Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 19 September 2008
Source Warner Bros. DVD
I’ve already confessed to being a musical geek, so I may as well get on with it and point out the fact that there are different classes of musical geeks, with varying levels of tolerance for the quirks and excesses of the genre. When it comes to MGM musicals, for example, it’s easy to love The Band Wagon, or Meet Me in St. Louis, or Singin’ in the Rain, gems produced by Arthur Freed when the studio was at a peak. But it takes a more forgiving viewer to embrace the runaway creativity of ambitious flops like Yolanda and the Thief, or the wafer-thin plotting and overlong running times of all-star revues like Thousands Cheer or ‘Til the Clouds Roll By.
Somewhere between MGM’s most accessible and adored classics and its more obscure releases rests Anchors Aweigh, which stars Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra (in the first of their three screen pairings) as two sailors vying for the hand of Kathryn Grayson, the cutesy coloratura leading lady who would later square off with Howard Keel in Kiss Me Kate. Kelly plays Joe Brady, a wolfish sailor with a girl in every port, and a stick-skinny young Sinatra plays Joe’s innocent foil Clarence Doolittle, an erstwhile Brooklyn choirboy. The mismatched duo fall for Grayson’s aspiring-songstress Susie and her orphaned young nephew Donald, whose misguided attempt to join the U.S. Navy throws the boys into Susie’s path. (Dean Stockwell plays Donald, and his presence as a disarmingly cherubic child actor will tickle those of us who have never been able to shake Stockwell’s eerie turn in Blue Velvet, where he mimes Roy Orbison into a lightbulb in a scene that’s as bewitching as it is ridiculous.)
As a film, Anchors Aweigh is pretty obviously flawed: the plot, which hinges on MGM’s resident composer/conductor Jose Iturbi functioning as a kind of human MacGuffin, is a featherlight excuse to keep everyone scampering around for well over two hours, and many of Grayson and Sinatra’s sedentary numbers bring the picture to a grinding halt. Yet as overstuffed as it surely is with musical interludes, spectacle, and sentiment, Anchors Aweigh defies the odds by somehow avoiding collapsing under the weight of its own frivolity.
Produced by Joe Pasternak, who made his name with cheery Deanna Durbin musicals before shepherding similarly minded pictures at MGM, Anchors Aweigh comes without the classy Freed Unit pedigree of its filmic doppelganger On the Town, and it bears such Pasternak hallmarks as a preoccupation with classical music (the operatic Grayson was a Pasternak favorite) and a noticeably sentimental bent. Unimpressed with the “sugary wholesomeness” of Pasternak, Pauline Kael writes in her review of the film that it “has an abundance of energy and spirit, and you feel it could be wonderful if it weren’t so stupidly wholesome, and if you could just do something about Kathryn Grayson and Jose Iturbi, like maybe turn Terry Southern loose on them.” But time has perhaps made it easier to forgive Anchors Aweigh its most saccharine transgressions (the worst, by Kael’s measure, being the bit where Sinatra sings Stockwell off to sleep). We live in an age where Technicolor confections like Anchors Aweigh no longer exist, and our own sugar-shock family entertainments generally possess a great deal less skill and charm.
Much of the charm of Anchors Aweigh emanates from the easy rapport between Kelly and Sinatra. It’s easy to see why they were paired together again in films that recreated the same buddy-adventure formula, particularly when watching their duet “I Begged Her,” a high-flying romp in which the pair lie to their fellow sailors about their successes with the opposite sex. That Kelly and Sinatra have more chemistry with one another than with Grayson has raised a few critical eyebrows: Michael W. Phillips called Anchors Aweigh “one of the gayest films I’ve ever seen without actually being about homosexuals – meaning that it has a boatload of homoerotic undertones that were probably only partly accidental.” Indeed, while Kelly-Sinatra films may locate male affection within safely macho arenas – the military here and in On the Town, major league baseball in Take Me Out to the Ballgame – they have an endearingly relaxed (and as Phillips noted, even teasingly knowing) attitude toward male bonding. (“When did we get so homophobic?” marveled a friend of mine recently, in the midst of watching Kelly tell Sinatra he loves him in On the Town.) Kael once wrote that as a team, Kelly and Judy Garland “balance each other’s talents.” I don’t mean to be flippant, but when Kelly’s cute, cracked voice blends with Sinatra’s velvety-smooth croon, the former’s bold, confident dance steps bolstering the latter’s uncertain ones, they do kind of complete each other.
But if I need to single out one performance in the film – and I think I do – it’s Kelly’s. His turn as Joe Brady proved to be his decisive breakthrough to genuine movie stardom, and scored him a deserved Oscar nomination to boot. Here is where Kelly’s onscreen persona arrives. Not quite the heel that he was in his famed turn as Broadway’s Pal Joey, in Anchors Aweigh Kelly plays the tomcat with the marshmallow insides, masking his vulnerability with a roguish smile.
The film’s hefty running time offers Kelly (who received third-billing after Sinatra and Grayson, making this one of the most decisive onscreen thefts of all time) plenty of time in the limelight, which he is more than happy to fill. Kelly pairs with seemingly everyone but his leading lady (Grayson was no dancer, and Kelly’s voice wasn’t built to soar and trill with Grayson’s High C), sharing dances not only with Sinatra, but also child actress Sharon McManus, and, in the film’s most acclaimed and historic technical achievement, Jerry the Mouse. There’s also a niftily prescient solo number in which Kelly imagines himself as a lovestruck bandit, scaling rooftops to reach the object of his affection. The bandit number indicates some of the motifs that would reemerge throughout Kelly’s career: Kelly as his own stuntman, the actor who could have been a swashbuckler if he wasn’t born to dance, and perhaps more importantly, Kelly as the dreamer whose fantasies give way to elaborate dance sequences.
There’s a moment before the bandit solo, a flamenco-inflected stomp to “La Cumparsita,” where Kelly’s Joe Brady tries to express his feelings for Susie and finds himself stymied:
Joe: Susan, I’ve never said to you what I really wanted to say because—I guess because my way of saying it just isn’t good enough.
Susie: Well, then there must be some other way.
Joe: Sure there is. It comes right out of Romeo and Juliet, The Three Musketeers, all the books and poems. Those are the words I want to say, but—Oh, I can’t. You’d laugh at me.
Susie: I don’t think so.
Joe: Well, then I’d laugh at myself. Words like that don’t go with sailor suits and three-day leaves and the world we live in.
This little prologue anticipates similar conversations in Kelly’s later films: he shares exchanges with Judy Garland in Summer Stock and Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain that echo the one with Grayson here. Each one locates romance in some kind of dream world – an actual daydream in Anchors Aweigh, on stage in Summer Stock, at the movies in Singin’ – and there’s a significance to that. Kelly the proletarian song-and-dance man, whose characters always carry a trace of working-class grit, is keenly aware of the disconnect between “the world we live in” and the world of happy endings and love songs and dreams. His films are largely about closing that gap, if only briefly. This, more than anything else, it what helps define Anchors Aweigh as quintessential Kelly for me. Fred Astaire, as Madonna had it, dances on air, but Kelly’s characters are more likely to be in the gutter, looking at the stars.