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Tag Archives: Gene Kelly

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.

Ziegfeld Follies (April 8, 1946)

Ziegfeld Follies premiered in Boston on August 13, 1945. It was first shown in New York on March 22, 1946, and went into wide release on Monday, April 8, 1946. On some theatrical release posters, the film’s title was Ziegfeld Follies of 1946. The film is a lavish, old-fashioned musical pieced together from a big bag of spare parts. It was a pet project of producer Arthur Freed, and was originally intended to mark Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 20th anniversary in 1944, but it went through so many edits and revisions that it missed the mark by more than a year.

Despite the studio’s boast on the theatrical release poster that Ziegfeld Follies is the “greatest production since the birth of motion pictures,” I really didn’t enjoy it that much. The musical numbers are hit and miss, and the comedy bits all hit the ground like lead zeppelins. There are a lot of impressive set pieces, and the colors are really bright, but as far as plotless extravaganzas go, it just doesn’t have the latter-day stoner appeal of Fantasia (1940).

The film begins with little models of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, then P.T. Barnum’s big top, then Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.’s theater. That’s it, folks. The only three shows in the history of the world that matter. Clearly humility is not on the program for the evening.

William Powell, who played “Flo” Ziegfeld in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), reprises his role for the first segment of the picture. He’s on a set that looks like the kind of pad Liberace and Louis XVI might have picked out for themselves if they were roommates, talking a lot of nonsense about magic and the theater (it took me a little while to catch on to the fact that he’s supposed to be in heaven). We’re then treated to an elaborate stop-motion recreation of Ziegfeld’s 1907 opening by the Bunin puppets. All of his great stars are recreated as puppets; Marilyn Miller, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, and even Eddie Cantor in blackface.

Each segment that follows is introduced by a storybook page. Fred Astaire appears in the first, “Here’s to the Girls.” He acknowledges that “Ziggy,” as he calls him, never had much use for villains or plots, then sings an ode to the American girls who were Ziegfeld’s main attractions. Cyd Charisse dances a little solo and then Lucille Ball cracks a whip over eight chorus girls dressed as panthers. Finally, Virginia O’Brien hollers for some fellers, and then sings, “Bring on Those Wonderful Men.” It’s a punishing spectacle that sets the tone for what is to come.

In the next segment, Esther Williams appears in … surprise, surprise … a water ballet. It’s fine, and she spends a lot of time underwater, which is neat, but what is the sequence even doing in this picture?

Next, Keenan Wynn appears in the comedy short “Number, Please.” I found it completely unfunny, but maybe that’s because I can’t stand “frustrating” humor. Basically, all he wants to do is make a phone call, but he’s thwarted at every turn, until his face is red and steam is coming out of his ears. For me it dragged the movie to a halt like a sweaty punchline comic working the in-betweens at a burlesque strip show.

Next, James Melton and Marion Bell sing “La Traviata.” Yawn.

Ooh, goody, more comedy! Victor Moore and Edward Arnold appear in “Pay the Two Dollars,” in which a man spits on the subway and is trapped in a legal nightmare because his attorney won’t let him just pay the $2 fine. Again, what’s up with the horribly frustrating situational humor? Not only did this segment not make me laugh, it made me feel as if I was watching a stage adaptation of a Kafka story.

Next, Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer appear in a “dance story” called “This Heart of Mine,” with music by Harry Warren and words by Arthur Freed. It’s pretty good. It took me back to the days when lighting a girl’s cigarette and then dancing while smoking was still classy. On the other hand, no one glides across a ballroom like old Fred, so the rotating circular centerpiece seemed wholly unnecessary. Who did the director think he was dealing with, Clark Gable?

The next comedy segment is called “A Sweepstakes Ticket,” and for some reason it’s filmed on a regular set, not the impressionistic “stage” sets used in all the previous comedy bits. Hume Cronyn gives away a winning Irish sweepstakes ticket to make up the few bucks he was short on the rent, and he and his wife Fanny Brice try to get it back from their landlord. Again, it’s not at all funny, just frustrating.

The next segment, “Love,” with Lena Horne (R.I.P.), was a nice opportunity to see black people in Technicolor, and in a steamy tropical setting no less. It should have been longer.

Next, Red Skelton shows us all what will happen “When Television Comes.” He does a promo for “Guzzler’s Gin.” He drinks a whole bunch each take and acts more and more stinko. If you’re amused by cross-eyed drunkenness and double-takes, this will still do the trick. Although it’s possible audiences in 1946 were amused by this segment, I can’t imagine they were left with a very clear idea of what the advent of television would mean for the country.

Up next is “Limehouse Blues,” in which Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer return, only this time in yellowface. The Chinatown tropes are offensive, but the colors and imagery are quite beautiful and impressive, in a non-P.C. sort of way. Once we get to the actual dance number, however, the piece is hamstrung by its own ridiculous conceit. It doesn’t help that in all the medium shots, Astaire’s makeup makes him look a lot like Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932).

In “A Great Lady Has an Interview,” Judy Garland seems to be lampooning Katharine Hepburn or possibly Greer Garson. I got the feeling that there were a lot of industry in-jokes that I wasn’t getting. For me, Garland is always a treat, however, so I didn’t mind it that much.

And then, like a terrible party that suddenly becomes fun 20 minutes before the police arrive to break it up, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly appear in “The Babbitt and the Bromide,” by George and Ira Gershwin. Their dialogue is funnier than any of the “comedy” bits in the movie, and their side-by-side dance number is transcendent. Ziegfeld Follies is worth seeing for this sequence alone.

Finally, Kathryn Grayson sings “Beauty,” by Warren and Freed. It’s standard stuff, but there are enormous piles of bubbles that I thought were pretty cool.

In other news, the last living Ziegfeld Follies “girl,” Doris Eaton Travis, died yesterday at the age of 106. I hope it doesn’t seem as if I’m beating up on the Follies themselves. I’d love to go back in time and see a Ziegfeld revue on Broadway. This film just doesn’t really capture the magic.

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.