We conclude Gene Kelly week a bit disappointed. On the Town was a charming musical taking three separate stories, separated and combined them, presenting a solid, albeit thin tale in a well paced ninety minutes. Now imagine reducing that story to two sailors and one girl, adding in a love triangle, Jose Iturbi, Tom and Jerry, and a two-hour runtime! A bit of a test run for that film, Anchors Aweigh introduces the Kelly/Sinatra pairing, but finds Sinatra completely unnecessary, leaving us with a film way too long on time and bloated narratively.
Joseph Brady and Clarence Doolittle (Kelly and Sinatra) are on shore leave in Hollywood. Intent on finding women, the two are sidetracked by a precocious little boy (Dean Stockwell in his film debut) desperate to become a navy man. As they bond with the boy, both Joseph and Clarence take a shine to the boy’s aunt, Susan (Kathryn Grayson) who dreams of auditioning for composer Jose Iturbi.
This and On the Town are practically related with both stories focused on Navy men on leave intent on momentarily female “excursions” that turn into lifelong love. But where that film easily condensed the formula, honing Kelly’s persona and musical abilities into a tight package, this leaks nothing but fat. Complicating matters further is the lack of on-set locations. On the Town was all about “New York, New York” and couldn’t be filmed on the MGM backlot. Seeing the majesty of New York breathes life into the production and bonds the audience with the sailors. They’re seeing NYC just like us.
Because this is a story about breaking into Hollywood, about 90% of this is filmed on obvious sets. So obvious that when Dean Stockwell’s Martin comes home, the cloud backdrop looks chintzy. The clean and sparsely populated streets of Los Angeles look generic, removing any wonder the two may have about their location. And it’s understandable since Anchors Aweigh doesn’t care about the town, it’s is all about dames, broads, “goiles.” In this case, one girl played by Kathryn Grayson. I loved Grayson as the bitter, man-hater Katherine in Kiss Me Kate, but here she’s the maternal aunt trying her best…and, yeah, she’s got a killer set of pipes. The musical numbers have her hitting notes only dogs can hear and while it’s impressive, it’s hard really supporting her character for anything more than she’s a poor woman raising a child. Since this isn’t from her point of view, she just looks weak and requires male intervention.
And speaking of male intervention, you can’t do worse than Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra presumably hated working with Kelly – he’d do it two more times – because Kelly was known for taking over a picture and making the focus him, which Sinatra wasn’t keen on since this was meant to be his breakout role. Kelly’s lost none of his swagger. His crooning into the telephone to the unseen Lola, “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships,” is a helluva good line and there’s something incredibly erotic about how he does it. But from there the movie doesn’t go for the risque tone of On the Town, and Kelly’s left to charm through Stockwell’s cherubic Donald. There is the iconic tap sequence with Jerry the Mouse, and Kelly’s rightfully amazing. He seamlessly taps alongside a cartoon, so he’s essentially dancing and reacting to nothing. It’s amazing what could be achieved blending animation and live action in just 1945. Although, as a Disney fan, I’m still disappointed Mickey Mouse didn’t get his moment.
As for Sinatra, he gets lost playing an even weaker take on his Chip character. Clarence is another innocent virgin with no game. He nails the impish childishness of his character in a side-by-side scene with Stockwell, but for the most part he’s there to sing. He sings songs of love, both lost and found, and while the film sets up his love for Susan, he seemingly throws her over for a woman he knows even less about. Really, it’s the inverse of the relationship between Gabey and Miss Turnstiles. When Joe and Susan finally get together, it’s because they’re the two leads as opposed to having any character development leading them that way.
Since this is a musical revolving around Hollywood, we get a cursory glance at the MGM backlot during WWII, and that’s interesting. But there’s just too much filler and distraction. The plot’s thin enough as it is, and the love triangle could have sustained a 90-minute film. Instead, we get the equivalent of the final ballet in American in Paris, plus the finale of On the Town, plus the finale of Singin’ in the Rain in one sequence. There’s the dance with Jerry the Mouse, then there’s the continual divergence to Iturbi and MGM, then there’s extended singing sequences for Sinatra, and a big finale for Grayson. Everyone sings so much it feels like you’re watching an extended version of That’s Entertainment!, a greatest hits compilation.
Too bloated for its own good, Anchors Aweigh lays the foundation for a better movie, On the Town. If you’re interested to see why that movie is superior, than watch this beforehand.
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