Sunday, November 8, 2009

Film Review: Anchors Aweigh

"Anchors Aweigh" **** (out of ****)

Although "Anchors Aweigh" (1945) was released at the end of the WW2 it plays like a sentimental war romance and a very patriotic one at that. The first image we see in the film is of the U.S. Navy while patriotic music plays in the background, while in a Busby Berkeley style, we get an over the head shot of the sailors who form an anchor and later spell out the word "navy". We are suppose to feel proud and given the time of the film's release, perhaps even a sense of gratitude is in order. These brave men kept America safe.

On this day two important events are happening the famous pianist-conductor Jose Iturbi (playing himself) is on ship to conduct the Navy's march band and pay his respect to the sailors. There will also be an award ceremony as Joe Brady (Gene Kelly) and Clarence Doolittle (Frank Sinatra) are given medals for their valor and bravery. They remained on ship after all their ammunition had run out and Brady saved Clarence's life, who had fallen overboard (I told you before Kelly always had to play masculine brave heroes). And because of their acts they will be allowed a four day leave in California.

Joe immediately plans on heading straight for Hollywood were a sexy bombshell named Lola is waiting for him. Joe is considered the Navy's biggest and best ladies man (see, what did I tell you!). And Lola is ready to do stuff to him we can only dream about. But Clarence doesn't have such luck. There is no bombshell waiting for him. He reveals to Joe that he always strikes out with women. He becomes shy and doesn't know how to talk to them. So he trails Joe and hopes he can teach him a few tricks.

At first Joe wants nothing to do with Clarence since Lola is waiting for him but reluctantly agrees. Events become more complicated when a police officer (comedian Rags Ragland) brings them do down to the station as a young boy has run away from home trying to find a Navy recruitment center (clearly another pro-American, "everyone should do their part" signal). The police hope the sailors can get the boy to give them his address so they can take him home. And they do. Waiting for the boy is his young and beautiful Aunt Susan (Kathryn Grayson), a wanna be singer hoping to one day meet Jose Iturbi and audition for him. Immediately Clarence becomes taken with her and wants Joe to help him pick her up. Joe's plan. Tell Susan that Clarence knows Iturbi and has set up an audition for her. Of course it is all a lie and now the boys have to actually make it come true once everyone Susan knows finds out about it. Plus there is the possibility that Joe is starting to fall for Susan.

My own theory when it comes to musicals and comedies is you never should walk in expecting too much. To me a great musical or comedy only needs a decent enough storyline, just something to keep us interested but needs to compensate with a great musical score or lots of laughs. If it does that then I have no problem praising the film as great. "Anchors Aweigh" is such a movie. The plot isn't deep or complex. That was a staple of the film's producer, the famous Hungarian producer Joe Pasternak, who felt you should never make a movie where the audience has to think. But the musical score, with many songs written by the songwriting team of Sammy Cahn and lyricist Jules Styne, is memorable. Cahn would become one of Sinatra's favorite composers writing many of his hit songs. Thus "Anchors Aweigh" is a great movie. I'd put it in a class with "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), "Top Hat" (1935) and "42nd Street" (1933) as one of the all time great Hollywood musicals. It is an awful lot of fun to watch. It doesn't take itself too serious and understands all it is suppose to do is entertain us with song and dance.

The film marked the first time Kelly and Sinatra appeared in a movie together, beginning a trilogy of films they would do. In their last film, "On the Town" (1949), which I have already reviewed, they would go back to playing sailors, only they would be on a one day leave, but Sinatra and Kelly would basically be playing the same characters. Kelly the ladies man, Sinatra the shy kid afraid of girls. But of their three films "Anchors Aweigh" works the best. It seems to be having more fun. The story is a little better here and Kelly and Sinatra are a bit more charming. Plus it has that nice, sentimental 40s charm to it. It feels more old-fashion to me than "Take me out to the Ballgame" (1949) or "On the Town".

Though Kelly had been in more movies than Sinatra, at the time, he was the raising star and would get top billing. During the war years he really broke out with the Tommy Dorsey band. He became the favorite singer of young girls with hits like "All or Nothing At All", "I'll Walk Alone" and "If You Are But A Dream". And in "Anchors Aweigh" Sinatra gets to sing another big hit that us old timers remember, "I Fall In Love Too Easily".

Other songs heard in the film were previously written but were also quite popular. The film showcases Iturbi piano playing allowing him to perform three songs; a nice latin, jazzy version of the war time hit "Donkey Serenade" and then to show he was a serious pianist some classical pieces one by Tchaikovsky, which they have a little fun with when Sinatra, not knowing it is Iturbi, hears him play, mistakes it for "Tonight We Love", which the song was based on. But my favorite sequence is probably his performance of the second Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt.

Iturbi appeared in a couple of movies during the 40s and into the early 50s among them "Two Girls and A Sailor" (1944) and "Holiday in Mexico" (1946). I never thought he had much of a screen presence. He can be fun to watch but wasn't the performer or personality that Oscar Levant was. Levant was a very witty and comical guy not to mention a terrific pianist.

Kathryn Grayson is probably best known to movie buffs for her work with Howard Keel in musicals like Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate" (1953), Jerome Kern's "Show Boat" (1951) and "Lovely To Look At" (1952), a remake of the Fred Astair/Ginger Rogers musical "Roberta" (1935). She hadn't had much film acting experience prior to this, she did appear in the Abbott & Costello comedy "Rio Rita" (1942) which was a remake (some say in title only) of the stage play back in 1928, of the same name, which was made into a film a year later starring the comedy team Wheeler & Woosley.

Grayson had a very good voice and was a pleasant enough actress. Here she sings a nice rendition of "Jealousy". And though it says nothing of her acting, does look very beautiful here. I forgot just how attractive she was.

Comedy fans might also get a big kick out of this movie as several funnymen make cameo appearances. I already mention Rags Ragland, who made a lot of films with Red Skelton such as a pair of Cole Porter musicals "DuBarry Was A Lady" (1943) also with Gene Kelly and "Panama Hattie" (1942). Then there is the chief of police played by Edgar Kennedy known for his slow burn and often played foil to Laurel & Hardy and well us Grady Sutton who constantly played simple-minded fools in films like "The Bank Dick" (1940) with W.C. Fields, which I have reviewed and the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Pack Up Your Troubles" (1932). And though he isn't given much to work with spot Billy Gilbert as a cafe owner. Once again Laurel & Hardy fans will recognize him as the professor who absolutely does not want a piano in "The Music Box" (1932).

"Anchors Aweigh" was nominated for five Oscars including "Best Picture" and "Best Actor" (Kelly), it lost both categories to Billy Wilder's "The Lost Weekend" (1945), which I have reviewed. But it did win one award for "Best Musical Scoring".

The director of the film was George Sidney who directed a lot of musicals ranging from "Bye Bye Birdie" (1963) to an Esther Williams musical "Bathing Beauty" (1944) and films with Grayson; "Kiss Me Kate" and "Show Boat". The script was by Isobel Lennart who also wrote an Esther Williams musical "Shirts Ahoy!" (1952) and another movie with Sinatra "It Happened In Brooklyn" (1947) with Jimmy Durante.

Normally I would have put the film in my "Masterpiece Film Series" but it is too soon for another entry. Still "Anchors Aweigh" is a lot of fun to watch. It has some social significance to it as well. It was made during the bridge of WW2 and post-WW2 and I think reflects a little bit of both mentalities. We have that sentimental war time mentality as well as the hope of a bright tomorrow. The film has an ending which may be a bit too perfect. Everything works out down to the tee. But given what the country went through, I suppose people were entitled to a kind of fairy tale ending. Hollywood, at one time, was suppose to be a place which made you forget your trouble. Films like "Anchors Aweigh" did just that.

And finally there is no way I could have written about this movie and not mention what has become the most famous sequence in the film the duet between Gene Kelly and Jerry the Mouse of the"Tom & Jerry" cartoons. Children will recognize the bit and adults may take just as much delight in watching it. For its time the effects are pretty good. We wouldn't see anything this accomplished until "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988), the first movie I ever saw in a theatre (that I can remember).

"Anchors Aweigh" is a bit of movie Heaven. If you are a bit weary of musicals, for some strange reason a lot of people are, this is a good one to start off with. It is charming and funny. As I said, it has a pretty good story and terrific songs. And any movie that has Hungarian music has to be good. Right?