Friday, August 5, 2011

August 5

Two features appear on today's THE WRITER'S ALMANAC with GARRISON KEILLOR spotlighting cartoons.

The New York Daily News debuted the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie" on this day in 1924. Cancelled in 2010 after a run of nearly 86 years, the street-smart redhead inspired a radio show, a Broadway musical, three film adaptations, mass-marketed books, and merchandise that included everything from lunchboxes to curly wigs. Although only a fraction of this happened before the strip's creator, Harold Gray, died in 1968, it was enough to make him a millionaire.

Gray's wealth drew criticism during the Great Depression, when he used the strip to voice his populist political beliefs: namely, that the poor ought to pull themselves up by the bootstraps without government intervention or assistance. This is how his character Daddy Warbucks, the tuxedoed war profiteer, had succeeded, transforming his modest machine shop into a World War I munitions factory. Gray expressed his distaste for FDR and his New Deal in the strip's storylines, prompting one left-leaning writer to label it "Hooverism in the funnies." The public didn't seem to care — in 1937, "Little Orphan Annie" was the most popular comic in the country.

Forty years later, when the playwright Thomas Meehan adapted the strip for the 1977 Broadway musical, Annie, he subverted Gray's original politics. The updated Annie stumbles upon a "Hooverville" of homeless people who sing the ironic "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover," and she is later saved from greedy imposter parents and the evil orphanage supervisor by FDR himself. The play — and the 1982 film — ends with a rousing chorus of the song "A New Deal for Christmas," celebrating the economic plan that the strip's creator had so despised.

Politics aside, both Gray and Meehan had hard-knock lives, at least as teenagers. Meehan's father died when he was 15, and Gray was orphaned just before finishing high school.

Although Gray credited a girl he'd met on the streets of Chicago as his inspiration for the character of Annie, he took the strip's title from that of a popular poem by James Whitcomb Riley, originally published in 1885. That Annie was based on a real orphan girl who lived in the poet's home during his childhood, earning her room and board by helping Riley's mother with the housework. The child was called Allie, short for Alice, and the poem based on her was supposed to be called "Little Orphant Allie." A simple typo changed her name to Annie, and by the time Riley requested that it be corrected, the poem was gaining popularity and he let the misprint stand.
From the first stanza that started it all:
Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,
An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away,
An' shoo the chickens off the porch, an' dust the hearth, an' sweep,
An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an' earn her board-an'-keep.

The British tabloid The Daily Mirror debuted the comic strip "Andy Capp" on this day in 1957. A pun on the word "handicap" in the dialect of northern England, where the comic is set and where its creator, Reginald "Reg" Smythe, was raised, Andy Capp is a roustabout who spends his time drinking, gambling, and fighting with his long-suffering wife, Flo.

The strip continues in syndication, despite Smythe's death in 1998, and is read in 13 languages across 31 countries. These days, Andy has kicked his smoking habit, and the Capps no longer engage in domestic violence — they go to marriage counseling.

— Courtesy The Writer's Almanac
© 2011 APM
The Writer's Almanac is produced by Prairie Home Productions and presented by American Public Media.

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