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Tag Archives: Frank Sinatra

On the Town (Dec. 30, 1949)

On the Town
On the Town (1949)
Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

For me, On the Town is joy. Pure joy.

I loved the first film Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly made together, Anchors Aweigh (1945). I also enjoyed their second collaboration, Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), but On the Town is the enduring classic of the bunch. It takes everything that worked about their previous two pairings and adds more comedy and a dizzying parade of New York City locations.

Normally musicals aren’t my favorite genre, but I love Gene Kelly’s dancing (who doesn’t?) and I love Frank Sinatra’s singing (I know not everyone does, but if you don’t, let’s just agree to disagree), so Anchors Aweigh was a pleasant surprise when I first watched it several years ago.

Since then, I’ve warmed up to the Technicolor musical extravaganzas of the 1940s. Musicals still aren’t my thing, but the candy-colored singing and dancing spectacles from Hollywood’s golden age are extremely impressive. At their best, like On the Town, they weave a magic spell that enthralls even a curmudgeon like me.

On the Town stars Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin as Gabey, Chip, and Ozzie, a trio of sailors who have 24 hours of shore leave to tear through New York City and paint the town red.

Chip is waylaid by an amorous cab driver with the unlikely name of “Brunhilde Esterhazy.” She’s played by Betty Garrett. It’s similar to the man-crazy character she played in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, but her pursuit of Frank Sinatra in On the Town hits sexually suggestive heights that were only hinted at in Take Me Out to the Ball Game. All Chip wants to do is tour New York, from the Bronx to the Battery and everywhere in between, but Brunhilde responds to every single one of his touristy suggestions with an emphatic counteroffer, “Come up to my place!”

Ozzie is pursued by a beautiful anthropologist named Claire Huddesen, who’s played by Ann Miller, whose dancing I found mesmerizing. She thinks Ozzie is a perfect example of “primitive man,” and wants to study him. The song and dance routine in the Museum of Natural History treats anthropology as the study of “ooga booga” stuff, which is potentially offensive in these more enlightened times, but I found it all tongue-in-cheek enough to be entertaining.

And finally, Gabey is overtaken by romantic infatuation when he falls in love with a girl named Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen). She is “Miss Turnstiles of the Month,” and Gabey assumes she’s the biggest celebrity in the city, since her face is plastered all over every subway car. (Incidentally, “Miss Turnstiles” is an obvious play on Miss Subways, which was a real program that featured women on New York City subways from 1941 to 1976. I looked at a bunch of the posters the last time I was at the New York City Transit Museum.)

On the Town is based on a Broadway play that premiered in 1944. The book and lyrics were by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with music by Leonard Bernstein, based on an idea by Jerome Robbins. There’s a bit in the film that pays tribute to the original play, when Gene Kelly imagines his New York adventures set to music on stage, and it’s a wonderful moment that focuses solely on choreography.

On the Town is an exuberant romp that had me smiling from beginning to end. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a movie so unreservedly.

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Take Me Out to the Ball Game (March 9, 1949)

Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
Directed by Busby Berkeley
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

By 1948, when Take Me Out to the Ball Game was filmed, legendary musical director Busby Berkeley was suffering from problems with alcohol and with his own temperament. No studio trusted him to both direct and choreograph a picture, so when he was given Take Me Out to the Ball Game to direct, the choreography was handled by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly.

Just judging by what’s on screen, Berkeley had no problem putting together a fun, well-made Technicolor musical for M-G-M.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game reunited Frank Sinatra with Gene Kelly. The two had previously starred together in Anchors Aweigh (1945). Sinatra’s career had hit a bit of a lull in 1948, and M-G-M thought it would be a good idea to pair him with his co-star from the most financially successful film he’d ever made.

Sinatra plays Dennis Ryan, the second baseman of the baseball team The Wolves, and Kelly plays O’Brien, the shortstop. When Ryan and O’Brien aren’t playing baseball, they’re one of the most popular Vaudeville duos in the country. Take Me Out to the Ball Game takes place in 1909, so the notion of two professional baseball players also working as Vaudevillians is only half as ludicrous as it would have been in 1949.

When Ryan and O’Brien report for spring training in Sarasota, they find out that a new owner — K.C. Higgins — has inherited the team. None of the players are happy about this, and they all assume that this Higgins fellow will be a fathead who doesn’t know the first thing about baseball. Unsurprisingly, K.C. Higgins turns out to be a woman (see also Major League).

Of course, K.C. is a baseball whiz, and since she’s played by swimmer Esther Williams, she gets some time in the water, too. The first time Ryan and O’Brien see her cavorting in the hotel pool, one of them remarks, “Not bad for a dame who can field a hot grounder.”

Sinatra and Kelly

The comedy in Take Me Out to the Ball Game is passable, but it’s the singing and dancing that make a musical, and the picture succeeds on both counts. Kelly isn’t quite the singer Sinatra is, and Sinatra isn’t quite the dancer Kelly is, but the same magic they worked in Anchors Aweigh is onscreen here, and it’s a joy to watch.

The songs are all pretty good. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is heard more than once, and there are also highlights like “The Right Girl for Me,” which Sinatra croons to Williams in the moonlight, and “The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick’s Day,” which Kelly sings while doing a jig, wearing a battered green hat, and brandishing a shillelagh.

If you listen to the lyrics of “Yes, Indeedy,” which is about loving and leaving gals across the country, you’ll catch a line about a lovesick Vassar girl who committed suicide after Sinatra loved her and left her, and a Southern belle who turned out to be 11 years old, which is why Gene Kelly had to leave her. The risqué things you can get away with really change from generation to generation, don’t they?

Just like in It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), plenty of humor is wrung from Sinatra’s slender frame. We see him gorging himself on steak and buttered rolls to gain weight during spring training, as well as sucking down milkshakes like they’re water. But alas, he remains a beanpole, and the vivacious and lovesick Shirley Delwyn (played by Betty Garrett) is able to sling him over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry during one of their musical numbers together.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game is, by all accounts, not as good as Kelly and Sinatra’s next collaboration, On the Town (1949), which I haven’t seen yet. But I enjoyed the heck out of it.

The Miracle of the Bells (March 16, 1948)

How do you like your schmaltz? Extra fatty, thick, and glopped all over the place?

You do? Well, Irving Pichel’s The Miracle of the Bells should satisfy your appetite, provided you don’t require nauseating Technicolor or weepy musical numbers. Everything else is in place; soft-focus feel-good spirituality, a tragic love story, and a town coming together for the greater good.

Fred MacMurray plays Hollywood press agent extraordinaire Bill Dunnigan, an affable regular guy with a killer instinct when it comes to a promotional angle. One day he meets a struggling actress named Olga Treskovna (played by Italian actress Alida Valli, who’s credited as just “Valli”) and helps her get a break in a low-rent chorus line.

A year later, they meet again in a small town on Christmas Eve. They have a warm and romantic meal at a Chinese restaurant run by a venerable wise man named Ming Gow (Philip Ahn). Olga coughs when Dunnigan gets up to put some Christmas carols on the jukebox, which — if you’re a connoisseur of movie clichés — means you’ve already figured out that she will die of tuberculosis.

I’m not giving anything away, since the film begins with Dunnigan transporting Olga’s coffin back to her hometown of Coaltown, PA, and the rest of the film recounts her life and death through his eyes. She literally killed herself playing Joan of Arc in her first starring role, refusing to drop out even though she had TB, and her dying wish was to be buried on a hill in St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coaltown, next to her parents.

To thicken the plot, Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb), the big-time Hollywood producer of Olga’s star turn as Joan of Arc, doesn’t want to release the film because it stars a dead woman no one’s ever heard of. Too morbid, Harris declares.

Dunnigan has a reputation as a press agent who pulls stunts to put over crummy shows and lousy movies, so when he arranges all the bells in Coaltown to ring for three days for Olga, people think it’s a cheap ploy to get her final picture released. (It is, but Dunnigan’s motives are pure.)

Dunnigan also has to fight to have her body interred in St. Michael’s Cathedral, which is the smaller, poorer Catholic church in Coaltown, and the more popular his PR campaign becomes, the more pressure there is to have Olga’s funeral services held in the larger cathedral.

Frank Sinatra plays Father Paul, the young priest who presides over St. Michael’s, and it’s tempting to draw comparisons with another crooner who famously played a priest — Bing Crosby in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) — but Sinatra’s performance is more understated. In The Miracle of the Bells he plays a character, not a song-and-dance version of himself.

Despite its overwhelming sentimentality, I didn’t hate The Miracle of the Bells. It’s OK for what it is, and it could have been much worse. (The great Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay with Quentin Reynolds, adapting Russell Janney’s best-selling novel. I haven’t read it, but the review in the September 16, 1946, issue of Time said that “as a novel, The Miracle of the Bells is one of the worst ever published.”)

It Happened in Brooklyn (March 13, 1947)

It Happened in Brooklyn
It Happened in Brooklyn (1947)
Directed by Richard Whorf
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I used to be bummed out that I grew up after the era of listening booths in record stores.

After seeing Richard Whorf’s It Happened in Brooklyn, I’ve realized that as far as regrets go, that’s small potatoes. If this film is to be believed, there was once a music store in Bay Ridge where you could pick out any piece of sheet music and hand it to Frank Sinatra, the in-house “song demonstrator,” and listen to Ol’ Blue Eyes tickle the ivories while he performed it for you. Sure, you had to contend with a teeming crowd of sighing bobby-soxers, but that’s a small price to pay.

When It Happened in Brooklyn begins, Private Danny Miller (Sinatra) has been in the service for four years. World War II is drawing to a close, and he can’t wait to get home to his one true love, Brooklyn.

Danny loves Brooklyn so much that he carries a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge in his wallet. When a pretty Army nurse (Gloria Grahame) from Brooklyn refuses to believe that Danny is really from Brooklyn because he’s so restrained and cool, he pulls out the picture of the bridge and says, “Sure, that’s my pinup girl. Ain’t she a beauty?”

When Danny returns home, a traffic cop asks him why he’s so happy to be in Brooklyn when he could be across the river in New York. Danny looks incredulous and exclaims, “New York? That’s a place to look at Brooklyn from!”

Faced with the post-war housing shortage, Danny moves in with Nick Lombardi (Jimmy Durante), the janitor at New Utrecht High School, Danny’s alma mater. Nick is a kindly old geezer who idolizes the fictional teacher Mr. Chips, and doesn’t understand why all the kids in the school make fun of him.

Danny also befriends a pretty music teacher named Anne Fielding (Kathryn Grayson) and, in a remarkable example of art imitating life, teaches a British drip named Jamie Shellgrove (Peter Lawford) how to be cool.

For an MGM musical, It Happened in Brooklyn is fairly restrained. Unlike Sinatra’s previous film, the Technicolor extravaganza Anchors Aweigh (1945), which also co-starred Grayson, It Happened in Brooklyn is filmed in black and white, clocks in at under two hours, and doesn’t feature any huge production numbers.

Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante

Despite this, It Happened in Brooklyn is still a blast, especially if you’re a Sinatra fan. It’s packed with great songs by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, including “The Brooklyn Bridge,” “Whose Baby Are You?,” “It’s the Same Old Dream,” “The Song’s Gotta Come From the Heart,” and the classic “Time After Time.” I especially enjoyed Sinatra and Durante’s humorous performance of “I Believe” with a teenaged actor named Bobby Long, who does a great tap number. Does anyone know anything about Long? Why didn’t he ever appear in another movie? Did he have an abrasive personality? Horrible skin? Did he sleep with a producer’s wife after wooing her with his sensuous tap-dancing?

Along with all the great pop numbers, there’s a little “class” squeezed in, too. The classically trained Grayson gets to belt out a couple of operatic numbers — one from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and one from Delibes’s Lakmé — and her student Leo Kardos (Billy Roy) performs a piano concert in hopes of getting a scholarship. (Kardos’s playing was actually done by André Previn, who had just joined the music department of MGM at the age of 17.)

It Happened in Brooklyn is clichéd and occasionally silly, and it doesn’t offer the over-the-top razzle-dazzle of Anchors Aweigh, but it’s still a whole lot of fun.

Anchors Aweigh (July 14, 1945)

AnchorsAweighI don’t generally like musicals, but I loved Anchors Aweigh. It probably doesn’t hurt that I really like both Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, and this movie uses both of them to wonderful effect. Kelly’s dance sequences are all high points, and even Sinatra comports himself well in the one dance in which he has to match Kelly step-for-step. Although I can only imagine how many takes it took to get it right. Unlike today’s hyperkinetic editing styles, most of the dance sequences in Anchors Aweigh are done in what appear to be one take, or just a few at most.

In Anchors Aweigh, Sinatra and Kelly play sailors who are granted a four-day shore leave in Los Angeles due to extraordinary bravery. Kelly is a ladykiller with a woman in every port, while Sinatra is a dope when it comes to love. Kelly just wants to hook up with his beloved Lola, while Sinatra just wants a girl … any girl. Their amorous plans hit a snag, however, when they’re charged with the care of a Navy-worshipping runaway played by the very cute child actor Dean Stockwell. (Viewers familiar with Stockwell’s film and television work as an adult might wonder while watching this movie … what the hell happened to the guy?) Sinatra falls for the boy’s young aunt (Kathryn Grayson), while Kelly find himself drawn to her as well, which he resists, since his buddy has already spoken for her. But the draw is mutual. What’s a guy to do? Not to worry. With the help of orchestra leader José Iturbi (playing himself), everything will turn out O.K. in the end.

Sinatra gets top billing, even though Kelly is clearly the more seasoned performer. Sinatra may have been one of the most popular crooners in the country, but this was only his third real acting role on screen. At points he looks like a kid in a high school play who doesn’t know what to do with his hands. If you’d told anyone in 1945 that he’d win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor just eight years later they probably wouldn’t have believed you. But his natural charisma makes up for a lot. Iturbi is clearly not a professional actor, either, but the few scenes in which he has to perform (and not just conduct), he’s charming and fun to watch. He has a wonderful sense of comic timing, and projects warmth and empathy when he needs to.

Clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes, Anchors Aweigh is the kind of candy-colored fantasy that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore. Everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in … there’s even a fantasy dance sequence in which Kelly dances in a cartoon world with an animated mouse (Jerry of Tom & Jerry fame). Its Bollywood-sized ambitions might turn off some modern viewers, but I thought it was great. At no point was I bored. I was entranced and delighted throughout.