THE BOOTLEG FILES: ANNIE GET YOUR GUN

BOOTLEG FILES 305: “Annie Get Your Gun” (1957 made-for-TV musical starring Mary Martin).

LAST SEEN: In its one-and-only 1957 telecast.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: No official version has been released.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The Irving Berlin estate has not permitted its release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely at the moment.

In 1946, Irving Berlin’s musical “Annie Get Your Gun” opened on Broadway, with Ethel Merman starring as the 19th century sharp-shooter Annie Oakley. It was a major hit and Merman received endless praise for her performance.

On the sidelines watching this was Mary Martin, Merman’s main rival as Broadway’s leading musical star. Martin realized that Merman scored the role of a lifetime with Annie Oakley and rued that she wasn’t the one playing the role in the Broadway spotlight. However, Martin decided not to obsess over Merman’s good fortune – she arranged to star as Annie Oakley in the 1947-48 national touring company of the show. Thus, most Americans who saw “Annie Get Your Gun” on stage during this period saw Martin rather than Merman in the role. However, most people associated the score’s classic score with Merman, thanks to a best-selling original cast album.

When MGM decided to make a film out of “Annie Get Your Gun,” both Merman and Martin were bypassed in favor of the studio’s leading musical star, Judy Garland. But Garland’s poor health and problems with the production created havoc at the studio, which abruptly shut down the film shortly after shooting began. Garland was removed from the role and replaced with Betty Hutton, who brought her own brand of raucous energy to the role. The film was a major success at the box office and it is widely considered to be Hutton’s greatest screen performance.

In 1957, the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Association decided to celebrate its 20th anniversary by staging two shows starring Martin. One was an obvious choice – “South Pacific,” arguably Martin’s biggest Broadway success. The other was something of a surprise – “Annie Get Your Gun,” which the association decided to present both in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, with a special live telecast produced for NBC.

The TV version of “Annie Get Your Gun” was reconfigured to fit a two-hour time slot. In order to preserve as much of the Berlin score as possible, a good chunk of the show’s book was cut out. As a result, this production moves somewhat faster than the 1950 film version – and the transition times between songs is often abrupt.

The negative aspects of the Martin performance of Annie Oakley are few but considerable. The star was 44 years old when “Annie Get Your Gun” was telecast, and the camera clearly showed a woman who could not possibly pass as a raw backwoods youth. Indeed, during the show’s second part, Martin is clearly too mature and sophisticated to connect with Annie’s alleged lack of polish – especially in the New York society sequence, where Martin shows more grace than the Park Avenue socialites who gather around her.

Furthermore, Martin did not possess the bombastic vocal styling that Merman and Hutton brought to their respective productions. She also lacked the feral energy that Hutton invested in her peformance – comparing Hutton’s “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” or “Anything You Can Do” opposite Martin’s renditions, it is clear that Martin was too sedate in mining the raw comedy of the lyrics.

To her credit, however, Martin created a genuinely warm and human character that contrasted violently with the cartoonish creations of Merman and Hutton. George Sidney, who directed the Hutton film, would later remark that he originally felt “Annie Get Your Gun” could not be filmed because Merman’s persona was too blatantly outrageous for a proper film adaptation – yet he changed his mind when he saw Martin in the national touring company. Sidney, however, never explained why he bypassed Martin for Hutton as Judy Garland’s replacement.

Despite the problems, Martin’s Annie is a fun creation – an unpolished gem who quickly gains the trappings of shrewd self-confidence when propelled into the spotlight of Buffalo Bill’s outlandish Wild West show, but never loses a sense of affection for those around her. Martin’s interpretation is somewhat radical: Annie Oakley as a character, not a caricature. When she sings “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” it is an affirmation of professional fidelity rather than a shout of self-aggrandizement. Martin is a vehicle of love – she successfully conveys the emotional bond between herself and her work, her fellow cast members, and the audience can’t help but root for her success.

And the performance was clearly demanding – Martin rips through a number of rigorous songs, successfully performs the wacky faux-tribal choreography of the intricate (if politically incorrect) “I’m an Indian, Too” number, and she twice rides a horse that gallops at full speed on a roaring treadmill. Yet she pulls off the performance effortlessly, never breaking a sweat or displaying any signs of physical discomfort. (According to Martin’s biographer Ronald L. Davis, the star nearly disabled herself when she skinned her shin during a rehearsal of the “I’m an Indian, Too” number.)

“Annie Get Your Gun” is also aided by having John Raitt as Frank Butler, Annie’s rival and lover. A major star of Broadway and TV in the 1950s, Raitt is barely known to most moviegoers together, which is not surprising since his film work was minimal (he is best known for the 1955 film version of “The Pajama Game”). But his strong baritone and virile presence worked beautifully here, and his Frank Butler offers the perfect mixture of bravado and insecurity. Furthermore, the show is blessed by having veteran scene stealer Reta Shaw (Raitt’s co-star in “The Pajama Game”) in the role of Dolly Davenport, a back stage schemer on the fringes of the Buffalo Bill Wild West extravaganza. The role itself is thankless and mostly unmemorable, but Shaw nearly runs away with the production with her sassy interpretation of a would-be star who cannot understand why she’s not in the central spotlight.

“Annie Get Your Gun” was telecast in color, though most homes in 1957 did not have color television sets. However, 60 million Americans tuned in for the broadcast, which was sponsored by Pepsi-Cola. The success of the program helped speed along an album featuring the cast, which was a best-seller.

But in those pre-videotape days of television, the “Annie Get Your Gun” broadcast was not repeated. A 16mm black-and-white kinescope was preserved, but the Irving Berlin estate squelched attempts to get it released on the home movie market and, decades later, on home video. Bootlegged copies of the show can easily be located online, and clips from the telecast are available on YouTube.

“Annie Get Your Gun” is a fun show and this production deserves to be tracked down and enjoyed.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on October 16, 2009 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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