NOTE: This biographical entry was prepared for the film ANNIE (1999) (TV)
Although the role of the character is quite small, it is material - it is the SINE QUO NON - to resolving the plot and providing the essential happy ending in ANNIE. The character cannot be properly understood without knowing something about the real-life person who inspired it.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States (1933-1945), is famous for his 50-month tenure as the Nation's Chief Executive ... more than twice the length of any other President's time in office ... and for the many remarkable events that occurred during and even before his administration. Anyone who wields such power invariably attracts controversy, particularly when s/he alters the STATUS QUO so completely. He often found the US Constitution frustrating, mainly because it preserved the separation of powers, with its checks and balances, at the expense of his goals. Yet his very election changed the course of history and his stewardship of the Nation wrote plenty of history thereafter. The next nine paragraphs provide a synopsis of the political events of the century that preceded FDR's ascent the the Presidency; readers may choose to skip to Paragraph 12 for a more direct summary.
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The last great internal US crisis, the American Civil War, had created a complicated scene for the Nation's political parties, but those complications had arisen long before the War itself. The Democratic Party had emerged with that name during the administration of the 7th President, Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), and had been based upon the visions of civil liberties and of the egalitarian ideals of the 3rd President, Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809). The Party had done much to vitalize the political power of the common man - at least to a point.
On the other hand, Jackson considered most African Americans to be property, and most Native Americans to be little better than nuisances; they were to be enslaved and expelled respectively, and were, therefore, not to be included in his notions of equality. In fact, as a self-made, slave-owning plantation aristocrat, Jackson came to embrace the interests of the Old South and its classic plantation politics. Despite this, he fervently and even menacingly opposed the Southern politicians who threatened to secede from the Union some 35 years before the opening rounds of the War Between the States.
In 1854, seven years before the firing on Fort Sumter, a new political party revived the name "Republican" (first used by the Jeffersonians) to oppose the power of the Old South. Their base included Northern industrialists who wanted to protect their interests, and their profits, from overseas competition. Northern factory laborers, including mounting numbers of European immigrants, necessarily sided with their employers to keep their jobs. The Southern politicians favored foreign industries, partly because the overseas suppliers offered lower prices for items of established quality, and partly because they also provided large markets for Southern, slave-grown cotton. This Southern labor force was an embarrassment to much of the South and an outrage to many in the North. Although the Democratic Party had dominated the political scene up to 1860, it became divided over the issue of slavery in that Presidential election year.
Cotton's nutritional demands would also have political consequences. The crop quickly exhausts the fertility of soil, and so the plantation politicians wanted to stake out claims in newly-gained territories (particularly lands taken in the Mexican War, 1846-1848) for future cotton production. Many Northerners, factory laborers included, who wanted new lands to be opened for homesteading, opposed them. Homesteading offered poor persons the chance to seek prosperity through the ownership and cultivation of small-acreage farms. The Democratic Party, under the sway of Southern politicians, repeatedly defeated homesteading legislation.
Those who opposed slavery, competition from foreign imports, and Southern demands for new land, increasingly supported the Republican Party. The first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln (the 16th President, 1861-1865) and the Radical Republicans, who ran a veto-proof Congress after his assassination, did much to open the doors of equality to Black Americans, but at the cost of what most Southerners viewed to be utter tyranny. This took the form of the Reconstruction Act, which reduced the former Confederate States to military districts under the US War Department's control. The lone exception was Tennessee, which had ratified the Constitution's 14th Amendment, extending citizenship to former slaves.
While wealthy Northern aristocrats assumed the Republican leadership, the Party had done much - including enacting the13th, 14th and 15th Amendments - to empower Black citizens. On the other hand, Democratic leaders were influenced by Old Southern perspectives that associated progress in civil rights with the horrors of Reconstruction. One of the best examples of this was Virginia-born President Woodrow Wilson (the 28th President, 1913-1921), whose support for segregation, and sentimental fondness for the Ku Klux Klan, distorted his otherwise progressive views.
Oddly - given todays circumstances - it was Wilson's Republican predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt (the 26th President, 1901-1909) who spearheaded on the Federal level the progressive movements that restricted the unbridled power of industrial robber barons and addressed the plight of the laboring lower class. Although the decidedly wealthy Roosevelt family had descended collaterally from brothers Johannes (who founded the Oyster Bay Roosevelts) and Jacobus (who sired the Hyde Park branch), they tended to reflect the same, and for its time remarkable, concern for the Constitution's aim " ... to promote the general welfare." The former branch of Roosevelts identified with the progressive Republicans, while the latter became progressive Democrats. The Oyster Bay side created problems for Republican conservatives, a/k/a the "Stalwarts," while the Hyde Park branch sought to deal with similar conservatives among the Southern Democrats.
The Republicans had managed to dominate the White House since Lincoln's election, but in 1912 the Progressives and the Stalwarts divided the Party. Theodore Roosevelt was appalled by the way in which his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft (the 27th President, 1009-1913) has fallen under the Stalwart's influence, and when the they succeeded in denying Roosevelt the 1912 Republican nomination (for a then-unprecedented third term), he ran as an in dependent Progressive. With the Republican Party divided (much as the Democrats had become divided over slavery in 1860), Wilson and the Democratic Party won the Presidency. Franklin Roosevelt became Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and later Governor of New York, two positions that had also been held by his 5th cousin, Oyster Bay's own Theodore Roosevelt.
The Progressives' influence on FDR did not arise solely from the Hyde Park - Woodrow Wilson connection; in 1905, he married his 5th cousin once removed, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, whose parental uncle was none other than Theodore Roosevelt himself. This made Theodore, already Franklin's 5th cousin, also Franklin's uncle by marriage; in ANNIE 1982, FDR refers to this relationship. Eleanor, as she was known, became a powerful influence in her husband's progressive outlook.
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In 1928, Alfred E. Smith became the Democratic candidate for President, and he chose Franklin Roosevelt to succeed him as governor of New York. Smith faced three great obstacles: the reemerged political dominance of the Republicans, his Irish ancestry and his membership in the Roman Catholic Church. Republican Herbert Hoover became the 31st President (1929-1933), but Roosevelt became New York's chief executive. Hoover was perceived - and many scholars believe rightly so - as doing too little to relieve the suffering of the Nation during the bleak years that followed the Stock Market Crash of October, l929. As the reach of the subsequent Great Depression grew to include more and more Americans, large numbers of citizens became critically concerned about the wide gap the separated the upper and lower economic classes in America. Unemployment reached 23.6% and suicides began to occur among the most desperate. One of the original Broadway ANNIE's catchiest numbers, which for various reasons was eliminated from the 1982 and 1999 film versions, is the satirical "salute" to Hoovers negligible policies, WE'D LIKE TO THANK YOU, HERBERT HOOVER.
Meanwhile Roosevelt began campaigning for the Presidency, despite the devastating consequences of polio, which he had contracted in 1921. His energetic, progressive approach to combating the effects of the Great Depression in New York, which stood in sharp contrast to Hoover's essentially LAISSEZ FAIRE or "hands-off" treatment of the crisis, caught the attention of voters. In 1932, groups of citizens who had been separated from each other by social, economic, cultural, and even racial, distinctions, became united against the financial oppression of the Great Depression, and Roosevelt trounced Hoover at the polls.
In and of itself, Franklin Roosevelt's election, which vast numbers of voters to the Democratic Party's side, changed the flow of history. But this was just the beginning. By initiating programs which furnished employment for millions, providing protection for small savings accounts, encouraging pension and insurance plans, and introducing social security benefits for the disabled and retired, (among other policies), Roosevelt's New Deal virtually created America's broad middle class. For the vast majority, he delivered hope and the substance upon which dreams could be built. Quite naturally, and for that matter logically, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was and remains a caring and redeeming leader in the minds of many (if not most) Americans.
The general consesus of American historians has consistently placed the Roosevelts in the top rank of the Nation's leaders, which is no mean feat when one considers that this makes their peers, in chronological order, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. The Roosevelts enjoyed great power - of wealth, of social position, of intellect and cunning, and perhaps strongest of all, of personality. Powerful leaders attract powerful opposition, and yet these scions of Dutch-American aristocracy had the ability to blunt much of their opposition by their capacity to win over many of those determined to defeat them. Often this was achieved simply by meeting them face to face and earning their respect, one way or another, or even by affecting them in much the same way Annie disarms her buisness-only host, Oliver Warbucks.
It is this picture of FDR - firm, authoritative, and yet compassionate and empathetic - that is portrayed so efficiently in the character of the president, despite the precious few minutes he visibly appears in ANNIE 1999. In the story, President Roosevelt is introduced as a character in large part because he is a flesh-and bones, historical figure that restored Americans trust and hope in the government at a time when hope was in very short supply. In the early 1970s, America was still entangled in the highly unpopular Vietnam War, which apparently no one quite knew how to end, and the economy was suffering from something called stag-flation (stagnant growth but with rising prices). It was then that Thomas Meehan looked to the comic-strip heroine, "Little Orphan Annie," as the embodiment of hope and courage in someone who had not been made cynical by the excesses of the Roaring" 1920's or the woes of the Depression-ridden 1930's. He sought to shape the fictitious adolescent and her paternalistic benefactor, Oliver Warbucks into characters who would interact with the true-life 32nd President. They would prove to work splendidly together.
In historical fact, Industrial moguls, such as Oliver Warbucks represents, were naturally suspicious of a Chief Executive who seemed to focus upon the welfare of the general public (in the Constitutions strictest terms), which included the labor force, rather than concerning himself with what tycoons perceived as the greater (meaning THEIR industries) needs. Roosevelts predecessor, Calvin Coolidge (the 29th President, 1925-1929), had declared that "The business of America is Business," and FDR was embracing a decidedly different set of priorities. President Roosevelt is introduced in ANNIE through a telephone conversation Warbucks carries on with him in the presence of his Christmas guest, and his future adopted daughter, Annie. When they learn that Roosevelt is coming to New York City for the Yuletide holidays, Annie prompts Warbucks to ask the President and his wife to have Christmas dinner at Warbucks' 5th Avenue mansion. Bewildered by Roosevelt's acceptance, the tycoon wonders aloud what Democrats eat.
As Warbucks soon begins to realize that he loves Annie as if she were his own, he plans to adopt her. But when he learns that she is determined to find her parents, who had promised the orphange in a letter that they would someday come back for her, the mogul decides to do all he can to help make her dream come true. A $50,000 reward is offered to Annie's parents to reclaim their child, and subsequently the manager of Annie's orphanage, and her delinquent brother, masquerade as the long-lost parents.They provide convincing evidence, but also utterly unconvincing appearances and behavior, so Warbucks and Roosevelt join forces to determine if the claimants are genuine. This cooperation serves as the basis from which we may certainly suppose they will forge a future partnership to help solve the Nation's economic distress. The the Federal Bureau of Investigation eventually locates facts that result in the plotters' being identified, but not before they make it clear to the audience that Annie's death must be part of their plan.
With the help of Annie's fellow orphaned girls, the plotters' scheme, and even their escape, are foiled, just as President Roosevelt appears with documentation of their fingerprints and false identities; the Secret Service takes them into custody.
Although Oliver Warbucks is at first not particularly comfortable with a Democrat in the White House, part of the magic that Annie works so deftly on her father-to-be affords a revelation through which Warbucks grows to appreciate the value of compassion and generosity. Meanwhile, the image of the kind-spoken Chief Executive in a wheelchair, but with such tremendous power that he can bring would-be murderers to justice in the blink of an eye, serves as a fitting salute to the 32nd President.
Reprint from PLAYBILL Magazine, American Theatrical Press, copyright 1977.