The Evolution of ‘Annie’: From the Page to the Screen


For a 90-year-old, Annie doesn’t look a day over 11.

Inspired by a poem, the character of “Little Orphan Annie” made her debut in a comic strip in 1924, and in the decades since, the unstoppable redhead has been a smash hit on the radio, the Broadway stage, television, and of course, the big screen.

With a new generation gets excited about a fresh reinvention coming to movie theaters this month, take a look back at the most memorable “Annie” incarnations of yesterday (because tomorrow is always a day away).

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In 1885, James Whitcomb Riley published a poem originally entitled “The Elf Child,” based on a girl in his neighborhood who lost her father in the Civil War. He later changed the title to “Little Orphant Allie”  after the girl’s nickname, but a printing error caused it to be published as “Little Orphant Annie” (the extra “t” was intentional, though). Cartoonist Harold Gray borrowed the name when he created his comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” for the New York Daily News in 1924. (The poem also inspired the name of another famous redhead: the Raggedy Ann doll).

little orphan annie (4 color 012) 00 cover 1In the comic, Annie is a resourceful and optimistic 11-year-old who gets taken out of a ramshackle orphanage to live with the kindly and prosperous “Daddy” Warbucks. Originally, Warbucks had a resentful wife who would send Annie back to the orphanage at any opportunity. The strip became a nationally syndicated sensation, and it continued to be published in various forms for 86 years before finally ending in 2010.

The character quickly jumped off the page to other media. In 1930, “Little Orphan Annie” became a hugely popular radio show. As depicted in the movie “A Christmas Story,” young fans would exchange packages of Ovaltine, the show’s sponsor, for items like a secret decoder ring (which would tell you to buy more Ovaltine). There were also two movie versions of the story in the ‘30s, but neither were particularly successful with audiences.

What did prove to be popular, though, was the 1977 Broadway musical simply entitled “Annie.” The play took many liberties with the original source material, eliminating Warbucks’ wife and making President Franklin D. Roosevelt (whom Harold Gray vocally opposed) a heroic character. 13-year-old Andrea McArdle became the youngest ever nominee for the Best Actress Tony award for playing the title character, and she was later replaced by a very young Sarah Jessica Parker. The show ran for nearly six years, spawning national tours, foreign productions, and a multiple Broadway revivals.

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Naturally, a show that successful is bound to be adapted for the movies. Hollywood legend John Huston directed the big-budget production which starred Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, Tim Curry, and Ann Reinking. Aileen Quinn beat out around 8,000 other girls (including a young Drew Barrymore) to win the part of the title role. The movie made some significant changes to the Broadway musical: dropping some songs, adding new ones, and including a more action-packed climax atop a drawbridge.


The movie was a sizable hit, earning two Oscar nominations and becoming the 10th highest-grossing movie of 1982. But the film cost so much to make it wasn’t especially profitable. It had a second life, however, on television and home video, becoming an integral part of childhood for an entire generation. There were two attempts at a sequel to the stage musical, but neither production ever made it to Broadway. A completely different sequel, “Annie: A Royal Adventure,” was made for TV in 1995, and another adaptation of the original musical aired four years later.

Annie-poster-2Now, the most radical reinvention of the character yet is coming to movie theaters. Produced by Will Smith and Jay-Z (who famously sampled the song “It’s the Hard Knock Life”), the new “Annie” transports the story from the Great Depression to the modern day. 11-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis — the youngest person ever nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for 2012’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” — takes on the title role, alongside costars Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, and Rose Byrne. The updated version also drops several songs and characters from the original show, with several new numbers by Australian singer/songwriter Sia.

The classic 1982 movie “Annie” is available right now on Feeln, and you can try the service for free for one week. Gather your family together and watch it tonight. Bet your bottom dollar everyone in your home will love it.

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