Buffalo Bill Cody (Louis Calhern, Notorious) brings his Wild West Show to a town in Ohio, disturbing the local hotelier Foster Wilson (Clinton Sundberg). Wilson decides to get back at the arrogant sharpshooter, Frank Butler (Howard Keel, The Day of the Triffids), by sending him a female opponent for his shooting challenge: Annie Oakley (Betty Hutton), a hick who just happens to be the best shot anybody’s ever seen. Oakley falls for Butler immediately, but he’s more interested in conventional society ladies. When Annie shows Frank up in the shooting match, another wall is added between them, Butler’s pride. That doesn’t stop Cody and his barker Charlie Davenport (Keenan Wynn, Piranha) from making sure that Annie joins the Wild West Show as Butler’s assistant. Butler grows more fond of Oakley until, faced with stiff competition from Pawnee Bill’s (Edward Arnold) Far East Show, Cody and Davenport encourage Oakley to do her best trick and bill her as the star of the show. Butler’s pride is badly hurt, so he leaves the show to join up with Pawnee Bill. At the same time, Sitting Bull (J. Carrol Naish, Dracula vs. Frankenstein), impressed with Annie’s marksmanship, dubs her Little Sure Shot, adopts her into his tribe, and joins Cody. The Wild West Show leaves for Europe, but will these crazy kids find a way to get together despite their clashing egos?
Annie Get Your Gun was an enormous stage hit with songs by Irving Berlin and Ethel Merman as its star. The film version’s transition from stage to screen was a difficult one, with a version starring Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz) and directed by Busby Berkeley (They Made Me a Criminal) shut down in the middle of shooting due to Garland’s illness. Frank Morgan (The Great Ziegfeld), who was to play Buffalo Bill, died before shooting resumed. It is hard to say how well Garland would work in the title role, but she couldn’t be worse than Betty Hutton, whose mugging performance distracts throughout the film. It’s a shame because Howard Keel is great fun playing the conceited, vain Butler and the songs are great, including the most famous, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do.” The supporting cast, lead by an impossibly young Keenan Wynn and J. Carrol Naish’s in an against type role as Annie’s mentor, is a lot of fun. Of course, not all the blame should go on the star in a big production like this. The film is full of the usual bright Technicolor colors of an MGM musical, but one assumes someone (perhaps director George Sidney) could have told Hutton to down down her over-the-top “hick” accent and goofy faces (of the Lucille Ball variety), and Hutton’s make-up and wardrobe screams “PLAY THIS AS BIG AS YOU CAN” in her early scenes.
The one really sour note is the ending, whose moral is essentially: “Girls, let the men be arrogant assholes and let them win, you can’t get a man with a gun (i.e. by being his equal)”. Sure, the moral is hardly unexpected in a show from 1946, but I would mind it less in a musical that isn’t based on the life of Annie Oakley. The real Oakley believed in more rights and opportunities for women, didn’t tone down her abilities for her husband (in fact as her star rose and his faded he stepped aside and became her manager), and famously offered to train and lead a unit of women sharpshooters in the Spanish-American War, a far cry from the Oakley of the film who goes along with Sitting Bull’s advice and lets Butler win.