Like Justin Timberlake and Brittney Spears after her, Annette Funicello rose to prominence as a singer and actress on the back of The Mickey Mouse Club in the late 1950’s. The Club’s daily television show made her a breakout star and she had roles in several of the “serials” that would air during Club episodes. One of these was given the clever title, Annette.
While I’m not quite old enough to have seen The Mickey Mouse Club in its original airings between 1955 and 1959, I did watch it fairly faithfully when it showed up in syndication in the 1970’s. I distinctly remember watching the serial The Adventures of Spin and Marty on the Club and enjoying the musical performances of the Mouseketeers and their leader, Jimmy Dodd. I don’t, however, have any memory of a serial starring Annette Funicello called Annette from that period. The serial did exist, though, as the 2-Disc DVD set called The Mickey Mouse Club Presents: Annette will attest.
Annette was a 20 episode serial that ran during the Mickey Mouse Club during the 1957-1958 season. Each episode was about 10 minutes long and told a continual story. The story cast Funicello as high schooler Annette McCloud, who is sent by her foster mother in the town of Beaver Cloud, Nebraska (which could easily have been called Hicktown, USA) to live with her deceased father’s unmarried brother and sister, Uncle Archie (Richard Deacon) and Aunt Lila (Sylvia Field.) Her Uncle and Aunt live in the upper class town of Ashford (state unnamed, but maybe California) in a nice house where people use grapefruit spoons to eat their grapefruit.
Funicello is just a poor country girl and her Uncle and Aunt don’t know anything about kids so there is some tension at first. Well, there is what passes for tension in this serial, with philosophy professor Archie thinking for about three seconds about sending her to boarding school and wisecracking maid, Katie (Mary Wickes), puts a stop to it insisting that Annette stay with them and calling the butcher to order hamburgers for twelve since “kids love hamburgers.” That’s sort of how the whole series goes, with any problem solved by pouring another glass of milk or running down to the malt shop.
The rest of the episodes, written by The Shaggy Dog screenwriter Lillie Hayward based on a book by Janette Sebring Lowrey, mostly show Annette trying to fit in with the kids in the town and win over her Uncle and Aunt. She doesn’t have too much trouble with any of it. She immediately bonds with local ranch kid Jet (Judy Nugent) and quickly gets in good with the other kids. The kids, including Spin and Marty themselves, Tim Considine as the popular and handsome Steve, and David Stollery as soda jerk Mike, and a smattering of the older Mouseketeers, take to Annette’s good natured charm. Unfortunately, Laura (Roberta Shore), who has eyes for Steve, is jealous of Annette and dismissive of her humble origins setting up the main conflict that runs through the episodes. There is also a missing necklace and a biting satire on class warfare. I’m kidding about the biting satire, of course. There isn’t really much conflict here, since no one else in the school seems to take Laura’s side, making you wonder why Laura isn’t more of an outcast.
Although not a sitcom, the style of the episodes will be familiar to anyone who has Leave it to Beaver on their DVR. It doesn’t break any new ground and the rather simplistic plot keeps it in the ranks of being well made but ultimately disposable. Funicello and the adults give good performances, and there are some harmless original songs sung by Funicello and the other kids sprinkled throughout. However, some of the other kid actors deliver their lines in a stiff robotic way. Stollery is especially bad but Nugent isn’t much better. The dialogue is beyond cornball in most cases and that’s not in comparison to just current television, but also when compared to Leave it to Beaver or I Love Lucy. The idealized 1950’s will be fun for those wrapped up in nostalgia for a time that never really existed, but I would turn them towards other sitcoms and dramas from that era before recommending this. Despite being well done and mostly harmless, there just isn’t a lot of there, there.
Although the show ran for 20 episodes, the first, called “An Introduction,” just has Wickes summarizing the entire plot of the next 19. It was intended, I guess, to get kids ready for what was coming, but since you’ll watch the whole thing in a day or two rather than over the course of several weeks, it makes more sense to skip it, since it gives away most of what happens. It's like watching a 10 minute trailer that summarizes 7/8 of a film right before you watch that film.
The Mickey Mouse Club Presents: Annette will certainly have its fans. Many people grew up with Annette and this will take them back to the beginning of her heyday. Kids may also enjoy it as something new and different from what they see on the Disney Channel these days. I wish it were a little more interesting or the performances were better, though.
The Annette DVD gets the same professional treatment with an eye on the completist and collector that have marked the rest of the Walt Disney Treasures releases. In addition to the two discs, each tin case includes a numbered certificate of authenticity (39,500 were produced), a nice booklet with an introduction written by Disney mouthpiece Leonard Maltin, and a postcard sized publicity still from the show.
The show is from the 1950’s, which means the audio and picture quality are only going to be so good. I am actually a little surprised that the picture looks as good as it does. It’s not top notch and has some pops and scratches, but the black and white isn’t faded badly and, considering what they started with, it’s about as good as you can hope for.
Both discs are introduced by Maltin in his guise of “film historian.” He actually provides almost the only background and information about the actual show being presented, Annette. Although there are two documentaries about Funicello, neither goes into the show in question so Maltin’s info is the only place to hear about the actors and other interesting tidbits. So, don’t skip these intros and you’ll get the bonus of hearing Maltin dance around the issue of an all-white cast in both Mickey Mouse Club and Annette (the word “racism” is never uttered.)
As previously mentioned, there are two documentaries on Funicello included. One, “Musically Yours, Annette” is from 1993 and was produced for a CD release of her music. It includes interviews with the Sherman Brothers who wrote songs for her early career as well as other teen idols like Frankie Avalon and Fabian. The second documentary, “To Annette with Love,” is newly produced and takes a broader view of Annette’s career and includes a 1995 interview with Funicello and current interviews with her friends, husband, and others. The first is about 12 minutes and the second is 16 minutes and while they are nice for Annette fans (or anyone looking to learn more about someone who has been out of the public eye for about 25 years), they don’t add much to the Annette serial itself.
The final two extras are the full length Mickey Mouse Club programs that were shown on February 11, 1958 (the day the first episode of Annette appeared) and March 7, 1958 (when the serial concluded.) I loved watching the roll call and the musical numbers of the Mouseketeers. Unfortunately, the Annette episodes that were from each show are shown again here and since they last ten minutes and the whole show, without commercials, is only about 25 minutes, there isn’t much time left for the rest of the Club. It makes me want to go see if the whole series has been released on DVD; it probably has.
The Annette DVD, like the show itself, avoids embarrassment but isn’t anything special. Hard core Annette Funicello fans are going to get this anyway, but anyone with a little disposable DVD income can probably put it to better use.