Tuesday, May 5, 2015

ANCHORS AWEIGH: Blu-ray (MGM 1945) Warner Home Video

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, purveyors of the world’s most popular musical entertainments, attained yet another benchmark in quality with George Sidney’s Anchors Aweigh (1945); a Technicolor and tune-filled extravaganza, marking the studio debut of Frank Sinatra; also ratcheting Gene Kelly’s reputation for terpsichorean excellence en par – if stylistically unique – from his only real rival: Fred Astaire. By the mid-1940’s, Metro had acquired both dancers under its creative umbrella; a major coup that kept both men tops in taps for nearly a decade yet to follow. Anchors Aweigh is a sublime musical fantasia, exercising the mythology that was Hollywood, California and mixing the light and the heavy – musically speaking – as only its’ producer, Joseph Pasternak could.  Pasternak had been the guiding influence behind Universal’s successful cycle of Deanna Durbin musicals. His arrival at MGM was cause for some consternation, however; his fiery, though clear-eyed disposition and his ability to wield an unprecedented amount of creative control over the richest storehouse of musical talent, placing his featherweight and light-hearted confections in direct competition with Metro’s ‘royal family’: the Arthur Freed unit.
Pasternak’s lush Technicolor escapisms may have lacked Freed’s uber-sophistication, but they proved just as popular at the box office, affording Pasternak considerable clout to make more of the same. The creatures who populate an Arthur Freed musical are connoisseurs of chic good taste. By contrast, the characters who inhabit a Joe Pasternak movie are just people (better looking and more affluent than most) but ordinary in all other regards; Pasternak’s formula predicated on the introduction of a little sparkle and magic into their otherwise humdrum lives.  Hence, Gene Kelly is not the top-hatted man-about-town, but the proletariat and congenial everyman struggling for his piece of the proverbial pie. Complications inevitably arise and Kelly’s Joseph Brady, a good-natured sailor, is eventually pushed into the very awkward situation of having fallen in love with his best friend’s girl; or rather, the girl he suspects could never fall in love with him. Anchors Aweigh puts Kelly into a sailor’s suit and gives him the persona of a sea wolf; a real rapscallion who can melt hearts into a sizzling lump of butter. The Isobel Lennart screenplay adds a few roadblocks; chiefly, Joe’s friendship with fellow sailor, Clarence Doolittle (Frank Sinatra) and his clumsily cobbled together romance with Susan Abbott (Kathryn Grayson); a soprano aspiring to enter the movies under conductor, José Iturbi’s inspired leadership.
Iturbi is a fairly interesting character who figured prominently in several Metro musical from this period, usually playing himself. The Valencian born conductor, harpsichordist/pianist was frequently teamed with his sister, Ámparo. He came to prominence as a virtuoso, and later, impresario in his native Spain, barely escaping a lethal plane crash in 1936. Alas, there was turbulence in his private life (his wife died prematurely in 1928; his adult daughter, committing suicide in 1946). On screen, Iturbi remains the picture of easy-going gentlemanly grace and benevolence; often acting as the altruistic éminence grise and mentor to the likes of a Kathryn Grayson, Jane Powell or Jeanette MacDonald. MGM sought to immortalize Iturbi as a conductor on par with the likes of Leopold Stokowski. At least in their movies he achieves this sort of crisp and self-effacing notoriety; just an ordinary fellow of extraordinary musical gifts, willing to impart his technical and life wisdoms on the ingénue. Anchors Aweigh plays to Iturbi’s comedic strengths too as Joe and Clarence desperately try to convince him Susan is a world class talent, as yet, untapped but primed for his discovery.
For Frank Sinatra, Anchors Aweigh proved both memorable and problematic. He was already a recording legend whose movies made at RKO (retreads of popular Broadway shows) had created only a minor ripple in the cinema firmament. The problem in concocting a plausible screen presence for Sinatra was his scrawny physical attributes. For better or worse, Hollywood has always favored he-men over twerps and Sinatra, despite his monumental following with the bobbysoxer sect, was never considered ‘leading man’ material. At best, he could costar as the deus ex machina to the leading man’s frustrated romantic complications. MGM had a solution for this; albeit, one Sinatra would come to loathe as the years wore on. Studio raja, L.B. Mayer saw Sinatra as the Kelly-not; the anemic antithesis to Kelly’s robust physicality and overt male machismo. Indeed, Isobel Lennart’s screenplay for Anchors Aweigh plays to the obvious physical differences between Kelly and Sinatra – Sinatra’s Clarence Doolittle, enviably sucking down milkshake after milkshake in his pathetic attempt to beef up by packing on a few extra pounds; also, by exaggerating a naïve wholesomeness (at odds with Sinatra’s self-awareness in life) in contrast to Kelly’s street-savvy man of action. This made Sinatra the perfect counterbalance to Kelly’s worldly wolf; the epitomized chambermaid’s delight with a streak of cynicism running the gamut between those brawny biceps.
In reality, it was Sinatra who proved no stranger to female adoration and scandal. Believing Metro’s concocted persona might impinge on his reputation as the silken-smooth balladeer, Sinatra absolutely deplored being repeatedly cast as the proverbial mama’s boy, ill-equipped to satisfy the ladies. Nevertheless, it served his movie career – if not his ego – extremely well; the three films made with Kelly (Anchors Aweigh, Take Me Out to The Ball Game and On The Town) endure as an integral chapter in Metro’s fantasy-land musical landscape. Years later, Sinatra would fill out and eschew this dandified persona, acknowledging co-star, Kelly’s influence with graciousness and gratitude. “I was a singer who couldn’t dance. But he was a dancer who could also sing. I knew I had to catch up. He taught me to dance. He was tough and exacting, but encouraging too. Even on a good day, he wore me out. But I stuck with it and it paid off.”
In Anchors Aweigh, Kelly puts Sinatra through some pretty challenging dance routines, particularly during their spirited pas deux, 'I Begged Her' - one of the best-loved and most fondly recalled sequences featured in any Metro musical – which is saying quite a lot. Look carefully and you’ll notice Sinatra frequently glancing at Kelly’s feet or his own, nevertheless managing to keep pace and time with the master as the pair leaps about the set (actually a portion of the throne room built for 1938’s Marie Antoinette), careening off trampoline-styled cots and narrowly missing a weighty chandelier. Sinatra’s métier, his way with a lyric, is amply exercised in Anchors Aweigh as well. He’s given three of the movie’s most gorgeous ballads; ‘I Fall In Love Too Easily’, ‘What Makes The Sunset’ and ‘The Charm of You’, written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn to showcase the stylistic reasons Sinatra remains a peerless artist whose reputation endures beyond the 20th century.
The final bit of inspired casting in Anchors Aweigh remains Kathryn Grayson as its winsome soprano. In later years, Grayson’s musical abilities would be criticized: that she lacked the strength and dynamic range of her predecessor, Jeanette MacDonald, while sporting a comparable temperament to the operatic diva, infrequently making her ‘difficult’ to work with. There is little to doubt Grayson did not get on with Mario Lanza – the tenor she co-starred with twice. But the infamous clashes incurred on the set of That Midnight Kiss (1949) and The Toast of New Orleans (1950) was equaled by the size of Lanza’s ego. And Grayson, apart from a few rare occasions, where she seemed incapable of hitting an ear-piercing high ‘C’ (later dubbed in by another singer) – otherwise acquits herself rather nicely of the score to Anchors Aweigh. She coos the melodic ‘All Of A Sudden My Heart Sings’ with ample warmth (something even Jeanette MacDonald could never do), raises the roof on the sultry ‘Jealousy’ and is magnificent in the film within this film’s screen test sequence, ‘Waltz from Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48’, trilling Tchaikovsky with revised lyrics by Earl K. Brent.
In retrospect, the 1940’s were MGM’s last hurrah for this sort of unstoppably glossy and gargantuan ‘feel good’ entertainment; the studio’s annual output of 52 movies (to say nothing of the hundreds of short subjects, newsreels and cartoons being produced in tandem) meant Metro operated as an entity unto itself: ‘Culver City’ – complete with its own film-processing laboratories, music publishing apparatus, school house, hospital and police/fire departments. Throughout the 1930’s, MGM had steadily acquired a reputation for class; its artisans, both in front of and behind the camera, amongst the highest paid in the industry. L.B. Mayer could indeed take pride in the knowledge his ‘dream factory’ seemed unbeatable. But by the end of the decade, this supremacy would be challenged by the changing times and tastes and Mayer’s inability to plan ahead with any degree of certainty.
However, 1945 was a banner year for MGM– one of many leading up to Anchors Aweigh; the first movie musical since The Great Ziegfeld (1936) to be Oscar-nominated for Best Picture. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why. Anchors Aweigh is an artful blend of the light and the fantastic, its implausible plot (two gobs on a lark in the fancifully recreated movie-making metropolis, with a backstage pass to the most celebrated studio of them all) populated by immaculately quaffed occupiers of high-style, who merely consider themselves normal folk, achieving their impossible dreams during a twenty-four hour shore leave and destined to live happily-ever-after. Such escapist nonsense was par for the course back then. And yet, among this lot of like-minded fare, Anchors Aweigh remains an extraordinary achievement.
Made at the tail end of the European conflict, like so many movies begun with blindsided optimism and more than a modicum of patriotic flag-waving pitched in for good measure - Anchors Aweigh symbolized, at least for studio chieftain, L.B. Mayer, a return to those heady days of stylish film-making unimpeded by wartime rationing. Only in retrospect does Anchors Aweigh foreshadow the beginning of the end to those halcyon days; the klieg lights already begun to dim as America’s socio-political climate entered a new and prosperous – though decidedly, less optimistic – era, buffeted by audiences’ expectations for more realism in their movies; also, the burgeoning technologies of widescreen and television, the Cold War, and finally, the very real new threat of nuclear annihilation. Of course, this tidal wave of change was still a few short years off. Interestingly, Anchors Aweigh avoids any references to wartime valor. There’s a brief mention of Joseph’s gallantry on a cruiser in the Pacific, saving Doolittle’s life; the pair awarded medals by their superior, Admiral Hammond (Henry O’Neill). But otherwise, the plot is more centrally focused on the harmless mayhem these ‘good-time Charlies’ might get involved in while on shore leave.
Joe Brady (Gene Kelly) and Clarence Doolittle (Frank Sinatra) are given a 24hr furlough along with the rest of their company; bound for the glamorous sights and amorous heights awaiting them in Hollywood. Joe is hoping to be reunited with an old flame – Lola (never seen); repeatedly denied her company, owing to a promise earlier made; to teach Clarence about women and help him land the date of his choosing. Joe attempts to explain the fundamentals of skirt-chasing to Clarence; a hopeless case. However, before either sailor can achieve his purpose, the pair is taken into custody by a police sergeant (Rags Ragland). It seems the sergeant has picked up a stray; eleven year old, Donald Martin (a positively adorable and cherub-esque Dean Stockwell). Donald wants to join the navy to follow in the footsteps of his late father.  Since the child knows his own power and absolutely refuses to divulge either his name or place of residence to either the sergeant or his Captain (Edgar Kennedy), both men have deduced the way to this boy’s heart is through his affinity for the fighting men of the sea.
Clarence takes an immediate shine to the boy, who favors Joe. In short order, Joe convinces Donald to give up his identity, striking a pact to have him return to his Aunt Suzie’s and go to school because – as Joe points out – even the navy doesn’t enlist dopes. Forced to take Donald home, Joe is frankly appalled when Aunt Suzie isn’t there to meet them.  What could an old woman be doing out this late at night? Alas, ‘Aunt Suzie’ is Susan Abbott (Kathryn Grayson); a handsome young starlet doing ‘extra’ work in the movies to pay the bills and manage the household after the death of Donald’s parents. Arriving home – and quite unaware Donald has been out – Susan is read the riot act by Joe. But it’s too late. Clarence has taken an immediate liking to Susan. Now, it’s up to Joe to work his masculine prowess on the girl; a sort of John Alden/Pricillia Mullin’s knockoff of a plot.
But Joe refuses to help Clarence out – at least, at first. Returning to a hotel open to military personnel, Joe and Clarence are confronted by their naval brethren; Joe – intent on keeping up appearances – lies his way through their night’s encounter by suggesting they have spent the whole time with a couple of dates of easy virtue. Clarence plays along with Joe’s ruse, but later resets his alarm clock so Joe oversleeps, thereby missing yet another prearranged date with Lola. Instead, Clarence has Joe help him get closer to Suzie; the two inadvertently wrecking her date with Bertram Kraler (Grady Sutton); a stuffed shirt who, nevertheless, might have been able to introduce Susan to Jose Iturbi, thus affording her the opportunity of a lifetime to audition for him.
At first, bitter over the loss of this social connection, Susan begins to perk up after Joe fabricates a friendship between Clarence and Iturbi. It isn’t a total lie. After all, Clarence does come from a musical background: choir master at his local church! Clarence holds Joe accountable for embroiling him in this colossal fib. To show her appreciation, however, Susan takes Joe and Clarence out to the restaurant in the Mexican village where she frequently performs for free meals. There, Clarence meets ‘Brooklyn’ (Pamela Britton); a waitress more his speed and from the old neighborhood. Brooklyn likes Clarence a lot. But Clarence, out of a sense of obligation, now finds he must pursue Susan under the pretext he still harbors a romantic interest in her. In the meantime, Susan has already begun to have feelings for Joe and vice versa.
The next day, Joe agrees to go to Donald’s day school; regaling the children in his class with a fanciful tale of his daring heroisms at sea. In the meantime, Clarence makes several half-hearted attempts to sneak into MGM and meet Iturbi. He is denied access by the studio’s security guard. Joe finagles a day pass to get them on the back lot. Nevertheless, the guard mistakes Clarence for an autograph hound and makes chase. Clarence eventually ducks into a darkened soundstage, inadvertently meeting Iturbi, whom he does not recognize and therefore never asks for an audition for Susan.  In the meantime, Joe runs into Susan coming from another soundstage. He attempts to cover up his true feelings, making another romantic pitch on Clarence’s behalf. Susan is unimpressed. Set against the painted backdrop of a Spanish hacienda, Joe allows his deeper emotions to express themselves in a dream sequence: Susan, recast as the daughter of a wealthy Don and Joe, the Zorro-esque bandit who wins her flaming heart.
The sequence dissolves into a passionate kiss in the present; a single red rose falling to the floor and meant to symbolize their burgeoning love, carried over from the realm of movie-land make-believe into the ‘real’ world (itself an utter fabrication). Interestingly, Kelly would later copy this visual device almost verbatim for his penultimate pas deux with Leslie Caron in An American in Paris (1951), picking up the fallen rose at the end of the ballet. Learning of Iturbi’s scheduled rehearsal for a live performance later that same evening, Joe and Clarence decide to crash The Hollywood Bowl to plead their case. Alas, they arrive too late after Iturbi has already left for the studio. For the first time, Joe feels like a heel. How will he ever tell Susan all her hopes for stardom have been affixed to a lie – especially when he is desperately in love with her?  Denying himself reentry into the Mexican café where Susan is entertaining Clarence, Joe instead engages a little beggar girl (Sharon McManus) in a spirited rendition of The Mexican Hat Dance. Anchors Aweigh is filled with such diversions, in no way pertinent to the central plot, though nevertheless augmenting the movie’s charm. This vignette with McManus is among the most tender and exuberant.
The next day, in anticipation of her ‘audition’, Susan accidentally bumps into Iturbi inside Metro’s commissary, making eyes at him before realizing he knows nothing about her. Iturbi is benevolent and understanding; encouraging Susan not to forsake her obvious love for this sailor, who also clearly has gone to a great lengths to engage her affections. In response to her heartfelt tears, Iturbi arranges for the audition himself, assembling the MGM orchestra and several of the studio’s top brass to hear her sing. The audition is a smashing success and Susan is signed to a contract. A short while later, Iturbi invites himself to a farewell performance for Admiral Hammond and the fleet who are preparing to leave port. Joe and Clarence are ordered backstage where Iturbi reunites them with Susan and Brooklyn – the gals having forgiven these GOB’s their shortcomings. As Iturbi strikes up a spirited rendition of ‘Anchors Aweigh’; Susan and Joe, and, Brooklyn and Clarence embrace. All’s well that ends well.  
Anchors Aweigh is a George Pasternak production. Yet, despite the Hungarian producer’s fastidious ability to wed high culture to pop art, it was the inspired notion of the film’s choreographic team – Gene Kelly and his collaborator, Stanley Donen – that would yield the movie’s most iconic moment. In the middle of the night it occurred to Donen Gene Kelly might perform a spirited dance with Mickey Mouse. During the silent era, Walt Disney had, in fact, ironed out the kinks in combining live action with animation. Then, in 1934, Disney agreed to contribute an animated short inserted into MGM’s cornucopia of craziness; Hollywood Party. Evidently, this collaboration was not a happy one; the mood between Walt and L.B. Mayer souring with Walt becoming more proprietary about offering the services of his most popular creation to turn a profit for another studio. Hence, when Donen and Kelly approached Disney with their concept, to have Mickey and Gene sharing the screen, Walt summarily terminated their enthusiasm, adding “Mickey Mouse will never appear in an MGM picture.”
Undaunted, Donen approached MGM’s resident animators, William Hanna and Joseph Barbara – responsible for the highly successful Tom and Jerry short subjects.  In the days before computer compositing made it virtually old hat and effortless to photograph the interplay between cartoon and man, Anchors Aweigh’s six and a half minute cartoon sequence, with Kelly and Jerry mouse performing ‘The Worry Song’ took nearly four months to plot out and complete. It also brought audiences to their feet; Jerry, up-sized to the height of a two year old child, being bounced from Kelly’s biceps, effortlessly riding his ankle like a maypole in a perilous spin and sliding down Kelly’s bell-bottomed pant leg to perform a Russian Cossack dance proved a seamless blending of these two irreconcilable worlds.
Anchors Aweigh was a lucrative stepping stone for Gene Kelly and co-star, Kathryn Grayson’s movie careers. The two had appeared together in MGM’s mind-boggling all-star revue, Thousands Cheer (1943). In Anchors Aweigh, Grayson is the embodiment of fresh-faced glamour; her glycerin features adoringly photographed by Charles P. Boyle and Robert H. Planck. Meanwhile, Kelly, a demanding perfectionist, was already well on his way to becoming an all-around entertainer with aspirations for the director’s chair. But frequently, he incurred L.B. Mayer’s wrath by doing his own stunt work. In time, Kelly’s ego would alienate his professional relationship with collaborator, Stanley Donen. But it was Kelly who brought Donen back to Metro after his tenure as a contract dancer there had expired, and only after Donen’s contributions on Kelly’s loan out movie musical, Columbia’s Cover Girl (1944) proved invaluable. At Metro, Donen and Kelly would continue their collaboration until a rift caused Donen to go his own way; a blessing in hindsight, since Donen went on to helm some of the most beloved musicals, dramas and comedies of the late 1950’s and early 60’s including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Charade (1963) and Two For the Road (1967).
Aside from being a formidable contributor to Metro’s overall year-end profits, Anchors Aweigh was also a 5-time Academy Award nominee, with nods for Best Picture and Best Actor (Gene Kelly). Ultimately, composer, Georgie Stoll took home the only statuette; a ‘minor’ award for Best Original Score. In retrospect, Anchors Aweigh is a textbook example of MGM’s technical proficiency at its zenith, its workman-like precision yielding a profusion of hit parade memories. The movie also provides glimpses into Metro’s back lot magic. Keen eyes will spot MGM’s little school house where so many child stars – from Elizabeth Taylor to Judy Garland were educated. We also get Cook’s Tours of sound stages six and eight, inserts of the administrative Thalberg Building (nicknamed ‘the iron lung’) and a glimpse of the dramatic outdoor staircase built for 1944’s non-musical, Kismet; later redressed as the Champs-Elysées for An American in Paris (1951).  In one of the studio’s rare exceptions, Mayer allowed Pasternak and director, George Sidney to stage a pivotal sequence for Anchors Aweigh, Iturbi’s lavishly staged piano rendition of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, at the actual Hollywood Bowl; the famed outdoor concert venue.
The world inside an MGM musical is immaculately groomed and manufactured to perfection.  Anchors Aweigh feeds off this escapist paradise. It is a film of immense treasures. Pasternak throws everything that is good - and even mediocre - at the screen, mixing pop tunes with classical arias, and 'dream' and 'cartoon' sequences.  Highlights include Kelly and Sinatra’s spectacular competition dance – ‘I Begged Her’, Grayson’s sublime ballad, ‘My Heart Sings’; Kelly’s daydream dance sequence with Jerry the Mouse - ‘The Worry Song’; a stunning fandango, performed by Kelly in yet another dream sequence, and the Mexican Hat Dance with Sharon McManus. Add to this, a trio of melodic Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn ballads, spectacularly realized by Sinatra, including the Oscar-nominated, ‘I Fall In Love Too Easily’  and Anchors Aweigh easily struts away as the best musical of 1945; perhaps, one of the best movie musicals of all time. Today, it continues to hold up spectacularly well; definitive proof that when it came to making musicals, MGM were the undisputed champions.
Warner Home Video has gone back to the drawing board for a brand new 1080p image harvest on this much beloved catalog title. The results are mostly pleasing. My one caveat would be the image seems just a tad too dark. Otherwise, all of the shortcomings inherent in their old DVD release have been eradicated for this Blu-ray. Gone is the egregious edge enhancement and mis-aligned Technicolor. The image is razor-sharp, crisp and virtually free of all age-related artifacts. Wow!...and thank you! Flesh can seem a bit orangey, although to me it seems more a shortcoming of vintage Technicolor and not this remastering effort. Good solid contrast and refined details are consistently rendered throughout. Technicolor was a grain concealing process, but there’s a considerable amount of grain during Kelly’s dance duet with Jerry the Mouse, presumably from all the in-camera multiple exposures necessary to get the footage perfectly aligned. I detected a queer bit of inconsistency in the green drapes in this sequence; a weird effect mimicking dot crawl that I am unable to quantify any more clearly. The color of Jerry the Mouse is also inconsistently rendered. He appears brown/beige in close-up, but almost albino white and gray in long shot.
The audio is mono – as originally recorded – but oh, does it sound miraculous in DTS – easily a head and shoulders improvement over the old DVD audio. Extras are all holdovers from Warner’s old DVD and include a very brief excerpt from MGM: When the Lion Roars, featuring animator’s Joseph Hanna and William Barbara waxing about how Gene and Jerry danced together, plus shorts and a trailer. Bottom line: another vintage winner from WB. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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