14 October 2002 | gaityr
Flashy, funny, overlong... but Kelly shines through!
ANCHORS AWEIGH sees two eager young sailors, Joe Brady (Gene Kelly) and Clarence Doolittle/Brooklyn (Frank Sinatra), get a special four-day shore leave. Eager to get to the girls, particularly Joe's Lola, neither Joe nor Brooklyn figure on the interruption of little Navy-mad Donald (Dean Stockwell) and his Aunt Susie (Kathryn Grayson). Unexperienced in the ways of females and courting, Brooklyn quickly enlists Joe to help him win Aunt Susie over. Along the way, however, Joe finds himself falling for the gal he thinks belongs to his best friend. How is Brooklyn going to take this betrayal? And does Joe end up with Susie, who loves him too?
The first and second times I saw ANCHORS AWEIGH, I also saw it at the same time as I did ON THE TOWN, the Kelly/Sinatra collaboration from 1949. Both times I felt that ANCHORS AWEIGH was the better film in terms of plotting and structure--all the dances and songs fit the moment in the plot, and they develop the characters and story rather than hamper them. Yet, both times I came away feeling that ON THE TOWN is the better film overall. Having now seen both films a third time, I still stand by that judgement. Somehow ON THE TOWN, as a film and a piece of entertainment, is just lighter, gayer, purely and simply *happier*. The numbers are more outrageous and less integral to the plot, and yet somehow it works better than all the dances and singing in ANCHORS AWEIGH. I'm not quite sure why this is. The typical argument is that the latter film is over-long: at almost two and a half hours, this is certainly a valid criticism to make. I certainly felt the length the first two times I saw it! However, it's also a film that grows on you--the more you see it, the shorter it feels and the more you appreciate the technical mastery involved in its making. And yet, something just doesn't hang together quite right. It feels almost as if the script was pored over, and *every* single moment when Kelly could break into dance or Sinatra into song was noted, and that's exactly what happened. No opportunity to shoehorn a musical number in was given up... and that's probably the film's biggest weakness. It has 16 numbers (give or take a few), and no matter how big a fan you are of Kelly or Sinatra, this really starts to turn one numb after a while. (Contrast this, for example, with the ten numbers in ON THE TOWN.) You might well feel that each song, each dance, can't be taken out of the film without leaving it lacking... and that's true. But that's also because the writers weren't more restrained in adding them in in the first place.
All this long preamble doesn't mean there's nothing good about ANCHORS AWEIGH. The musical *is* splashy with great songs bursting out all over, like the duets between Kelly and Sinatra ('We Hate To Leave', 'I Begged Her' and 'If You Knew Susie'), the singing of Sinatra ('What Makes The Sunset', 'The Charm Of You', and the best of all, 'I Fall In Love Too Easily'), and without a doubt the always inventive, always breathtaking dancing of Kelly. It's also hard to miss with a cast of this calibre. Grayson is sweet and seems to improve on each viewing (her voice becoming stunning rather than frightening); Jose Iturbi's role is written sympathetically and he does a great job with it; even Clarence's own Brooklyn, Pamela Britton, is cute and charming... as close as one could get to Betty Garrett without being Garrett herself! Sinatra is adorable with those blue eyes and curls of his, and plays the innocent boy-man wonderfully (a role he reprises in ON THE TOWN). His singing is, as usual, simply faultless from enunciation through to timing and phrasing. His solo numbers might seem to drag a little, but when you've got the voice of a century, showcasing it is probably as good a reason as any to slow up the rest of the film!
Gene Kelly's sheer genius in this film is worthy of its own paragraph. Third in the billing behind Sinatra and Grayson respectively, ANCHORS AWEIGH really is Kelly's film. His Joe Brady is a believable, real character--he's tough on the outside, glib and willing to lie when necessary to win a gal, but he's actually the biggest softy on the inside. Kelly makes this charming rather than cloying, but also gives Joe a real edge that you see in the scene when Joe chases Brooklyn around the room with a genuinely murderous look on his face and his breakfast tray in his hands. And the *dancing*--again, the film suffers from the 'too much of a good thing spoils the effect' syndrome, as it does with Sinatra's singing. But once again, if it's Gene Kelly doing the softshoe, or tapping across the screen in a sailor's outfit or dressed up as a bandit chief... might as well err on the side of overdoing it! All of Kelly's dances are breathtaking, be it the pared-down simplicity of his tap number with Sinatra to 'I Begged Her', his 'Mexican Hat Dance' with the sweet wide-eyed little girl, or his lavish Spanish-influenced dance 'La Cumparsita'. Of course, the classic image left in audiences' minds for all time would be Kelly in his red, white and blue sailor suit, dancing with Jerry Mouse of 'Tom & Jerry' fame. A well-deserved golden film memory, to be sure--it's not often that one can say you're impressed by the special effects in a film made in 1945, given the saturation of CGI in the contemporary film market. But Gene and Jerry still look great, with Kelly always hitting his spots and looking exactly where he needs to look. It *would* turn out that just about the only people who could really keep up with Gene Kelly would be Kelly himself (in COVER GIRL) and a cartoon animation.
It's doubtless that this first daring, inventive Kelly dance with Jerry has reserved a place for ANCHORS AWEIGH in film history and the hearts of classic film buffs. But it's also notable for being the first of three Kelly/Sinatra film collaborations, and though rather too drawn-out, still a great couple of hours of entertainment. Watch it first, then again and maybe again--it'll grow on you before you realise it! 7.5/10