The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 5, Number 2, Pages 2-4
Spring, 1980

Tugboat Annie in the Northwest:

Seventy-five Stories, Two Movies, and a TV Series

By Robert B. Olafson

Professor Robert B. Olafson of the Department of English read this short essay at the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of American Studies at Simon Fraser University on November 1, 1979. Along with the screening of the film Tugboat Annie Sails Again, the essay was the featured banquet highlight of the conference. The Tugboat Annie stories set in Puget Sound appeared in The Saturday Evening Post from the 1930's through the 1960's.

With her wake spinning jeweled arabesques over moonlit water, the big salvage tug Narcissus of Secoma, homeward bound, rolled placidly down the Inside Passage of Alaska. In her tiny cabin abaft the wheelhouse, Tugboat Annie Brennan, the vessel's master, roused from sleep by some subtle warning of danger, levered her big body upright and sniffed; then still uneasy, she padded to the door, opened it and sniffed again. Now it was unmistakable; hastily donning a slicker over her old flannel nightgown, she entered the wheelhouse.

"Somethin's burnin' someplace, Peter!" she said to the tug's large, phlegmatic mate. "Can't ye smell it?"

Peter leaned out the doorway and vigorously inhaled. "Forest fire," he said. "Prob'ly on the mainland."

These are the opening lines of the Norman Reilly Raine short story, "Tugboat Annie and the Sunken Gold," subtitled "Once Again Bullwinkle Had Outsmarted Annie - This Time To The Tune Of $200,000!" Few avid readers of The Saturday Evening Post of December 9, 1961 could resist reading this, another story, about the plump and pugnacious lady skipper from Secoma (Seattle-Tacoma?) in the state of Waregon (Washington-Oregon?). Tugboat Annie had sailed onto the horizon in the 1930's and by the mid 1960's over seventy-five stories about her exploits with her good tug Narcissus had been published. Frequently she combatted the evil plans of rival skipper, Horatio Bullwinkle, of the big blue water tug, Salamander.

Stories with intriguing titles like: "Voyage to Secoma," "Tugboat Annie and the Prodigal Calf," "Tugboat Annie Gets the Works," "Tugboat Annie Quotes the Law," "T.B.A. Wins Her Medal," "T.B.A. Crashes Through," "T.B.A. Finds a Leaphole," "T.B.A. Meets Mr. Gallup," "T.B.A. Plucks A Goose," "T.B.A. Races the Tide," "T.B.A. Smells a Mouse," "T.B.A. to the Rescue," "T.B.A. and the Pirates," "T.B.A. Loses Her Ship," "T.B.A. Opens Fire," and "The Wrath of T.B.A." are a few of the yarns penned by Norman Reilly Raine and published in the Post, usually with large, colorful illustrations. In some ways, Annie's comic exploits with the male chauvinist pig, Bullwinkle, (to mix a metaphor) presented one of the' first women fictional characters to triumph repeatedly in a non-traditional job. The image of this strong willed, independent, tough talking, portly woman captured the imaginations of the American reading public. In fact, Tugboat Annie became a popular folk heroine in the 1930's and '40's.

Tugboat Annie may have discovered gold in the 1961 story alluded to above, but Hollywood was way ahead of her in this matter. In 1933 Metro-Goldwin-Mayer released the successful movie, Tugboat Annie, with Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery in the leads. Bit parts, incidentally, were played by Robert Young and Maureen O'Sullivan. At this time Annie was married to a bibulous husband who tippled hair tonic until Annie broke the bottle. The film script was written by Raine.

Seven years later in 1940, Warner Brothers released a sequel film, Tugboat Annie Sails Again. This time Marjorie Rambeau and Alan Hale were the stars and Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman were the bit players. Raine did not write the screen play. The unsinkable, widowed Tugboat Annie sailed once more onto the silver screen in 1958 in a television series starring Minerva Urecal. From 1933 to 1958 - twenty-five years - the image of the great Northwest folk heroine was before the American public on the screen. The life of the seventy-five stories in the Post spanned almost four decades.

Norman Reilly Raine, the creator of the salty, rambunctious, and mirthful Tugboat Annie, senior skipper of the Deep Sea Towing Company of Puget Sound, died in 1971 after a prolific writing career in Hollywood. He wrote the 1933 film script of Tugboat Annie; he also won an Oscar for the screen play, The Life of Zola. Some other titles of the dozen films penned by Raine are The Perfect Specimen, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Eagle Squadron, Nob Hill and A Bell for Adano.

Raine also collaborated with Guy Gilpatric who created "Mr. Glencannon," of Post fame. The two men wrote a six-part serial for the Post in which the walrus-mustached Scottish marine engineer met tubby Tugboat Annie. Naturally, Tugboat Annie survived all of the men in her life: the drunken husband, the villain, Bullwinkle, and the redoubtable Scotsman, Mr. Glencannon.

Norman Reilly Raine had strong Canadian connections, although he was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and lived in Hollywood for most of his writing career. Raine began writing in 1912 for the Buffalo Morning Express. In 1914 he left for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Europe where he earned the rank of Captain in the Royal Air Force. After the war he wrote for MacLean's Magazine in Toronto and became an assistant editor. He became a member of the Canadian Military Institute and the Toronto Writers.

The first story, appearing in the July 11, 1931 Post, was simply called "Tugboat Annie." Its plot was representative of the pattern that Raine repeated, with variations on theme, seventy-five times. The story begins with these words: "I'm fired? Who says I'm fired?" Alec Severn, President of the Deep-Sea Towing and Salvage Company, assures Annie that it is not his idea, but rather it is the desire of a financial backer who "thinks that managing a towing and salvage company is a man's job." This is a situation that Annie must overcome. In robust, rambunctious, pugnacious, and energetic ways, Tugboat Annie overcomes the simple male chauvinism of some owners and the malevolent trickery of other tugboaters to prove that she is their equal physically, and the master of the tugboater's craft intellectually, in the whole Puget Sound fleet. In this first story, while flinging off her bonnet with its agitated feather and gazing at the picture of her deceased husband, Captain Terry Brennan, Annie thinks of a way to remove a beached ship, the Barracuda, which is hard aground near NeahBay.

Before she can be replaced by a "competent male skipper," Annie underbids the rival tugboaters by what appears to be a ridiculously low bid. As the other captains hoot at her and claim the job can't be done at that figure, Annie proceeds with her plan. She does the job while overcoming the trickery of the Barracuda's Captain Crabtree. He does everything possible to make Annie look bad.

Finally Annie has her triumph when she proves that the Barracuda technically should have been classified as a salvage ship, rather than just as a ship to be towed. She cites maritime law and proves that old Captain Crabtree had failed to reveal the extent of the damage in the beached ship.

In these words Annie bests the men in the story:

"Just this, Mr. Great Thinker - that because he concealed from me the fact that the Barracuda had stripped her propeller in among the rocks, our towing agreement didn't mean a thing, and we've got an unbeatable claim for salvage. If I'd left him piled up on the rocks, the Barracuda would have been pounded to pieces in the gale. But bein' just a stupid, mutton-hearted female, I yanked her home. So instead of a lousy towin' fee of two hundred and forty dollars, we'll get a salvage award of about a third of the value of the ship and cargo. " Tugboat Annie halted and blew her nose with an elephantine flourish.

Thus the female wit - by no means puny in this case - triumphs over male arrogance and chicanery in a pattern that remained popular for a good thirty years.