The stock ‘sailors on shore leave’ musical mélange reached its absolute zenith with Roy Rowland’s Hit The Deck (1955), a star-studded, tune-filled and utterly joyous excursion following the romantic exploits of a trio of GOBs and their equally love-struck gals. MGM may not have invented this subgenre, but they trademarked the territory with such exemplary offerings as Anchors Aweigh (1945) and On The Town (1949). That Hit the Deck somehow fell short of expectations, failing to recoup its lavish outlay at the box office in 1955 remains something of a mystery – and a colossal disappointment. For MGM, the studio with ‘more stars than there are in heaven’ had given Rowland carte blanche to produce this granddaddy of all ship to shore movie musicals. Better still, Hit the Deck had a presold title and a proven track record of success; the Vincent Youman, Clifford Grey, Leo Robin and Herbert Fields Broadway show (based on Hubert Osborne’s Shore Leave) having run a solid 352 performances; already turned into a profitable early talkie at Fox in 1930, starring Jack Oakie. Better still, the score contained several chart-topping standards of their day, including the infectious, foot-stomping, ‘Hallelujah!’ and poignant ballads, ‘Sometimes I Love You’ and ‘More Than You Know’.
The icing on this proverbial cake is the revised screenplay by Sonya Levien and William Ludwig, who took great pains to preserve the memory of the stage show, while tightening the narrative structure and ‘opening up’ the story for some truly memorable set pieces. Best of all, Hit the Deck was imbued with that inimitable MGM ‘house style’. Indeed, MGM’s repertory company of gifted performers – both in front of and behind the camera – had evolved, trademarked and slickly packaged a formula for making the best musicals. In Hit the Deck’s case, this meant stellar production design from Cedric Gibbons and Paul Groesse, superbly photographed in expansive Cinemascope by George J. Folsey, with sublime orchestrations from Conrad Salinger; all of it under Joseph Pasternak’s inspired tutelage; arguably, the ‘second’ greatest producer working on MGM’s back lot (the first, undeniably being Arthur Freed).
For a time, the Hollywood musical was one of the most prolific genres in America’s pop culture. No small feat, since it is also the easiest to get wrong. Too many post-MGM musicals have proven just how weighty the soufflé can become under less than inspired leadership and perfectionism. But the craftsman at MGM knew their way around the musical as a popular entertainment. In retrospect, it really is quite remarkable how many of their confections have since gone on to become timeless cultural touchstones.
Best of all: Hit the Deck features an A-list roster of MGM’s sparkling musical talent: Tony Martin as commitment-shy, Chief Boatswain's Mate William Fred Clark; Ann Miller - his long-suffering girlfriend/nightclub entertainer, Ginger; Walter Pigeon, a stolid commander, Rear Adm. Daniel Xavier Smith; winsome Jane Powell - his headstrong daughter, Susan, in love with enterprising middle-age ham, Wendell Craig (Gene Raymond), romantically pursued by swarthy Rico Ferrari (Vic Damone), her virtue guarded by noble brother, Danny Xavier Smith Jr. (Russ Tamblyn). Also in it; Debbie Reynolds as Carol Pace, the savvy star of a San Francisco review, powerhouse singer, Kay Armen as Ferrari’s gentle and melodious mother, Ottavio, contemplating a new relationship in her emeritus years with florist, Mr. Perroni (played with grand amusement by veteran, J. Carrol Naish). Bottom line: Hit the Deck had everything going for it – everything, that is, except timing.
By 1955, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had already entered the beginning of its own death throes; buffeted by a shakeup in its corporate structure that saw the ousting of founding father and Hollywood raja, Louis B. Mayer, and a progressively dwindling market share as a purveyor of the world’s most popular entertainments – thanks, in part, to the debut of television. Worse, the studio once known as ‘the Tiffany’ of Hollywood had slumped in its yearly output, employing cost-cutting measures that greatly hampered that lavish look for which MGM was justly famous. There’s no getting around the fact that by 1955, MGM had succumbed to a sort of formulaic approach to making movies; its’ top-heavy star system weighing heavily on its bottom line.
Changes of another kind were also afoot; the movie musical fast becoming a gamble to produce rather than a proven commodity. Throughout the 1940’s, MGM had been the king of musicals; the costliest genre to produce. At a time when other studios – most notably Fox – were advancing and diversifying, taking the movie musical to new heights on location outside the studio walls, MGM remained ensconced in a naïve belief all movies – not just musicals – could be made within the studio’s sprawling acreage of back lots. Indeed, Hit the Deck has that ‘artificial’ look of a typical studio-bound project; its backdrops easily identifiable to anyone who’s seen more than two movies made by MGM.
And yet, there is a quaint familiarity to this exercise, perhaps more readily appreciated today from the perspective of pure nostalgia for this sort of showmanship, wholly absent from our present day movie-making culture. Without a doubt, Hit the Deck is a class act; MGM putting on the dog and their best foot forward as, arguably, only MGM could in its heyday; a proficient, peerless example of ‘the studio system’ - all pistons firing. Viewing Hit the Deck today, one is immediately propelled by its infectious exuberance; also, reminded of the fact that this really is MGM on its way out – last gasps of the establishment unwilling to change under external pressures and praying against hope that these tried and true methods to entertain will endure. From start to finish, Hit the Deck is a showy, toe-tapping extravaganza; one of the undeniable high water marks from the 1950’s: a fantastic and up-lifting movie musical that could never – and never does – disappoint.
After a spectacular main title sequence in sunny California, sailors in marching maneuvers, we regress to an isolated military outpost in the South Pole where Fred Clark is attempting to gain favor with his Commander (Robert Burton). It seems, the Commander is about to celebrate a milestone birthday. Baking him a cake would most certainly rate a transfer from this frozen purgatory. So Clark pulls in his two best buddies; Rico Ferrari and Daniel Smith, to aid in the experiment and profit by extension of their participation. Problem: these boys don’t know the first thing about baking a cake. Following the recipe might have been a good place to start, except the concoction emerging from the oven is as rubbery as a new tire. Compensating by punching holes into this spongy dough, and filling them with vast quantities of rum, the trio proceeds full steam ahead in their flimflam; camouflaging the disaster with some creative icing and a small armada of candles. It all looks rather impressive; that is, until the Commander makes a wish; blowing out the candles and setting the entire flammable edifice ablaze.
Clark and his cohorts do get transferred – just not back home; rather, to the hellish heat of the tropics, trudging through murky, leach-infested waters. Time passes. It also heals all wounds... well, alright then - most. The trio find themselves back in their native San Francisco on a forty-eight hour furlough. Rico and Daniel agree to meet up with Clark, who promises them dates for the evening, selected by his mainstay, nightclub chanteuse, Ginger. Only Ginger isn’t particularly glad to see Clark, who’s been the most absentee boyfriend a gal could hope for; chronic in his refusal to set a date for their marriage. Ginger and Clark have been engaged so long it’s become a running gag – one Ginger hasn’t the heart to laugh at anymore. In the meantime, Daniel goes home to see his father, Rear Adm. Daniel Xavier Smith Sr., also to surprise his younger sister, Susan with a wind-up penguin. Danny still thinks of Sue as his kid sister. But this kid has grown up and filled out in all the right places. She’s off on a date with Wendell Craig; a ham actor who really only wants one thing…and it isn’t an audition!
The outlook on the home front isn’t much more promising for Rico, who discovers to his delight his widowed mum, Octavia has finally decided to reenter the dating scene. Rico’s father has been deceased for some time, and Octavia believes she has found a new love in local florist, Mr. Perroni. However, upon meeting Rico for the first time, Perroni is forced to face the fact neither he nor Octavia are spring chickens. They’re middle-aged people pursuing romance in, arguably, the prime of their respective lives. Hooking up with Daniel and Clark at the nightclub, Rico learns Ginger has no intention of getting anybody a date for the evening. Instead, she all but kicks Clark out – unless, of course, he’ll commit to her once and for all. While Clark skulks off in a huff, Daniel wanders the streets forlorn, eventually sneaking into the back of a theater where rehearsals for a new review are underway; ruining Carol Pace’s number by pretending to be one of the male dancers in her chorus. Danny takes great liberties by chasing Carol around the painted backdrops until she puts the brakes on. But Carol’s a good sport, and befriends Danny almost immediately.
We move to Wendell’s fashionable penthouse. His flirtations go virtually unnoticed by Susan who wants to sing for him in the hopes of landing a part in his show. Based on some information Susan tells Daniel about Wendell, he becomes concerned her reputation might be impugned. Together with Clark and Rico, the trio burst in on the pair; Susan insulted by their chivalry as they pummel Wendell and trash his apartment. Clark orders Rico to see Susan home. She is bitter and resentful when he takes her by the arm, the two eventually sharing reflections on their respective childhoods. For Rico, the discussion is genuine. Sue’s a very nice girl. But she is only interested in getting back to Wendell’s, and, at the very first opportunity, eludes Rico who has – of course - already become quite smitten with her.
In the meantime, Wendell files a complaint with the Navy. Clark, Rico and Daniel are now wanted men who will be placed under arrest by the Armed Forces military police and have to stand trial and a possible court martial for their assault on a civilian. Having a record will most definitely put a ding in their future careers. It will all but wreck Daniel’s dreams of attending Annapolis as his father, and grandfather before him have done. Hiding out at Octavia’s apartment puts a crimp in Mr. Perroni’s plans. Carol and Ginger arrive to comfort their men. But Rico is depressed; seemingly forgotten by Susan. A pair of shore patrol men (Alan King and Henry Slate) arrive at Octavia’s, forcing the boys to run away. Eventually, they all congregate at the theater just as Carol is about to debut before an opening night audience that also includes Daniel’s father and his second in command, Lt. Jackson (Richard Anderson). Pursued by the shore patrol on stage, Carol’s opening number is a fiasco, resulting in Daniel, Clark and Rico’s arrests. The situation seems hopeless…that is, until Jackson discovers Wendell has a wife. Bribed with this knowledge into dropping the assault charges against Daniel, Clark and Rico, Wendell bows out of the picture, leaving Susan to fall in love with Rico.
Raising his glass with a sigh of relief, and in gratitude to Jackson for his quick thinking, Daniel Sr. declares ‘Hallelujah!’ leading directly into Hit the Deck’s resplendent grand finale; superbly choreographed by Hermes Pan and featuring Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell and Ann Miller bedecked in gorgeous gold lamé gowns with sea-foam green crinolines by Helen Rose. The boys also join in, along with the Pacific Fleet; Miller’s show-stopping tap routine the centerpiece; done without musical accompaniment; a veritable army of sailors in marching time step as Miller kicks out a mesmerizing counter rhythm. In the final moments, Susan and Rico, Ginger and Clark, and, Daniel and Carol are seen locked in each other’s embrace; the GOB’s having found their gals who will undeniably make their lives a whole lot easier – or perhaps even more complex – from now on.
Hit the Deck is frothy, light-hearted and joyous – in short, the perfect entertainment, produced with peerless showmanship by a company who clearly understood how movie musicals should be made. Roy Rowland’s direction is admirably spry; filling the vast proportions of Cinemascope with beautifully composed shots, while creating genuine screen intimacy between these three warring couples. It is impossible not to like this movie, and such a tragedy audiences did not flock to see it in 1955.
In a few short years, MGM would divest itself of the star system Louis B. Mayer had worked so meticulously to corral under one creative umbrella. While the impact on some careers was marginal (Debbie Reynolds, Vic Damone, Tony Martin and Jane Powell, as example, moved on to do other things, both in the movies and on stage), for Kay Armen Hit the Deck was both the beginning and the end of her promising movie career. If only she had come to MGM’s attention a decade earlier, what a promising future she might have had at that studio; clearly a talent with so much more to offer and who, in fact, went on to have a profitable recording career on television and the stage.
Warner Home Video’s archive division has finally come around to begin releasing some of their bona fide classics to Blu-ray. Hit the Deck is definitely a worthy contender. This is yet another impressive upgrade for those who already own the DVD from 2005; a 1080p dazzler with eye-popping colors. The hi-def transfer is mostly clean and razor-sharp, revealing details previously undiscovered on home video. There is, some very slight and negligible damage visible in the print; color marks and minute scratches; perfectly forgivable – although it would have been kind of Warner to go in a digitally eradicate these. A few brief scenes also appear to suffer from marginal color fading; the ice, in the South Pole tends to adopt a yellowish tint. Fading, or just Eastman stock color issues. Hmmm. This transfer also marginally hints of the Cinemascope ‘mumps’ – minor horizontal distortions inherent in the process itself. Contrast is very impressive and the film's grain pattern is accurately reproduced.
Warner’s DTS 5.1 audio definitely improves on the old Dolby Digital DVD soundtrack; more bass and infinitely crisper by direct comparison. While dialogue is firmly frontally situated, the musical numbers explode to life with rich orchestrations and vocals filling all 5.1 channels. Warner’s Archive release offers us NO extras, except the original theatrical trailer. We’ll forgive them since the movie looks and sounds so darn good. Bottom line: love, LOVE, Hit The Deck! The Blu-ray is definitely the way to experience this timeless musical entertainment. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)