Affect and the Hollywood musical: "Doin' what comes naturally"

Acting naturally: Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun.

This weekend I watched George Sidney’s film version of Annie Get Your Gun (1951), a mostly entertaining, if frequently embarrassing (witness the jaw-dropping “I’m an Indian Too” number), mounting of Irving Berlin’s Broadway hit, with the winsome and indefatigable Betty Hutton in the title role.  Hutton was brought on board after Judy Garland backed out, and while it’s hard not to wonder what Garland would have brought to the role (such as stronger vocals: Hutton more or less fumbles her way through the ballads) Hutton more than sells it.  In fact, it’s a part more ideally suited to Hutton’s big, expansive, slightly loony charms than to those of the vulnerable, achingly needy Garland.  Hutton makes a natural Annie, and Annie is a character who demands to be played naturally.  It occurred to me while watching Hutton gleefully stomp and belt her way through the big numbers that naturalness, which would seem to be the very last thing in which the musical is invested, is actually one of the very things in which it trades.  What could be more unnatural than the act of breaking spontaneously into song and dance?  And yet why are we drawn to figures like Hutton in Annie or Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music if not for the naturalistic ease with which their emotions find expression through music? 

Annie Get Your Gun serves as a particularly good example of the musical’s investment in naturalness because it repeatedly privileges “nature,” represented by Annie herself, first discovered barefoot, illiterate, and blissfully poor, over culture, represented by the hifalutin’ “pink and white ladies” with whom she vies for the affections of Frank Butler (Howard Keel).  The only moment in the film at which Annie feels and looks unnatural occurs when she tries to become a “pink and white lady” herself, arriving at a society ball dressed awkwardly in a black evening gown (adorned with her various sharp-shooting medals).  Annie Get Your Gun, like many other musicals (and like many Hollywood films generally), is suspicious of sophistication, culture, and artifice, even as it traffics in artificiality more transparently than just about any other cinematic genre.  The musical’s trick is to make us feel that its most absurd conventions are the expressions of an unmediated state of nature—that to sing ourselves sore, and to say to hell with the prohibitive social codes that would most like to prevent us from doing so, are the most natural things in the world.

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