It’s over-sweet and over-long – but should not be overlooked. Anchors Aweigh tends to be regarded as something of a dry run for another film featuring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as sailors on shore leave, On the Town. When the earlier movie does get a mention, usually it’s just the celebrated dance routine with Kelly and Jerry Mouse which comes in for praise. However, Anchors Aweigh has a warmth and charm going beyond that sequence and Sinatra actually gets better solo songs here than he does in the more famous movie. The gorgeous Technicolor also helps to make it all hugely watchable.
Kelly and Sinatra play the two kindest and nicest sailors imaginable. It comes as a surprise now to realise that Kelly was actually third-billed, because his determined, slightly sarcastic screen personality dominates the film. His character, Joe Brady, blusters about his supposed relationship with a girl about town called Lola, and has several one-sided phone conversations with her – but she never actually puts in an appearance. Sinatra plays a delicate second fiddle as wide-eyed former choirboy, Clarence Doolittle, who hero-worships Joe and, at the start of the film, is seen literally following him around. The actors’ real-life friendship helps to create a convincing warmth and chemistry between them, even if it is hard to believe that any sailors serving in a war could be quite this well-behaved.
There is actually a lot less reference to the war in the film than I’d expected, given the fact that it was made right at the end of the conflict. At the start Joe receives an award for saving Clarence’s life, and at the end there is a military concert – but there is very little flag waving through most of the film, and there is no real feeling that the pair are going back to a conflict where they might be killed. The whole mood is light-hearted and sunny.
Far from spending their shore leave in Los Angeles drinking or painting the town red, this pair end up helping to look after a small boy, Donald (Dean Stockwell) and both fall for his Aunt Susie (Kathryn Grayson). Sinatra sings Donald a lullaby and Kelly goes into his school to entertain the class, giving an excuse for the Jerry Mouse routine. It’s all rather domestic and small-scale compared to On the Town, with many scenes set either in Susie’s house or in the cafe where the sailors eat, so there is not much feeling of a big city. Fortunately, Stockwell, who went on to star in TV’s Quantum Leap, was a talented actor even at this age. This means his scenes are less twee than they could have been, but, even so, there is too much sugar at times. The film’s plot complications also quickly wear thin, as a tangled web of deceit is woven after Joe rashly promises singer Susie an audition with Spanish pianist and conductor José Iturbi.
However, the plot really doesn’t matter, as the film’s main pleasure lies in its song and dance numbers. Kelly’s dance with Jerry Mouse (it was originally supposed to be Mickey Mouse, but Walt Disney refused permission!) is justly famous. It took two months to complete, with Kelly working together with Stanley Donen, and the result is still breathtaking. It wasn’t the first film to combine action and live animation, but was certainly one of the most ambitious, and showed the way forward to many later films.
The great songs are also highly memorable, especially Sinatra’s haunting ballad I Fall In Love Too Easily, written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne and orchestrated by Axel Stordahl. Some reviews I’ve seen suggest that Sinatra is rather wooden as an actor in this film, but he certainly comes into his own whenever he gets a chance to sing. His down-to-earth romance with waitress “Brooklyn” (Pamela Britton) is one of my favourite parts of the film, though it is a pity that Britton, who was a singer on Broadway, never actually gets a musical number. You have to wonder if she originally did have one and it was then cut out.
After enjoying both this and On the Town, I’m keen to see the other film Sinatra and Kelly made together, Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Sadly that one is more or less unknown in the UK, doubtless because of the ball game content! Nevertheless, I will hope to catch up with it soon.
Most of the photos in this posting were gratefully taken from Doctor Macro.