On paper, “Annie Get Your Gun” (1950) looks like it ought to be terrific. It’s adapted from an Irving Berlin Broadway hit, with Betty Hutton and Howard Keel in the starring roles and director George Sidney at the helm. It has songs and dances set against the colorful backdrop of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, with costumes and stunts and all the bells and whistles of a movie musical extravaganza. Unfortunately, none of these attractions can make up for one of the most irritatingly sexist romances ever seen on the silver screen, including a supposedly happy ending that’s guaranteed to make a 21st century audience cringe.
Hutton stars as backwoods sharpshooter Annie Oakley, whose skill with a rifle elevates her from humble beginnings when she joins the traveling show of Buffalo Bill Cody (Louis Calhern). Annie falls hard for another performer, a rival marksman named Frank Butler (Howard Keel), but he pressures her to become more feminine and resents her competition in the public arena. In order to gain his affection, Annie remakes herself into a more ladylike figure, but she must finally decide whether she wants him enough to sacrifice her reputation as a sharpshooter to his fragile ego.
Judy Garland was originally set to star, and perhaps her Annie would have had softer edges and a more nuanced personality, but Hutton plays the character as a slapstick cartoon. Her slack-jawed, thunderstruck reaction to Frank’s presence undermines any sense of the story as a real romance, and her brassy musical performance grates on the nerves after a couple of songs. Keel does little better with the puffed up cockscomb Frank, although in other films he’s perfectly capable of making egotistical males appealing. His ridiculous costumes, all emblazoned with his initials, reveal Frank’s inflated, narcissistic personality; are we really supposed to root for a guy like that? In a better picture his evolution as a character might win our affection at the end, but nothing of the kind happens here.
The movie does have its moments of fun, including some huge production numbers for the western circus and the celebrated songs “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.” Still, the flaws outnumber the charms. The Native American scenes with Sitting Bull (J. Carrol Naish) are as awful and racist as those in Disney’s 1953 adaptation of “Peter Pan.” The film’s ultimate moral for women is perniciously offensive, arguing that men won’t like women who are better at something than they are and that the best way to secure a man’s love is to flatter his ego even to the extent of lying. Yes, the battle of the sexes theme is a standard in musicals of the time period, but this one crosses the line.
Although “Annie Get Your Gun” won an Oscar for Best Musical Score, Hutton and Keel both made better movies. See Hutton, for example, in the hilarious Preston Sturges comedy, “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (1944). You’ll find Keel in several more appealing battle of the sexes musicals, including “Calamity Jane” (1953), “Kiss Me Kate” (1953), and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954). See better work from director George Sidney in “The Harvey Girls” (1946).
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