Tuesday, December 20, 2011

SHIP AHOY (MGM 1942) Warner Archive Collection

Considered a minor offering when it premiered, viewed today Edward Buzzell's Ship Ahoy (1942) is a rather buoyant and glamorous affair that casts Eleanor Powell and Red Skelton together in their first film. Its screenplay, written by Matt Brooks, Bradford Ropes and Bert Kalmar, is par for the course of films set during WWII - full of foolish espionage and the hint of Nazis off camera. Ship Ahoy is also notable for the first on screen appearance of Frank Sinatra in an MGM movie. He's hardly showcased, but gets a chance to warble a few lines of two of the movies best songs before disappearing into the background.  Eleanor Powell plays Tallulah Winters, a standout dancer with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. After a rousing run on the Great White Way their troop is bound for Puerto Rico to give a command performance on the floating nightclub of Pietro Polesi (Bernard Nedell).
Actually, Pietro is a spy working for the Axis powers along with Dr. Farno (John Emery). Farno and Polesi present themselves backstage to Tallulah as FBI agents who have been assigned the dangerous task of carrying a magnetic bomb component to Puerto Rico. They convince Tallulah that she will be doing the U.S. government a great service if she will smuggle the device in her luggage. Tallulah happily agrees. Meanwhile, in another part of Manhattan pulp fiction writer and hypochondriac, Merton Kibble (Red Skelton) is nearing mental and physical burnout. To calm his nerves his agent, Skip Owens (Bert Lahr) lies and says Merton's doctor has suggested they both take an ocean voyage. Actually Owens just wants to go to Puerto Rico to pursue his sweetheart, Fran Evans (Virginia O'Brien).
The foursome hook up on board their ship with Tallulah instantly taking a liking to Merton, whose bumbling ineptitude with a deck chair she finds utterly charming. As for Merton, Tallulah proves just the magic elixir he needs to steady his nerves. Their romance continues to blossom until Merton's editor sends a cable, demanding that he finish off his pulp series, 'Olga' - the tale of a spy. Merton dictates the final chapter to Skip. But Tallulah accidentally overhears Merton's dictation, assumes his offhand derogatory comments are about her and their romance and decides then and there to cut Merton loose.
As the ship docks in Puerto Rico Merton is perplexed by Tallulah's sudden despondency. In the last minute shuffle their similar luggage is switched and Merton winds up with the magnetic bomb which he is unable to move from the ship's metal floor. Eventually, Tallulah realizes what has happened and finagles an exchange of luggage, handing over the bomb to Pietro aboard his floating nightclub, still believing she is doing good work for the U.S. government. Merton realizes the truth about their host but also learns that Tallulah is blameless. Pietro and Dr. Farno imprison Merton and Skip in the ship's cargo hold and force Tallulah to go on with her lavish production number to keep the real FBI agents at bay. Instead, Tallulah taps out a distress message in Morris Code, revealing to the agents the real identity of the Axis spies and the whereabouts of the magnetic bomb.
Ship Ahoy may not be a top tier MGM musical, but it is a very lavish, stylish and fun loving second tier effort put forth with A-list effort by the entire cast. Skelton and Lahr are great comic foils together. Skelton's easy going nature tames Lahr's more gregarious leering. More importantly, the romantic chemistry between Skelton and Powell is ‘spot on’ believable. Lahr and O'Brien also have a good run of bad romantic chemistry too - forever at odds but loveably so. I suppose the right word for this sea faring excursion is 'charming...quite charming.' The musical numbers are a mixed bag, but fairly appealing.
Powell taps the hell out of 'Tallulah' - a spectacular shipboard number performed by Tommy Dorsey and his Band. She also gets a matador tap number as well as the finale, a bit too reminiscent of the 'Three Cheers for the Red White and Blue' finale from Born To Dance (1938) for my tastes and not nearly as effective. Dorsey also opens the program with (curiously) a Hawaiian War Chant. The number features drummer Buddy Rich to good effect but really doesn't give Powell much of a chance to shine. Robert Planck's cinematography sparkles in glorious B&W and Cedric Gibbons' art direction is first rate. In the final analysis, Ship Ahoy is a fun way to kill a couple of hours on the high seas.
Warner Home Video's MOD DVD presents the film in a mostly appealing transfer. Age related artifacts are present throughout but mostly do not distract. Aside: I noticed a rather obvious hair caught in the lower center gate of the image during the Tallulah number that is distracting. Otherwise, scratches and tears are kept to a minimum. The gray scale has been impeccably rendered with a solid amount of fine detail and good tonality throughout. Contrast levels are very accurately realized. The audio is mono but acceptable with minimal hiss and pop. Aside from a trailer there are NO extras. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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