“She’s quick on the trigger with targets not much bigger than a pinpoint, she’s number one!” “Annie Oakley” is her name and shooting’s her game—and she’s the focus of “Irving Berlin’s” 1946 musical “Annie Get Your Gun”. Upon taking on the song-writing duties when Jerome Kern, (the Composer who was contracted at the outset by the show’s producers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein,) suddenly passed away, Berlin’s resulting score remains to this day, unparalleled among best loved Broadway musicals–literally overflowing with such venerable ‘standards’ as “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”, “They Say That Falling in Love is Wonderful”, “You Cain’t Get a Man with a Gun”, and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”. Ten years later, a new production was staged for a limited West-Coast run starring Mary Martin and John Raitt, which was summarily broadcast live (and in color) on November 27, 1957, on the NBC television network. This “Special Thanksgiving Holiday” presentation was hailed by “The New York Herald Tribune” who pronounced it to be “a joyous event…. from beginning to end.”
Although Broadway Icon Ethel Merman originated the role on “The Great White Way”, the show’s creative-team had started out intending the musical as a vehicle for Martin instead, so after her record-breaking triumphs in both New York and in London with “South Pacific”, and on Broadway and television with “Peter Pan”, Ms. Martin retook to the stage for limited runs in San Francisco and Los Angeles with her role as “Annie Oakley”. Joining her this time, John Raitt was her “Frank Butler” and the pair quickly proved to be a magnificent—and melodic–match made in musical theater (–and the “Golden Age of Television”) “Heaven”! The Executive Producer of this new rendering was Richard Halliday—Martin’s husband at the time (who was also the man behind a multitude of her stage at T.V. projects,) in association with Edwin Lester and his now-legendary “Los Angeles Civic Light Opera”, who had previously worked with Mary as one of the early producers of “Peter Pan”. Add to them, the new direction was by Martin’s favorite director for the latter part of her career, Vincent J. Donehue, while the dances were staged by Ernest Flatt. After the telecast however, in those days before videotape, word has it that Berlin–who owned the exclusive rights, was concerned that even with the steadily improving quality of kinescopes (which were the industry norm by that time) the survival of even one copy of this (slightly) ‘pared-down’ TV re-enactment would impugn the value of his cherished ‘property. This fear led him to demand that ALL network copies of the broadcast be destroyed. How lucky then, that at least one DID survive to resurface years later, and that now after all this time so impressive a remastering of such a genuine buried treasure of classic Americana (–which remained buried for far too long!) has been made available by “Video Artists International” (A.K.A. “V.A I. Music”.) The very first “legitimate” release of this lost gem, now joyously re-found, the company has given it a release onto DVD and Blu-ray where it waits to be rediscovered and appreciated following its extended absence!
Even the opening credits are rousing—going directly into the pulse-pounding “Colonel Buffalo Bill”: “Who’s got the stuff that made the Wild West wild?” the cast carol forth as they rush on; “Who pleases every woman, man, and child? Who does his best to give the customers a thrill–Who? Colonel Buffalo Bill!” (Given the obvious time restraints, it’s somewhat abbreviated but it remains nonetheless–unlike in the most recent revival back in 1993.) In fact, most of Herbert and Dorothy Fields’ wily and witty text remains intact (Be forewarned though: those with a more ‘woke’ mindset may judge some of the ‘humor’ to be construed as culturally insensitive now and then–after all, this was a product of the 1940’s and all its inherent attitudes, good, bad or indifferent!) Immediately after, “Frank Butler” –the show’s dashingly handsome, if egotistical and self-professed womanizing, “Star” strides on and warns his devoted female throng that “I’m a Bad, Bad, Man”. Shortly following, “Annie” herself makes her preliminary appearance—dressed in a converted flour sack shooting a stuffed bird off the hat of Butler’s hot-headed “Assistant”, “Dolly Tate”. This prompts the likably gutsy but awkward gal to lament “You Cain’t Win A Man With A Gun”—setting up one of Oakley’s prime conundrums she’ll face all through the course of the story.
When “Buffalo Bill” finally does appear, he’s fittingly larger than life—a true-blue showman all the way. He’s there for a big “shooting contest” which “Annie” has unknowingly gotten involved in against “Frank” (whom she’s instantly attracted to.) After their match (–Surprise! Frank loses–) comes the score’s central anthem–the “Gold Standard Of Show Tunes”: “There’s No Business Like Show Business”. Performed by “Bill”, “Frank’ and their Road Manager “Charlie Davenport”, it’s given a nice, Vaudevillian feel as they try to convince the wide-eyed “Annie” to join the show and head out on the road with them; when she joins in it’s definitely worth waiting for! During their brief time working side by side, it doesn’t take “Frank” long to himself become enamored with the guilelessly honest, if tomboyish, “Annie” as he divulges (through song) that “My Defenses Are Down”. In the meantime, “Buffalo Bill” and “Charlie” make plans to promote “Miss Oakley’s” phenomenal marksmanship abilities to bring in still wider audiences. They intend to showcase her in a special shooting stunt performed on horseback, which she agrees to believing it will enthrall “Frank” and attract him all the more. She couldn’t be more wrong. Although her success does help cement a deal with the renowned “Chief Sitting Bull” causing him to sign on with the show, it turns out he is so amazed by this crack-shot of a girl, that he immediately nicknames her “Watanya Cicilla” (translated: “Little Sure Shot”) and, not only does he want to adopt her into his tribe via a full-scale splashy Native-American ceremony, but she even moves him to break his cardinal rule: He agrees to put money into “Show Business”! This segues directly into the act break, where “Frank” sends the overwhelmed lass a letter to say he’s quitting “Buffalo Bill’s” troupe and leaving her as well: “Dear Annie”, he writes; “I am leaving tonight to join ‘Pawnee Bill’s show. I’m going to do my act with Dolly. You put over the smartest trick I ever saw…you’re a smart girl, Annie–too smart for me. Good Luck to you…and Goodbye!”
“Act Two” opens aboard a cattle boat bound for Manhattan as “Buffalo Bill” and his company come back from a high profile (but not very profitable) excursion where they performed for all the ‘crowned heads’ on ‘The Continent’. What’s more, we soon learn that in reality they’re nestled just off the coast of New York harbor waiting for night to fall so they can disembark under the cover of darkness without attracting too much attention! (So much for all their ‘good fortune’ in Europe!) “We’re gonna sneak in at midnight,” Charlie tells them; “We can’t let people see us make a ‘Victorious’ return on a cattle boat!” Understandably dejected over their grim circumstances, a ray of hope is revealed when a messenger arrives via a harbor skiff with an invitation from none other than their rival “Pawnee Bill” (whose own show just happens to be playing “Madison Square Garden” at the time.) He offers to throw “Buffalo Bill” and his entire troupe a big ‘Welcome Home” reception at the “Hotel Brevoort”. Once there, although “Frank” is as excited to be back with “Annie” as she is with him, the would-be “happy” couple’s reunion is short-lived, and pretty quickly they’re back at bickering with one another after “Frank” shows her his medal that attests he is “The Best Sharpshooter In The World”: “WHAT World?!” she asks dryly; “The Old World or the New World?!” before she reciprocally trots out all of her jewel-encrusted shooting medals from the European tour. Agreeing on one more shooting match to settle this division beyond any shadow of a doubt, they decide to hold it on New York’s Governor’s Island just across the Harbor. This occasions the terrific “11 O’Clock” showstopper, “Anything You Can Do”, which serves as a prelude to the actual contest. Before it can get underway though, “Annie” encounters a well-meaning but totally misguided attempt at subterfuge which would cause her to lose (rationalizing that it would soothe Butler’s wounded ego and allow the two to reconcile once and for all.) In the end, she’s told about the deception but consents to go along with it anyway, reminding herself once more: “You Cain’t Get A Man With A Gun” (at least not in the 1880’s!) Ironically though, she ultimately discovers that she CAN get her man—and a headlining part in the newly merged East And West Shows—all because of her rifle-wielding skill, after which the action immediately segues into the thoroughly festive finale complete with related curtain calls that has everyone joining in to belt out one last chorus of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, even as a huge banner is unfurled proclaiming: “The NEW Buffalo AND Pawnee Bill’s Show–Starring Frank Butler And Annie Oakley”. But it doesn’t quite end there—instead of joining the cast on stage, the camera cuts to Martin and Raitt together on the back of a real live ‘galloping horse’ (revisiting one of the show’s better special effects!)
Working from the Fields siblings’ definitive libretto, Donehue’s direction is, of necessity, fast-paced and fluid–and looking back at where television was at this time in its development, it’s fairly astounding to consider all the eye-brow raising special effects they so capably pull-off, let alone such lavish dance numbers. One decidedly stirring example of the technical ingenuity at play here involves “Annie’s” riding “trick” when she makes her debut in “The Wild West Show”, which leads into the first “Act Break”. (Consider too, that this was “Live” television, which makes such a feat that much more incredible!) Not coincidentally then, this production was the winner of the 1957 Emmy Award for “Best Live Camera Work”. Flatt’s choreography similarly works wonders in the limited amount of airtime he was allotted, still furnishing the required amount of “Razzle-Dazzle” this show emphatically requires. In contrast though, the real trick he’s achieved lies in how he successfully infuses smaller bits of movement and dance into numbers that are more intimate, over and above those that involve full-on, all-out spectacle. For the opening, where the cast sing the praises of “Colonel Buffalo Bill”, he inserts a buoyant full-company “Parade” loaded with Acrobats, Cow-Pokes, Buffalo-Gals and Indian Braves who all converge on “The Wilson House Hotel” (somewhere on the outskirts of Cincinnati Ohio,) hoping to drum up an audience for their in-town engagement. Next, to enliven a portion of “Frank’s” introductory serenade, “I’m A Bad, Bad, Man”, he incorporates a lively square dance, when our “Big swollen-headed stiff” of a Hero is joined by two other saddle-wranglers from the show and the three of them give a whirl to all of “Butler’s” star-struck feminine fans. Flatt even expands upon this later for “Frank’s” tuneful confession, “My Defenses Are Down” wherein he’s joined by all the male members of the “Wild West Show” as he exults that since meeting “Miss Oakley”: “My defenses are down—she’s broken my resistance and I don’t know where I am; I went into the fight like a lion, but I came out like a lamb!”
Shortly after, as “Annie’s “Adoption” into “Sitting Bull’s” tribe gets underway, the ceremony is introduced by a burley Native American dancer who leads the massive “Wild Horse Ceremonial Dance” that is indisputably the choreographic Highlight of the entire foundational half of the teleplay (–and yes, it leads into the controversial “I’m An Indian Too” considered by many to be racially insensitive to the Native American, hence its deletion from the 1993 Broadway revival; for this interpretation though, it is adeptly sung and danced—with the hapless “Annie” at the heart of it.) Toward the finale, Flatt devises an effervescent waltz performed by a band of richly-dressed socialites as a prelude to “Annie’s” “Charmed” and “ ‘Chanted” entry into New York ‘High Society’, before livening things up for her ebullient declaration “I Got The Sun In The Morning And The Moon At Night”, whereupon those in attendance kick up their heels with a spirited bout of fancy-stepping “Jitterbug” style.
Ms. Martin and Mr. Raitt’s talents match one another’s flawlessly, helping to make this a “Must See” (to say nothing of being an ‘A-Plus’ gift suggestion,) for fans and aficionados of either (or both) of them; of rare television antiquities; or outstanding musical theater in general. As the titular Heroine, Mary Martin exhibits an inherent likeability that’s well suited for this role, while particularly packing lots of laughs into all the self-effacing humor etched into it. Winning us over right from the get-go with her rip-roaring rendition of “Doin’ What Comes Naturally”, backed by “Annie’s” kid sisters “Nellie” (the taller) and “Jessie” (the shorter) with baby brother “Little Jake” In tow (sister “Minnie” has, for this small-screen edition, been omitted.) “We don’t read as good as everybody” sister “Jessie” admits; “We don’t read as good as ANYBODY!” Annie corrects her. Immediately following, Mary gives us “You Cain’t Get A Man With A Gun”—“Annie’s” ‘sung-soliloquy’ (she has several,) and you can see exactly why this role was initially intended just for her! In the next scene that takes place on a train six-weeks later, Mary delights us all over again with “Moonshine Lullaby” (again supported by her young siblings and a pair of equally pint-sized “Mohawk Indian” twins.) Cleverly staged on the sleeping car of the train as she essentially tucks them all in for the night, it’s long been observed that Mary did some of her finest stage work with children and this situation is no different.
Subsequently, her Second Act turn with “I Got Lost In His Arms” is arguably the very best–and certainly is the very best delivered of all the numbers she’s been tasked with in the context of her part. This is precisely the kind she did to perfection! In the midst of the song’s bridge, as “Annie” dreams of “Frank” and their anticipated ‘reunion’, she whimsically does a few waltz steps alone, before Raitt counters (off camera as “Frank’s” ‘voice’ which persistently plays through Annie’s imagination.) The effect is sublime. Immediately following, the scene changes to the party in the hotel ballroom which really encompasses most of the second act. Here again Martin absolutely sparkles—jubilantly conveying the even more lyrical, “I Got The Sun In The Mornin’”, gradually letting it build into a jaunty, jivey full-company extravaganza featuring some high kickin’ and flamboyant footwork!
As for John Raitt—by this time himself a bona-fide Broadway Luminary with starring roles in musical mega-hits like “Carousel” and “The Pajama Game”, his voice is nothing less than operatic–and as booming as ever! He also demonstrates plenty of strong on-camera charisma too. Indeed, it could be firmly stated they couldn’t have chosen a better or more talented leading man to play “Frank Butler” in any production but especially for this TV version. This he affirms with his opener, “I’m A Bad, Bad Man”. Then again, Raitt shines with every number he’s a part of–including “The Girl That I Marry”, which occurs upon his precursory meeting of “Annie” and her brood; later in the act he conjures theatrical magic–handing over twice the gusto with “My Defenses Are Down”, aided by a bunch of roustabouts. In Act Two, he effectively ‘re-establishes’ himself opposite Martin, with his part in the reprise of “They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful”. While they share several duets, this one is every bit as wonderful as you’d expect! Right before the show’s big climax they validate anew just how truculent a twosome they truly are with the comical absurdity of “Anything You Can Do”. Solo or side-by-side, each number stands as a prime videographic record preserving exactly why both of these storied performers were so admired and adored!
Another laudable addition to the cast is William O’Neal who reappears in the role of “Colonel William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody” which he created in the premiere cast of the 1946 Broadway blockbuster. Presenting a fittingly big (or put more appropriately–HUMONGOUS) character and disposition, his contribution to the famed “There’s No Business Like Show Business” aids immensely in making it the kind of audience crowd-pleaser that, even for television, lives up to–and even exceeds–its already lofty expectations. Notable too is Donald Burr, who categorically stands out in an otherwise easily overlooked role as “Charlie Davenport”—“Buffalo Bill’s” Administrator and Advance Man; keep your ears open and you’ll also notice that he gets some of the very best laugh lines–as when “Buffalo Bill” and his rival “Pawnee Bill” meet to discuss a potential merger of their two shows: “Well here we are, all in the same business,” he quips, practically glowing with phony unctuousness; “Annie dying to be with Frank, Bill here dying to be with Bill there…Dolly and I just dying!” By the same token, Reta Shaw (perhaps best remembered as the housemaid in “Mary Poppins” and later in the popular sitcom “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”,) also puts her substantial personality fully into her performance as “Charlie’s” sister, “Dolly Tate”: “Either that woman goes—or I stay!” she threatens her brother at one point, concerning “Annie’s” newfound involvement with the show. Susan Luckey (who shortly after would make her name in both the big-screen releases of “Carousel” and “The Music Man”) rounds out their family trio as “Winnie Tate”— “Dolly Tate’s” ‘Daughter’ (not her younger sister as in Broadway’s prior incarnation.) Accordingly, “Winnie” and “Dolly” have enough to do (mostly in Act One) despite the elimination of a romantic subplot involving “Winnie’s” love for a young Native-American Knife Thrower with the show named “Tommy Keeler”, whom “Dolly’ objects to on the basis of his ethnicity alone! Unhappily cut (again for purposes of time) this secondary story carries with it a powerful message against racism and bigotry and its complete omission (as with the 1950 movie adaptation and the later 1966 “Lincoln Center” revival,) eradicates this important message from being heard. That said, beyond the show’s perceived lack of modern “P.C.” sensibilities, it is also often sadly overlooked (but very important to recognize) that “Chief Sitting Bull” (played here with quiet dignity by Zachary Charles,) is the one voice of wisdom, reason and even compassion in this whole story. Rounding out this exceptional cast is Luke Halpin (who would eventually be seen as the older brother “Sandy” on “Flipper”) as “Annie’s” younger brother (and “Bird Dog” when needed,) “Little Jake”.
To borrow from one of the show’s most time-honored comedy numbers, this is one instance where anything ‘Live TV’ could do—DVD and Blu-Ray can do better! Although broadcast in color when first aired, this DVD/Blu-ray release was taken from one of the very few remaining Kinescopes (meaning black and white film, which was the method of saving live programs to rerun or air in markets that a show wasn’t able to be broadcast directly to, given that there were no satellites yet in existence.) Not to worry though–once the crew at “V.A.I. Music” acquired the rights, they set about expertly polishing it up, restoring the print to pristine digital quality that veritably surpasses its original broadcast quality, thus guaranteeing a crisp, clean picture and impeccable sound, so that even in fifty shades of gray “Annie’s” bejeweled medals continue to glisten brightly and the songs enduringly will raise a smile. As an added benefit for vintage television enthusiasts, even the exact same commercials have been included as DVD “Extras”, providing an even greater authentic viewing experience: “This special holiday presentation was brought to you by ‘The Bold New ‘Pontiac’ and your authorized ‘Pontiac’ dealer–and ‘Pepsi Cola’,” the announcer trumpets as the show’s closing credits roll. Released through “Video Artists International”, this re-discovered masterstroke of TV’s incandescent bygone days enhances any home entertainment collection. To order a copy in either format, log onto: http://www.vaimusic.com/product/4600.html or call: (800) 477-7146 .
Special Thanks To Allan Altman And The Staff Of “Video Artists International” (www.VAIMusic.com ) For All Their Kind Assistance In Making This Story Possible