Little Nell, David Copperfield.
1968 was the last big year for 60’s musicals. Like Huston, Carol Reed had a long and lustrous career. By this time he had three BAFTAs under his belt, including THE THIRD MAN. But it was OLIVER! that won him his Oscars – Best Director, Best Picture, and four others, beating FUNNY GIRL and Kubrick’s 2001.
OLIVER! has enduring charms, even though it’s from a totally different and less meta era than ANNIE. Even the songs are more golden hued: ”Where Is Love?” and “As Long As He Needs Me”. That’s why we like it.
OLIVER TWIST (2005)
The ’48 David Lean version is the one to beat – but if you’re interested you’ve already seen that one. For another take on Dickens’ classic check out Roman Polanski’s 2005 version.
Amazing that OLIVER! hasn’t been remade – but now Cameron MacKintosh is working on new version slated for release in 2016.
TOM SAWYER (1973)
He has Aunt Polly, but technically he’s an orphan. And this is a musical, written and scored by the Sherman Brothers, of MARY POPPINS and IT’S A SMALL, SMALL WORLD fame.
The cast is right on the nose – Tom is Johnny Whitaker from FAMILY AFFAIR. You might not recognize her from this particular photo, but Becky Thatcher is Jodie Foster, who already had a string of TV credits as long as her little arm.
It’s the best Tom Sawyer out there and works perfectly as an entertainment for kids and adults. You really feel like you’re right there in Hannibal, Missouri because you are – it was shot there on location.
HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1974)
Huck correctly feels he would be better off as an orphan than living under the thumb of Pap.
This musical is a Reader’s Digest follow up to the previous year’s Tom Sawyer, with one-hit child actor Jeff East in the Huck role. The problem with Huck and Hollywood has always been that the novel isn’t really a kids’ story, so it’s hard to make it work as a movie.
On the up side, Paul Winfield plays Jim, fresh from his Oscar for SOUNDER. And once again it was written by the Sherman brothers so it has a couple of good songs – notably “Freedom”, which is performed by Roberta Flack.
And it’s one more directorial case study. After making a name for his British kitchen sink realism, director J. Lee Thompson made a splash with THE GUNS OF NAVARRONE. His Hollywood debut was the 1962 CAPE FEAR. By this time his career was on the downturn, and he reportedly struggled.
BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
Batman, of course, is an orphan. And in Christopher Nolan’s dark, stylish film, we actually see the violent back story, just like the title promises.
So let’s say we’re all orphans on some level…
In the old Pip/Tom/Annie paradigm we invented a life for ourselves through charm and luck and pluck.
But now the myth has morphed. Forget about a sunny Tomorrow. Now we’re so permanently scarred by those nightmare memories that all the money in the world can’t heal the wound – even if the scars themselves are the source of our incredible personal power. Works for us.
Six years in the making, Cinderella became one of Disney’s best-loved films and one of the highest-grossing features of 1950.
Disney has come to stand for a lot of things, both positive and negative. But it’s hard not to acknowledge the way he had with the Brothers Grimm. Like the 1959 SLEEPING BEAUTY, in CINDERELLA Disney managed to arrive at a “child-friendly” happy ending, without completely sacrificing the archetypal darkness of the source material.
And it’s a rollicking good ride, with gorgeous lively animation and the Oscar-nominated song “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.” Just watch out for those step mothers!
BOYS TOWN (1938)
And last but not least.
Forget about psychological archetypes. This is about real orphans. Or at least real orphans as seen through the lens of Golden Age Hollywood.
What’s always amazing about a classic like this is that despite what would come off today as hopeless hokum, it still manages somehow to define its own terms so powerfully that it still works. And even manages to jerk a few tears – if you’re inclined to such things.
The film was based (very loosely) on the real life Father Flanagan and won Tracey his second Oscar.
It was directed by the incredible Norman Taurog, who actually managed to (mostly) rein in Mickey Rooney, an enormous achievement. Taurog’s career started with an Oscar win in 1931, included a Jackie Cooper Huck Finn, and kept going strong through eight Martin/Lewis films in the 50’s and nine Elvis Presley movies in the 60’s!