Judge Jim Thomas wanted to weigh anchor and go on the town, but he had to take someone out to a ballgame instead.
By the mid-1940s, Frank Sinatra was already established as the greatest entertainer of his generation. He had been in the international spotlight for over a decade, and movies were just something he did in his spare time.
Ten years after his death in 1998, we have a number of Sinatra's films released. This set, which collects the three films Sinatra made with Gene Kelly, stands alongside Frank Sinatra: The Early Years, as these films were made during the same period; the key difference is the presence of Kelly.
These three movies may be just a few more entries in the career of Frank Sinatra, but they are pivotal films for Kelly. Impressed by his boundless energy, the MGM brass gave him carte blanche to choreograph his next picture, Anchors Aweigh. His work in his next few films taught him how to choreograph for the big screen, setting the stage (almost literally) for An American in Paris in 1951 and Singin' in the Rain in 1952.
So where exactly do these three movies fit in the pantheon? Let's take a look.
Facts of the Case
The set includes three movies:
• In Anchors Aweigh (1946), Clarence Doolittle (Sinatra) and Joe Brady (Kelly) are two sailors with a three-day shore leave in L.A. Their plans for a hot time get sidetracked when the police ask them to help them out with a little boy (Dean Stockwell, Battlestar Galactica) who has run away to join the Navy. The sailors return the boy home and meet his gorgeous aunt Susie (Kathryn Grayson, Kiss Me, Kate). Joe is immediately smitten, but because he promised to help Clarence find a girl, he relentlessly presses Clarence's suit. Hoping to gain Susie's favor, the boys tell Susie, an aspiring singer, that they can get her an audition with famed conductor José Iturbi (himself). The rest of the film involves the guys trying to track down Iturbi to set up the audition. The movie ends with a series of plot contrivances to make everyone happy.
• Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), set in the 1900s, features Sinatra as Dennis Ryan and Kelly as Eddie O'Brien; the two star baseball players hit the vaudeville circuit during the off-season. A third player, first baseman Nat Goldberg (Jules Munshin, On the Town) brings a clownish aspect to the proceedings (he's a cross between Donald O'Connor and Brad Garrett from Everybody Loves Raymond). As spring training commences, they have a new obstacle to deal with: the new owner of the Wolves, KC Higgins (Esther Williams, Million Dollar Mermaid), who intends to see the team managed properly—including, to the players chagrin, strict enforcement of curfew. The two players are both attracted to KC; however, a baseball fan, Shirley Delwyn, (Betty Garrett, On the Town) stalks, er, sets her sights on Sinatra. In addition to the romantic complications (which bear an eerie resemblance to the romantic complications from Anchors Aweigh), O'Brien's love of vaudeville makes him the patsy in a scheme by gamblers to make sure that the heavily-favored Wolves don't win the pennant.
• On the Town (1949) has more of a history than the other two films. In 1944, Choreographer Jerome Robbins opened a new ballet, Fancy Free, with music by Leonard Bernstein. The ballet, set in New York City, features three sailors on shore leave. They meet three girls in a bar, dance with them, fight over them, and then realize how stupid it is to let women come between friends. The ballet was a hit, and they decided to turn it into a musical, getting the famed team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write the book and lyrics. The musical was a hit as well, making a movie inevitable. The movie generally follows the stage play, with a few exceptions. These exceptions are functions of the release date. The ballet and stage play opened in 1944, during World War II; when the sailors board their ship at the end, they are going to war. The movie, five years later, doesn't have to carry that emotional freight, and keeps a much lighter tone throughout. The three sailors—Sinatra, Kelly, and Jules Munshin—are quickly matched up with their ladies—Betty Garrett is Hildy, the cabbie who latches on to Sinatra pretty much the same way she did in Take Me Out to the Ballgame; Vera-Ellen (White Christmas is Ivy Smith, New York's latest "Miss Turnstiles," the object of Gabe's (Kelly) fantasy; and Ann Miller (Kiss Me, Kate) is Claire, the anthropologist who is entranced by Munshin's resemblance to prehistoric man.
Each film has something special going for it. In the case of Anchors Aweigh, it's an over-the-top earnestness. There are some lighter moments, to be sure, but the pendulum swings much closer to romance than comedy. The movie also is more of a grand spectacle than the others; even setting aside Kelly's classic dance with Jerry the Mouse, you have sailors forming a giant anchor on a carrier deck, twenty pianos playing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody, and, of course, one of the scariest costume choices ever to "grace" the screen.
In short, the plot is tissue thin, but the musical numbers sort of balance things out. The most famous number from the movie is Kelly's dance number with Jerry the Mouse. It holds up well, even in the considerable shadow of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The initial plan was to use Mickey Mouse (in an MGM film, mind you), but either Walt dismissed the notion himself, or (depending on who you talk to) Walt liked the idea, but Roy balked.
The extra for the film is a very brief excerpt from the documentary, MGM: When the Lion Roars. In the excerpt, which is 3 minutes, tops, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera briefly describe how they managed the shot. It's incredibly forgettable.
Take Me Out to the Ballgame, heavily influenced by vaudeville, is more of a typical musical comedy. The actors mug and caper around during their numbers, and there's more of a sense of just having fun. That sense extends to the closing number, a reprise of the title song by the four principals, not as their characters, but as themselves. Kelly and Sinatra make a reference to movie beauties such as Judy Garland and Kathryn Grayson; Williams and Garrett give them an arch look and proceed to extol the virtues of Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby.
The filmmakers even manage to put Esther Williams into a hotel swimming pool for an abbreviated rendition of the title song. Damn, she had great legs.
The extras for this film are a couple of deleted musical numbers. Text introductions provide some background for each number, including why they were cut. The same three trailers from Take Me Out to the Ballgame are included here as well.
The first two movies suffer from weak plotting. Oddly enough, On the Town has even less plotting, yet is the superior movie. Basically, the movie turns a weakness into a strength. The sailors basically rush from set piece to set piece, trying to pack as much fun as possible into a single day. That sense of fleeting fun is reinforced by a clock that periodically appears at the bottom of the screen, and with an ending that brings things full circle: As our three sailors board their ship, three more sailors hit the docks and burst into the opening refrain of "A Wonderful Town." Another strength of this film is its balance. Kelly dominated the screen time in the first two movies, getting most of the big production numbers (one of the perks of being the choreographer). Here, though, everyone gets a chance to shine. The other two movies relied on character types, but here we get just enough background on the characters to understand them a little bit better. Particularly touching is discovering what a goodhearted person Claire is through her clandestine efforts to maintain Gabe's misconception about Ivy's lofty status as Miss Turnstiles.
Of course, there is the Bernstein music. Bernstein's songs are "New York, New York," "The Miss Turnstiles Dance," "Come up to My Place," and "A Day in New York." The numbers have the jazz influences and peculiar rhythms that typified a lot of his work during this period, and each one give the movie a jolt of energy. However, some music from the stage version was replaced with music by Roger Edens. No, I've never heard of him either. Perhaps the weakest song in the movie is, sadly, "On the Town." But Edens does redeem himself with "Prehistoric Man," which not only is a great showcase for Ann Miller, but also lets the three sailors and Betty Garrett clown about to great effect.
The only extra for this disc is a theatrical trailer. Lame.
The set is part of The Frank Sinatra Collection, so I feel somewhat obligated to comment on Ol' Blue Eyes. As Judge Clark Douglas noted in his review of Frank Sinatra: The Early Years, Sinatra's early performances were not particularly memorable. The same holds true for this set. He's cast as the naïve young man against Kelly's more worldly character in the first two movies. Given that Sinatra's singing career began when he was 15, he probably had no idea how to play such a part. There's a marked improvement in On the Town; he's not quite as naïve, and, also, Kelly and Munshin play small-town guys themselves, so that he doesn't stick out quite as much. But the fact is, Sinatra's acting chops didn't really develop until he started getting parts more suited to his own character.
Interestingly, Sinatra was quite the beanpole in his younger days. In Take Me Out to the Ballgame, there's some business about Sinatra's character desperately trying to gain weight. In On the Town, Sinatra was so skinny that he had to wear butt padding to get his uniform pants to hang right. He really didn't like being teased about it.
Video for all three films is much better than you would expect. Credit the three-strip Technicolor process, which not only used extremely stable dyes, which accounts for the eye-popping color, but also required a ridiculously low film speed (an ASA of 6. That's not a typo, people: six). That low film speed accounts for the lack of grain. Flesh tones are a little oversaturated, but that could well be a function of the makeup. Given the vivid costumes, they may well have had to go with equally vivid makeup.
Audio is clear in all three movies, though at times On the Town sounds a little tinny. I can't help but wonder what kind of magic a stereo remix could have wrought. On the Town would have benefited the most from such a remix, but the scene from Anchors Aweigh in the Hollywood Bowl, with twenty—count 'em, twenty—grand pianos playing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody. Oh, that scene in Surround Sound…
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At 140 minutes, Anchors Aweigh is waaaaay too long. In addition, Sinatra's acting remains wooden. It's fascinating to watch, though: one moment he destroys a line reading, and the next, the moment he starts singing, he relaxes and turns into a completely different person. Take Me Out to the Ballgame has basically the same wisp of a plot, but works better thanks to the 93-minute runtime. Sinatra still appears uncomfortable, partly because the script has him again as the inexperienced guy while his songs tell a substantially different tale.
On the Town is easily the strongest of the three, but some of the musical numbers don't really hold your attention, mainly the previously mentioned "On the Town" and the "A Day in New York" ballet sequence.
Never mind that Sinatra has first billing in all three films, and Kelly has third billing in Take Me Out to the Ballgame, behind Sinatra and Williams. Gene Kelly is the star of these films and you can see his artistic development over the course of the films. In the last movie, On the Town, we start to see the same artistic sensibilities that would, in a few short years, explode on the screen in An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain. Sinatra fans may or may not be interested in the set, but it's an essential set for fans of Kelly.
Not guilty, though Warner Home Video is reprimanded for providing such a weak set of extras.
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