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The Surprisingly Controversial Plots That Almost Got ‘Little Orphan Annie’ Axed

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In the musical and the movies, Little Orphan Annie triumphs over adversity — her own personal tragedy and Miss Hannigan’s greedy schemes — in one relatively quick stroke. But when she got her start as a comic strip character on this day, Aug. 5, in 1924, the spunky orphan “with a heart of gold and a fast left” faced an endless onslaught of challenges both on and off the page.

She survived everything from shipwreck to mob hits as her creator, the cartoonist and conservative political thinker Harold Gray, painted her into a corner each week. But the real threats to Annie’s survival came from newspaper editors, who occasionally objected to plotlines in which the plucky redhead appeared to be little more than a mouthpiece for Gray’s controversial political views. TIME noted several occasions over the years when Annie landed in more than just the usual hot water:

1935: The plot takes a turn for the propagandistic when political racketeers threaten to destroy one of Daddy Warbucks’ factories. To the editor of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, the rhetoric seems better suited to Ayn Rand than to America’s best-loved orphan. As he describes the offending plotline, per TIME:

… all political leaders, and it follows every public official, are at once indicted as ‘crooks’ and to accept such a sweeping indictment is to permit the creator of Little Orphan Annie and . . . the Chicago Tribune Syndicate, to attack and condemn all persons, all institutions, and all ideas save those they choose to label acceptable…

The editor pulls the comic strip, and in its place runs a black banner reading “DELETED! FOR VIOLATION OF READER TRUST.”

1937: Gray is accused of tarnishing the good name of one of the nation’s largest credit agencies, Retail Credit Company, after Annie cheats death at the hands of an unscrupulous acquaintance who has insured her for $100,000—and then shoved her into a river. One character explains, per TIME, “OF COURSE, THERE HAD TO BE A FAVORABLE RETAIL CREDIT REPORT—BUT THAT WAS EASY.”

Most papers pull the strip; one that can’t cut it fast enough is forced to publish an apology to the company.

1943: FDR fans on the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal take notice when Annie faces off against corrupt, hypocritical bureaucrats in charge of wartime rationing. After pulling the strip, the paper’s publisher explains, per TIME: “(We do) not mind presenting opinions contrary to our own, (but) we have to insist that opinion of whatever kind be duly labeled as such and not smuggled into comic strips in the guise of entertainment.” Gray concedes the point, saying, “The Syndicate has a hard & fast rule against editorializing. I shouldn’t have done it.” He kills the rest of the anti-bureaucrat strips, and the orphan is given a reprieve.

1956: Annie takes on street hoodlums in her latest adventure. As TIME reports, Gray intended this plotline to be “a ‘thorough and penetrating analysis’ of teenage violence.” But editors and readers alike question the company she keeps — and a number of papers suspend the strip until she finds more suitable companions. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat issues a front-page statement: “Annie . . . features muggings, switchblade knives and language that we think does not fit into [this] type of newspaper.”

1965: Annie issues a damning assessment of the nation’s mental health system after Daddy Warbucks is railroaded into an insane asylum she calls “worse’n a real prison.” Another character notes that patients “as sane as anybody but labeled crazy are stuck here in this snake pit with no chance o’ gettin’ out.” The Hartford Courant bans the strip for two weeks for its “pejorative attitude toward mental institutions and mental health,” per TIME.

This time, Gray doesn’t apologize. “I’m not crusading. I’m doing a script,” he counters. “I know some editors are writing editorials saying it couldn’t happen in their states. But it can be done. The main thing is that I had to get Daddy Warbucks into a jam. This is a believable jam.”

Read more from 19443, here in the TIME archives: The Press: Moppet in Politics

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