from: The History of Little Orphan Annie by Bruce Smith
Ballantine Books, New York :1982
The oldest little girl in the world was born in 1924. Little Orphan Annie has been living the hard-knocks life since then, and in all that time she hasnt aged a day. Shes still 11 years old.
In all that time, too, she hasnt lost her appeal. Shes one of only a handful of comic-strip characters who have managed to retain their popularity over the decades. And not just on paper: three generations, so far, have followed her exploits in the funny papers, on the radio, on Broadway, and at the movies.
Annie appeals, as the old saying goes, to children of all ages. When the Little Orphan Annie comic strip was first begun, it was aimed at adults, not children. The theory was that children didnt read newspapers. The theory was wrong.
The strip was unique in that it could be read on more than one level. Just as a Marx Brothers movie can be appreciated for its slapstick comedy or for its biting satire, Little Orphan Annie could be read for the charm of a little girl wandering through the world, or for the political tract it frequently became.
As Charles Dickens had done a century earlier, Annies creator, Harold Gray, wrote morality stories. And like Dickens, they appeared in serial form.
In a sense, Gray was also an historian. He took his story ideas for Little Orphan Annie from the headlines on the front page. The strip became a chronicle of its time, reflecting the changing mood of the country as it went from the prosperity of the Twenties to the poverty of the Thirties, from a war of bullets and bombs in the Forties to the wars of words and ideas in the Fifties and Sixties. The long gestation of the Broadway show Annie continued the chronicle tradition, although inadvertently. Originally written as an antidote to the pessimism and despair of the Watergate era, the show finally opened at about the same time a new president, Jimmy Carter, took office and promised to give America a government as good as its people.
Gary was a political archconservative, armed with a short fuse and a long reach into millions of American households. His war against Franklin D. Roosevelts New deal during the Depression stirred intense debate across the country. It made him many enemies, but he never backed down.
Much of that political content was dropped from the strip after Gray died, and is almost entirely missing from the Broadway show and film based on Grays characters. Nonetheless, Annie is more popular now than shes ever been. The explanation for that lies in the characters themselves and the traits Gray assigned to them.
Annie belongs in the same league as other such fictional characters as Huckleberry Finn, Robin Hood, and Alice in Wonderland. Her story will never grow old with passing time or wearisome in repetition, because like them, she is a character, not just a caricature.
Shes a little girl with the mind of an adult.
She hasnt been to school much and her way of speaking is a little rough around the edges, but shes very smart, and savvy in the ways of the world.
Shes tough, but only when she has to be. Shes got a big heart, and a soft spot for the few people she meets who are even more unfortunate than she is.
Shes an underdog, an outcast, without family or background. Her past is as blank as her empty eyes.
Shes powerless. She cant fly, or see through brick walls, or lift freight trains with one hand.She has to work her way out of jams the same way the rest of us do.
Shes incorruptible, sustained only by her own goodness in the evil places she travels to.
Her motto is short and sweet.Tell the truth, work hard, save your money, and keep your nose tidy. as her creator Harold Gray, once remarked, Thats good advice for any kid, and especially for an orphan.
Although shes an orphan, Annie is by no means alone in the world. She has her faithful dog, Sandy, and her adopted Daddy, Oliver Warbucks, who happens to be the richest man in the world. Life could be cushy with him around, except hes never given her so much as a dime and is always going away on long, mysterious business trips, leaving Annie and Sandy alone to stumble innocently into the most bloodcurdling adventures.
Over the years theyve had to tangle with a rogues gallery of crooks and gangsters, foreign spies, corrupt politicians, murderers, pinkos, misfits, enemies of democracy, and every agent of villainy imaginable. They always manage to come out okay in the end - and to plunge almost immediately into another predicament.
Harold Gray had two rules he made Annie live by: she could never reach a happy ending, and she could never grow up. None of the surrogate fathers and mothers who have guided her destiny since his death have seen fit to overrule him. In fact, theyve changed remarkably little. From that fateful day back in 1924, when she heaved a bowl of mush in mean Miss Asthmas face and shouted Leapin Lizards! for the first time, Annie has remained just what Gray intended for her to be: Tougher than hell, with a heart of gold and a fast left.
Shes good, all right. But shes no goody-goody. She always plays by the rule-book, but once in a while forgets the part that says it isnt ladylike to belt a bully in the chops. Annie has a license to use both ends of that old slogan, Might makes right.
Her Daddy Warbucks, on the other hand, has never read a copy of anyones rule book. He writes his own as he goes along. From time to time, his way of getting things done doesnt quite square with civilized behaviour, but when youre the richest man in the world you cant afford to let yourself get bogged down in technicalities. If Warbucks has ever regretted his ruthless methods, he has yet to show it.
Only the youngest of Annies followers fail to recognise the symbolism in her unique relationship with Daddy Warbucks. If Freud were still around hed have a field day with it; as it is, plenty of his disciples have had a crack at it.
The bond between Annie and Daddy boils down to the mutual devotion of opposites: a man whose wealth and power isolate him from the warmth of human touch, and a poor, weak child, alone in the world.
Nobody knows where Annie got her name, any more than where she came from. Its possible - but by no means certain - that a poem called Little Orphant Annie had a lot to do with Annies origin. The poem was written in 1885 by James Whitcomb Riley, famous throughout the midwest as the Hoosier Poet.
Rileys verses were folksy, homespun tales that reflected everyday life in the farming communities and small towns of his native Indiana. In this particular poem, he was expanding on a character named Little Orphant Annie, whom he had used in an earlier poem and who was said to be modeled on a real orphan girl employed in the Riley household. In those days, before the advent of social Welfare agencies, a child who lost its parents was completely dependent on the mercy of relatives or neighbours. When an orphan moved into another home, he or she was usually treated more as a hired hand than a new member of the family.
Little Orphant Annie became one of Rileys most popular poems through his public readings of it. Small children were particularly fond of it for the powerful, thumping refrain:
Little Orphant Annies come to our house to stay,
An wash the cups an saucers up, anbresh the crumbs away,
An shoo the chickens off the porch, an dust the hearth an
An make the fire, an bake the bread, an earn her board-an-
An all us other children, when the supper -things is done,
we set around the kitchen fire an has the mostest fun
Alistnin to the witch-tales at Annie tells about
An the Gobbleuns at gits you
The poem reached a wide audience in the Midwest, and was surely known around Kankakee, Illinois, where Gray was born on January 20, 1894.
Was Rileys poem the source of Annies name, and perhaps her colorful way of speaking? Its a question Gray never answered, and its far too late to ask him now.
The moment of Annies creation evokes a sentimental image. One imagines Gray, the struggling young artist, sitting at a drawing board late one night, the floor around him littered with crumpled, rejected sketches of the comic-strip character he wanted so desperately to draw.
Suddenly his head perks up as the pen beneath his fingers works some idle scratchings on the paper into the outline of a small figure. As his pen fills in more lines, a little girl takes shape. She has short curly hair, and an upturned nose, and big, round eyes - the pupils can be filled in later. Finally, red-eyed and exhausted but delighted with his creation, the artist leans back and studies the figure hes created, a triumphant smile on his face.
Pushing sentiment brusquely aside, the reality was not so. Harold gray did not set out to create Little orphan Annie any more than Christopher Columbus set sail to discover America. They shared the same dream - finding a way to vast wealth - but neither of them knew where he was going until he got there.
Annie wasnt the first cartoon character Gray had come up with, and she wouldn't have been the last if someone hadnt agreed to take a chance on her. He wanted to do a comic strip, and if Annie couldnt have given him the opportunity, he would have chucked her in the wastebasket with with all his other failed ideas without a backward glance.
As it happened, Annie caught on. So she stayed. Later on, Daddy and Sandy caught on, too. If they hadnt, Gray would have given them the same heave-ho he gave the two Mrs. Warbucks and other characters he created for the strip who didnt cut the mustard.
In short, the birth of Annie did not take place in a single act of inspired genius. It was, however, a very clever one, and the most admirable thing about Grays creation is the fact that Annie could never be changed. Even when she passed beyond his reach and other hands guided her along, she remained the simple orphan kid he always wanted her to be. As a result, Annie is as close to taking a real breath of air as any imaginary being has ever been.