I haven’t seen Anything Goes performed on-stage, but I was aware of the differences between this film and its staged production (as well as the 1936 adaptation of the play). In my research I discovered that the only similarities are the title, and its setting on a cruise ship. The lack of connection to the source material isn’t a problem, but the songs and performances are anemic and puzzling. It’s a cute movie that will hold your interest for a bit, but the lulls (generally in the form of extended dance sequences) can cause you to end up dozing through bits.
Bill Benson (Bing Crosby) and Ted Adams (Donald O’Connor) are Broadway hoofers set to star in a play together. On their way to find a leading lady, each man finds his own lady to sign; Ted falls for the sultry, French Gaby Duval (Jeanmaire) while Bill likes the sweet Patsy Blair (Mitzi Gaynor). With two leading ladies and only one role, the male duo are forced to go back and forth over which lady should stay.
The basic set-up is good, but the need to establish this as a Cole Porter musical gets in the way (Cole Porter really seems to make things difficult) and becomes oddly irrelevant. I originally believed the movie would focus more on the competition between Bill and Ted, a duo who are initially reluctant to work together. Naturally, that’s easily solved and the real problem involves dames. Yes, the entire premise is about two guys and two girls and who will end up paired off. You can figure out that each man will swap the lady he started out with by the end, and that’s where the plot ends up; a rather straight premise with no surprises. I did appreciate the age appropriate pairings as I’ve seen Crosby paired with leading ladies young enough to be his daughter. He makes an off-hand joke about this to Ted with regards to Gaynor’s character:
Ted: You found an antique?
Bill: She’s got a few more years to go.
Apparently not all the songs are Porter’s and the ones that aren’t stand out in a negative sense. “Ya Gotta Give the People Hoke” feels and sounds like the opening number between Gene Kelly and O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain, right up to them performing vaudeville tricks to the audience. “Bounce Right Back” is a cute number involving O’Connor and little kids, but it serves no purpose in the plot other than letting the audience go “aw” over O’Connor with kids. A mark of a poor musical is when musical numbers are used to boost/spotlight the actor’s ego/talent, and that happens a few times. The prominent number is Jeanmaire’s ballet, which is a beautiful sequence (albeit the intent of it is lifted from the “Gotta Dance” number from Singin‘); Jeanmaire is an amazing ballerina, but the dance goes on for over five minutes. You come to understand that this musical is made to service the actors, but then why make this 106 minutes? There’s about 80 minutes of story and the rest is dance sequences.
The acting is okay, but the chemistry is lacking in certain areas. Donald O’Connor is a world-class ham and utterly delightful as Ted Adams. Why is he always forced to take a backseat in these movies? Ted eats up the attention and adoration of his fans (“They love me”) and all the while he’s ripping notebooks out of their hands. I would have enjoyed more depth on his role as some type of starlet of the stage compared to Crosby’s veteran. For a second I wondered if Ted was a film start trying to make his way on the stage, but that’s never detailed. Really, aside from the obvious young man/old man, the development of each man is removed. Crosby is good and isn’t the cocky jerk of past films, but he’s the straight man and that’s it. His dancing is slower, and confined in comparison to O’Connor’s lively, grand movements but they spend a great deal of time separate from each other.
The ladies are the ones who really suffer in Anything Goes. Jeanmaire and Mitzi Gaynor are lovely, poetic dancers with grace and world-class gams. The problem lies in their singing ability, or the director’s belief in their singing abilities. Mitzi Gaynor is only given a few bars to sing of the title song (with the entire purpose of it removed; instead of authors using “four lettered words” they use “three lettered words” which makes zero sense within the song’s context) and she sings it poorly. There are odd moments where I felt Gaynor was dubbed, but the rest of the time she sounds horribly off-key. Jeanmaire especially is downright ear-piercing, part of which is due to her thick French accent. She’s given an iconic Porter song to sing, “I Get a Kick Out of You,” of which I failed to understand 50% of the words. When the two women harmonize during one song, they’re obviously singing in different keys. I’m not quite sure what happened, if the songs just aren’t suited to their vocal ranges, but they sound terrible in comparison to the men.
Anything Goes sets out to be a magnificent musical, but ends up being a mediocre one. It’s passable with decent leads (particularly O’Connor and Gaynor), and the Cole Porter songs are memorable although ill-suited for the female leads. If it’s on your television it’s worth a watch; Warner Archive just released it on DVD and if you’re a fan of the actors I’d recommend giving it a watch.
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