31 December 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
"When we anchor for what we hanker..."
Roy Del Ruth was a talented second-rung director who spent his career shunting from one studio to another, never achieving the valuable symbiosis which boosted the careers of better-known directors who dedicated their talents primarily to one particular studio (such as Ford at Fox, Walsh at Warners, Capra at Columbia, Minnelli at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). 'Three Sailors and a Girl', a brassy musical comedy directed by Del Ruth for Warner Brothers, is an uncredited remake of 'Born to Dance', a 1936 musical directed by Del Ruth for MGM. 'Born to Dance' has better production values, a better cast and a better score (Jimmy Stewart warbling Cole Porter!), but 'Three Sailors and a Girl' is very enjoyable in its own right ... and its plot has almost nothing to do with George S. Kaufman's play 'The Butter and Egg Man', which is inexplicably listed in the credits here as source material.
'Born to Dance' and 'Three Sailors and a Girl' have exactly the same plot: a Navy submarine docks in New York, and three sailors (a singer, a dancer and a funny guy) go ashore. They meet a musically talented actress named Powell who deserves to be a star, and they pool their efforts to make her the star of a hit Broadway musical (as sailors do). In 'Born to Dance', the actress is vivacious tap-dancer Eleanor Powell. In 'Three Sailors and a Girl', the actress is Jane Powell (more brassy than usual, but quite good). The three sailors -- with the unfortunate nicknames Porky, Twitch and Choirboy -- are played by Jack E. Leonard (the funny guy), Gene Nelson (the dancer) and Gordon MacRae (the singer and romantic lead). MacRae was never better than his material, so here he's much less interesting than he was in 'Oklahoma!' and 'Carousel'. Gene Nelson is excellent as the acrobatic dancer, although he too has been better elsewhere.
The real find in this movie is Jack E. Leonard, a vulgar and heavy-set insult comic who pre-dated Don Rickles, and who is not normally considered an actor. He's not very good here, but he's better than I expected him to be, and he might have had a decent career in supporting roles. His 'singing' voice is nothing to boast about, although he acquits himself well alongside Nelson and MacRae in the opening number (a snappy ditty called 'Oh, So Right!'), and he's decent enough in a (poor) comedy number with Jane Powell: 'Show me a happy woman, and I'll show you a miserable man.' Leonard also does a comedy monologue which isn't funny, and which relies heavily on a ludicrous costume and a penguin walk. Jack E. Leonard was severely overweight: a fact which shouldn't have disqualified him from movie roles, but which renders him utterly implausible here in the role of an active-duty sailor. Even more implausibly, the three sailors finance their Broadway musical by having a whip-round among their shipmates (yes, we all know that sailors have got lots of money socked away) ... and then, when these funds prove insufficient, they get further backing from the Marines. (Yes, we all know that the Navy and the Marines always work hand in hand towards mutual goals.) Still, this is a fun movie, and I don't want to dissect the plot line.
Sam Levene, giving his usual performance, is quite good as the sharpy who produces the Broadway musical ... which of course is a hit. There's a totally unexpected (and very funny) cameo appearance by Burt Lancaster as a leatherneck, which leads to Levene speaking the funniest line in the movie.
Except for that Powell/Leonard duet, the songs (by Sammy Fain and Sammy Cahn) are excellent: very nearly as good as Cole Porter's score for 'Born to Dance'. I'll rate 'Three Sailors and a Girl' 7 points out of 10. Delightful!