A quintessential film of the musical genre, Annie focuses on Annie, a young orphan girl who refuses to give up her dreams for a better life. Beginning alone in an orphanage, surrounded only by fellow orphans, the story propels Annie to the heights of wealth and power, ultimately finding her a family in a place she never thought possible. Set during the Great Depression, the contrast between wealth and poverty was an important topic. Disillusionment ran rampant, the idealistic American Dream falling from its wholesome purpose to one more self-invested, corrupted. Throughout Annie, both sides of this dream are explored, both her orphanage life and her new life of wealth revealing and commenting on important aspects of the destroyed American Dream.
On a basic level, this idea of the American Dream drives the decisions of the characters, and as a result, further influences and alters the storyline. Everything that happens arises from the American Dream, unceasing ambition and the desire for prosperity. Annie’s ambition, her drive for a better life leads her to stick her head out the door during Grace’s (Mr. Warbucks’s secretary) visit to the orphanage. Had she not done so, some other child most likely would have been chosen and Annie would have remained at the orphanage for the rest of her life.
After that, Annie is thrown into a world where everything is in some way related to the American Dream. Mr. Warbucks’s entire fortune, his entire life has been built upon these themes. His own ambition led him into prosperity, making him one of the richest, most powerful men in the country, even in the middle of the Great Depression. He lives a life of luxury, servants there to carry out his every whim. By all definitions, he is the perfect fulfillment of the American Dream.
However, he is not happy, not really. As he says, what is the point of all of that wealth if he doesn’t have anyone to share it with? All of his scheming to make more money caused him to forget that there are other things that are more important, such as family, friends. Therefore, rather than arguing for the success of the American Dream, Mr. Warbucks is actually arguing for its emotional failure. Whereas a person can have all the money in the world, there is no point to it if that person does not have anyone to love, a topic not covered in the original idea of the American Dream.
This is further seen in the character of Annie. After wishing for a better life, she is delivered to a man who has everything, money, wealth, power, the ability to grant her anything she could ever want. Yet, she refuses his offer to be adopted. This is because, to her, there are things more important than wealth or money. She wants her real family, people who will love her unconditionally. Therefore, this again illustrates the fact that the typically accepted American Dream – wealth, power, success – cannot bring happiness. Annie rejects all of that in favor of love, the perfect life she has been longing for having nothing to do with a freedom from poverty and everything to do with simply finding those who love her.
Many of the musical numbers within the film are related to these ideas. One of the most obvious comparisons can be seen in the number, “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.” This piece occurs right after Annie arrives at the mansion. She dances with the staff, being told of all the wonderful things she is going to be awarded during her time at the mansion. As a result, this number focuses almost solely on the prosperity aspect of the American Dream.
In doing so, it helps to illuminate the contrast between poverty and prosperity. There is decadent food, wonderful clothing, a gorgeous home, the likes of which Annie has never seen before. She has lived in an orphanage all her life, undergoing all the trials and tribulations that come along with that. Where before she had to clean everything, make sure that it was spotless, she is now put in a place where she never has to do any work again. She is faced with the “life of the privileged,” a world completely different than the one we saw in the number, “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” As a result, this number in particular helps to establish the divide between the wealthy and the poor, the haves and the have-nots of society.
From that, this number is even more significant later in the film when Annie turns down Mr. Warbucks’s offer to stay with him. After an entire musical number is devoted to showing Annie – and the audience – how great her life will be at the mansion, her refusal reveals an important aspect of the American Dream: wealth and power are not everything, as was discussed before.
Not only does this film appear to point out that the American Dream cannot bring happiness, it also reveals an amount of corruption within the ideals of the dream itself. Ambition turns into greed, a desire to rise from poverty to prosperity at any costs. It is this manipulation, this desecration of the American Dream that turns certain characters into the film’s antagonistic forces.
One of the most prevalent antagonists is Miss Hannigan, the woman who runs the orphanage. At first, she seems to be a terrible person, someone who would rather be drinking than taking care of the children left in her care. She abuses them, forces them to spend their time cleaning, punishes them for little reason.
Her entire personality, desire to continue living, seems to arise from her personal vision of the American Dream. There seems to be a measure of defeat in her at the beginning of the film, as if she has accepted that she has failed in achieving prosperity and will therefore take what she can get, maintaining the status quo of misery. As a result, she has turned bitter towards the children in her charge, as is seen in her number, “Little Girls,” a song in which she relays her contempt for the “little girls” she is meant to be taking care of. From this, it is later revealed that she even siphons some of the money the state gives her to take care of these children in order to feed her own interests, tying back into the idea of greed. However, rather than establishing herself as an active antagonist, Miss Hannigan’s corruption of the American Dream comes more from her dissatisfaction with life, all of her choices early in the film working to maintain the dirty lifestyle she has created for herself.
However, her corruption of the American Dream becomes more active with the arrival of her brother, Rooster, and his girlfriend, Lily St. Regis. These two are willing to do anything to move from poverty to prosperity. They cheat, gamble, even steal from family. As a result, they are the embodiment of greed.
When Mr. Warbucks offers a reward for the discovery of Annie’s parents, Rooster and Lily see an opportunity to make a lot of cash very quickly. Employing Miss Hannigan’s help, the three of them embark on a con to get the reward, Rooster and Lily posing as Annie’s parents, armed with enough information from Miss Hannigan to fool Mr. Warbucks and Grace.
Still, they lie, cheat, steal in order to get ahead in life. They are poor, as is seen in the fact that Rooster needs to borrow money from other people, and want to reach prosperity. However, they do not care how they reach that prosperity. Their ambition is unobservant of any moral restrictions, restrictions that the American Dream fails to mention. From that, American Dream simply encompasses ambition, power, wealth, prosperity, and success, all widely recognized concepts. This idea never clarifies exactly how this success can be achieved, and as is seen in numerous gangster films, ambition can be taken a variety of ways, criminality sometimes seen as an easier way to get ahead than honest work.
This is very clearly seen in the number these three characters have together: “Easy Street.” Sung after deciding to go get the money from Mr. Warbucks, this number focuses on the ways to succeed under the law, under any moral contracts. In it, it is even said, “...there’s a place that’s like no other / You got to get there before you die / You don’t get there / by playing from the rule book.” The entire thing is about their decision to get ahead by circumventing the law, prosperity through immorality and corruption, prosperity through greed. Essentially, it is discussing the concept of “taking the easy way out,” walking down “easy street.”
Therefore, throughout the film, the musical numbers are important in further illustrating the themes of the American Dream. Each one is in some way relevant to the ideas of wealth or ambition, corruption or clarity. They work to show that the American Dream on its own cannot stand. It will either fall to corruption, as in “Easy Street,” or it will fall into loneliness and misery, as is the case with Mr. Warbucks. In one way or another, every piece reveals something about these themes, either how the characters relate to them or how the world in general relates to them, ultimately leaving viewers with the sense that the American Dream is essentially nothing but blind ambition, humans like hamsters running on wheels, if there is nothing there to balance it.
For the most part, the film remains in the realm of an integrated musical, the music and dance numbers directly related and important to the situation in which they are set. This can be seen in the well-known number, “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” At this point in the story, Miss Hannigan has ordered the orphans under her care to clean the house, making sure that everything is spotless. The song is their “work tune.” Through it, the audience is given a glimpse into the difficult lives the children lead
In addition, this song provides the audience with something to watch other than just a bunch of children cleaning and talking about how hard their lives are. It provides viewers with a great deal of information in a very short amount of time. We are given a glimpse into the normal, day-to-day lives of the children. Vacuuming, scrubbing, dusting, all parts of their everyday existence. However, it would have been difficult to make the audience watch people clean for the length of time it would take to fully make an impact.
Another musical number in such a vein is “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.” When Annie arrives at Mr. Warbucks’s mansion, she and the staff join together to sing this song. In doing so, they provide not only important character introductions, those of different people who work for Mr. Warbucks, but also important story points. The first and most obvious bit of information provided by this number is in Mr. Warbucks’s wealth. The shear number of people who join together in this chorus, all doing different jobs, and the magnitude of the house Annie is dancing in all help to establish how seemingly limitless Mr. Warbucks’s money is. In addition to this, this song helps to create an understanding of exactly how Annie is going to be treated at this home and as a result, how different it is from how she was treated in the orphanage.
This contrast ties back into the idea of poverty and prosperity that is seen throughout the film. Servants are present in this scene to wait on Annie hand and foot, to do anything and everything she wishes. Her shock and surprise, as is relayed through her singing, shows that she has never before been exposed to anything like this.
Through this, it becomes clear that everyone, everything within Annie is in some way related to the concept of the American Dream. From Daddy Warbucks to Miss Hannigan to the musical numbers themselves, they all reveal something about the goals on which this country was built, the characteristics with which so many defined themselves. As shown in the film, where ambition can lead to prosperity, it can also lead further into poverty, ambition morphing into greed and corruption. Therefore, Annie provides an important commentary on the role of the American Dream in the lives of the American people, simultaneously encouraging its drive but warning against its corruption.