ON THE TOWN (1949)
**/**** Image C Sound B-
starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller
screenplay by Adolph Green and Betty Comden, based on the play
directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME (1949)
**/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras C
starring Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams, Gene Kelly, Betty Garrett
screenplay by Harry Tugeno and George Wells
directed by Busby Berkeley
ANCHORS AWEIGH (1945)
**/**** Image C+ Sound B- Extras D
starring Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson, Gene Kelly, Dean Stockwell
screenplay by Isobel Lennart
directed by George Sidney
by Alex Jackson One of the cinema's most startling moments in recent years was a close-up of Paul Dano early on in There Will Be Blood. Dano was never meant to get that friendly with the camera. I'm not sure I can properly convey this notion, but his close-up created a dissonant effect. It felt as though director Paul Thomas Anderson had broken some unstated rule of filmmaking. I think the reason it's so jarring is that the Close-Up wasn't designed for actors like Paul Dano. It was designed for somebody like his co-star, Daniel Day-Lewis. To put it as delicately as possible, Dano wasn't blessed with a "movie star" face. He's a bit strange-looking. In contrast, Daniel Day-Lewis is traditionally handsome and truly "belongs" on the silver screen. In and of himself, he's as cinematic as anything you're ever going to find in the movies.
I don't mean that to be a dig against Dano, however. The thing is, he's a totally different breed of actor from Daniel Day-Lewis. Comparing the two, trying to decide who is "better," is really comparing apples and oranges. Dano is naturalistic and believable and doesn't seem to be doing any real work. He is simply "existing." Day-Lewis is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. He's working his ass off and we're always aware of it. Every facet of his performance feels laboured and affected, removing a great deal of "humanity" and leaving behind pure effect. He's as artificial as, say, the Jonny Greenwood score that underlines the perfectly aesthetic imagery. These two separate approaches work marvellously in service to the characters and the thematic substance of the film: There Will Be Blood is about how defining ourselves through wealth or through some externalized omnipotent god lead to the same dead end. Using Day-Lewis as an avatar for the former and Dano as an avatar for the latter brilliantly illustrates each set of values while simultaneously confusing our allegiances.
This was on my mind while watching the films that make up Warner's new DVD bundle "The Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly Collection". Gene Kelly is a "movie star" and Frank Sinatra ain't. Quite the unlikely candidate for heartthrob status, Sinatra is this scrawny, homely kid with too much chin and ears that stick out. Perfectly at home in a dramatic role, he's totally out of place coupled with the muscular, rubber-faced comedian Kelly. You believe it when Gene Kelly dances with Jerry Mouse in that famous sequence from Anchors Aweigh--after all, they're both cartoon characters. But it's absolutely sadistic to put Sinatra in this material. Because he brings an understated vulnerability to his roles, within the limited context of an MGM musical he comes off as amateurish and dreadfully untalented. Gene Kelly mops the floor with him.
In pairing the two performers, MGM developed a formula whereby Sinatra is perpetually under-sexualized, naïve, and juvenile and Kelly is a suave ladies man who takes the kid under his wing. Rather than solve the problem, this merely underscores it and creates a host of new problems. Apparently, nobody had the good sense to recognize that Kelly and Sinatra represented distinct worlds and should be cast as antagonists (as they apparently were offscreen). A Kelly/Sinatra musical where the two fight over a girl and Kelly is the clear-cut villain really could have popped. Similarly, one where Sinatra is the clear-cut villain could have worked pretty well, too. But they were never meant to be on the same team.
This core miscasting is perhaps least an issue in 1949's On The Town. Sinatra and Kelly, along with Jules Munshin, are naval sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York. Sinatra wants to see the sights but Kelly and Munshin just want to find some girls. The gag in the film is that in this post-World War II Kinsey era, the women are as horny as the men and able to show it. While the men spent months at sea without any women, the women spent months on land without any men! The acquisition of traditionally male-dominated blue-collar professions by women during the War has masculinized them and rendered them as sexually aggressive as their male counterparts. So the power differential between men and women is now dissolving as both sexes agree on the same thing: it's been way too long since either of us got laid.
Sharing the parentage of Sinatra's realism and Kelly's artifice, On the Town has all the drawbacks of a classic MGM musical and few of the benefits. It took me a while before I realized I wasn't having much fun. Co-directors Kelly and Stanley Donen insisted on shooting on location in New York, which apparently means that they're choosing "authenticity" over idealized fantasy. And yet, it seems like the film could've taken place almost anywhere. The New York of On the Town is scrubbed clean of grit and ethnicity; it lacks a discernible New York identity. It's set in New York and was filmed there, but we don't see much of the city because the characters aren't there to go sightseeing, they're there to get laid. The film feels almost intentionally anti-climactic, punishing us for expecting it to have anything to do with Manhattan.
The key scene of the picture has Sinatra being driven around town by cab driver Betty Garrett. In this kinda-sorta musical number, he keeps on mentioning the New York sights he wants to see and she keeps rebutting that they're closed down so why not just go back to her place? He presses the issue and she grows more and more frustrated. When they finally get back to her apartment they start making out, suggesting that he was into her the whole time and going through the process of courtship, because he's used to having to seduce women and is a little frightened by the idea that they would simply throw themselves at him. The movie musical is typically about seduction and On the Town argues that, in this day and age, seduction is obsolete, thus the values of the movie musical are no longer applicable.
For the truly desperate, I suppose On the Town could pass as a proto-feminist text. Speaking for myself, I found the film's cynicism towards romance and reduction of love to libido rather off-putting. On The Town has too much frankness and not enough poetry. Since I absolutely loved Herbert Ross's subversive 1981 film Pennies From Heaven, I'm thinking the problem isn't so much that On the Town is an anti-musical but that it doesn't even have enough reverence for musical conventions to treat them ironically. It strikes me as a movie for people who don't like movies.
Set in the fanciful world of early-20th century baseball, Take Me Out to the Ball Game is livelier than the same year's On the Town and arguably more fun, but it also has a nasty misogynistic streak. It's regressive and callow as opposed to progressive and fatalistic, and that turns out to be a pretty fair trade-off. While both films are surprisingly ugly experiences, Take Me Out to the Ball Game is a more comprehensible kind of ugly. It's a greasy, salty, crass spectacle with the aftertaste of a dirty joke. Kelly and Sinatra are equally terrible in the film and it's maybe the purest example of why their collaboration was doomed to fail. Sinatra fades into the background and is completely forgettable. Picking up the slack, Kelly severely overacts and mugs up the place something awful. They don't share the film at all; this is Gene Kelly's movie and he infuses it with a volatile vulgarity.
This time Kelly and Sinatra are baseball players working as vaudevillians during the off-season. The film starts as they return home for practice only to learn that their team is now under the ownership of K.C. Higgins, who wants to take a hands-on approach to management. The boys become more distressed upon learning that K.C. Higgins is actually a woman (Esther Williams)! Weakling Sinatra, who doesn't know how to talk to girls, falls in love with her, but it's not long before Kelly steps in to seduce her instead. More sexually experienced and aggressive than his friend, Kelly appears to have considerably more ignoble motives. He's attracted to K.C., of course, but he also wants to domesticate her. It's clear that he believes if he makes her his lover she won't have as much power over the team. Despite being hip to what Kelly is doing, Williams falls in love with him, at which point we're effectively entering Neil LaBute territory.
There's more, though. Some gangsters want to fix the games and need to take Kelly out of the equation. Rather than pay him off outright they offer him a headlining position for their new stage production that Kelly accepts. Once nightly rehearsals begin, he realizes he doesn't have anything left to play baseball during the day. At a crossroads, he must finally choose: is he a vaudevillian or a baseball player? The situation is somewhat confused by the presence of the Williams character, but when Kelly chooses baseball, it's seemingly substantially informed by a sort of "bros before hos" mentality.
One of the things that makes the stage production so attractive to Kelly is that he'll get to work with a large bevy of chorus girls. After the film's opening stage number, he kisses his latest girlfriend goodbye and takes off for the baseball season, presumably never to see her again. The first number on the baseball field features Kelly and Sinatra singing about all the girls they knew on their travels and how one committed suicide when they left and another turned out to be only eleven years old. (Ho ho!) In contrast, much is made of how baseball players have a strict curfew so they can preserve their strength for the game. The message is clear: vaudevillians get a lot more ass than baseball players.
Baseball is idealized in the film as a "higher calling"--Kelly choosing it means working for the collective good. If you ask me, baseball is also viewed as a healthier way to redirect his latent homoerotic feelings for the Sinatra character. I'm basing this fairly exclusively on a bizarre scene where he tries to seduce Williams by describing one of Sinatra's dreams. He says that Sinatra kept saying "slide, Katherine, slide" in his sleep and was obviously dreaming about her because when he woke up he kissed him like this. And then he kisses her like his best friend allegedly kissed him! Instead of completely and repeatedly denying his feelings for Sinatra by bedding as many women as possible, Kelly can maintain an intimate if likely unconsummated relationship with him by dedicating his life to baseball. I can believe that he chooses baseball for Sinatra; I can't believe that he chooses it for Williams--she's mainly there to obscure the true nature of his relationship with Sinatra. Still, although you can explain away the picture's misogyny as a function of homophobia, it doesn't change the fact that the women here are reduced to a mere means for men to work out their sexual issues.
By about forty minutes into 1945's Anchors Aweigh, I realized that it wasn't going to be any good, either, and frustration began to set in. All three films try something different and none of them work. After a while, you're at a loss as to what you truly want. On the Town and Take Me Out to the Ball Game define the gender politics of the era in contradictory but mutually unattractive ways; Anchors Aweigh is something else entirely. It has a plot that exists primarily to tell a story as opposed to providing a pretext for the musical numbers. More importantly, it has characters who are developed enough to be thought of as human beings. The movie "works," I guess, in that you're able to assume that you're watching an actual conflict between actual people and accept it as an actual narrative film. You can take it at face value--which ultimately means that it's bereft of anything resembling subtext or sociological interest.
I can see how an inexperienced critic could mistake Anchors Aweigh for the best film in this box set, but goddamnit, there comes a point when you realize that turning in your homework and getting all the answers right can be just as bad as slacking off. The film is a success by rigidly following the rules and doing absolutely nothing to challenge, anger, or surprise the viewer. I mentioned a while ago that bad movies are usually bad for one of two reasons: they're obnoxious or they're boring. Well, here's your textbook illustration--On the Town and Take Me Out to the Ball Game are obnoxious and Anchors Aweigh is boring. I'm not quite sure which is worse, the bad taste or the no taste, but I can conclusively tell you that the ones that taste bad are more fun to discuss afterwards.
Anchors Aweigh tells more or less the same tale that On the Town and Take Me Out to the Ball Game do. Kelly and Sinatra play sailors on leave in Hollywood, California. Kelly has a girlfriend he's trying to see while Sinatra is tagging along, hoping to use Kelly as a wingman. They get roped into helping out a little boy (Dean Stockwell!) who has run away to join the Navy, bringing them in touch with the boy's hot aunt and legal guardian Susan (Kathryn Grayson). She's an aspiring singer who makes her living as a movie extra. Sinatra likes her and seeks Kelly's assistance in courting her. To keep her interested, Kelly tells her that Sinatra is friends with famed pianist/composer Jose Iturbi and has secured her an audition. As the boys try to locate Iturbi and turn the lie into reality, Aunt Susan catches herself falling for Kelly--with poor Sinatra sitting on the sidelines.
The movie is nearly two-and-a-half hours long, and though this is pretty excruciating for the content, it does give the actors room to settle into their roles. Sinatra is able to turn in a decent performance. If the character doesn't radically differ from those he played in On the Town and Take Me Out to the Ball Game, all this extra time enables him to develop a bit of depth. Kelly, too, comes across as a bit more relaxed. He's fun to watch and never crosses the line into excess the way he did in Take Me Out to the Ball Game. I also like the titular tune "Anchors Aweigh" more than anything in the other two films--it particularly lends itself to being sung badly, as shown by little Dean Stockwell early on.
But the filmmakers work hard to drain the material of bite. For one thing, Sinatra gets another love interest (a waitress who migrated to Hollywood from his home neighbourhood of Brooklyn), artificially neutralizing the profound discomfort of the central triangle. There is also this business of them securing an audition with Iturbi: they're never held accountable for their deception; everything unrealistically works out in the end. On the other side of that, Aunt Susan looks pretty slimy for letting herself be seduced by the promise of an audition. The boys scare off one of her dates by portraying her as sexually promiscuous (so OK, there's some more unsympathetic behaviour on their part), and then when she realizes what happened she cries that this date would have given her a leg up in the music industry. Evidently Aunt Susan thinks nothing of selling herself if it means furthering her career, and yet she isn't made to take any accountability for this, either. Again, everything unrealistically works out in the end and she gets exactly what she wants. Nobody wants to entertain the notion that these are horrible, horrible people.
Let's talk about that dance sequence with Jerry Mouse, of "Tom and Jerry" fame. For one thing, it has nothing to do with the narrative and can safely be seen out of context. (Indeed, that's probably preferable.) Get this, it's part of a fantasy! It's an illustration of an inane fairytale Kelly tells Stockwell. I don't like playing the rewrite game, but, I mean, didn't anyone think of Kelly meeting Jerry on the MGM lot? You know, playing off the idea that cartoon characters are actors performing in cartoons, à la Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Did they have so little faith in the wit, imagination, and sophistication of the audience that the only way to have the two dancing together is in a fucking dream sequence? We can't have Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse, it has to be a "fairytale" version of Gene Kelly. That's the only way they can share the same plane of existence. I was about to say that we're already accepting of Anchors Aweigh as inherently artificial--as it is, in fact, a musical--but most of the singing and dancing is diegetically justified. Characters perform in nightclubs, restaurants, stage productions, and the like with the conscious purpose of entertaining others. It's not one of those movie musicals where people burst into song and we accept it because that's the genre. The filmmakers are terrified to ask the audience to suspend their disbelief to that extent, rendering the film as square as robot shit.
"The Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly Collection" repackages the previous DVD editions of all three films in lieu of striking fresh transfers. This was an especially big mistake in the case of On the Town, whose full-frame presentation looks distressingly dupey and dingy. The accompanying DD 1.0 mono audio is free of distortion but thoroughly underwhelming. Sporting cleaner, richer colours, the fullscreen Take Me Out to the Ball Game fares a good deal better and is in fact the best of the bunch in spite of frequent pinhole artifacts. Its DD 1.0 track could use more punch, but relatively speaking, it suffices. Back to murk in Anchors Aweigh, though there's still more evidence of life here than in On the Town. Anchors Aweigh's centre-channel soundtrack is serviceable if slightly muddled and faded by age.
As for extras, Take Me Out to the Ball Game contains two deleted musical numbers, "Baby Doll" with Kelly and Williams and "Boys and Girls Like You and Me" with Sinatra. "Boys and Girls Like You and Me" is entirely forgettable and of interest only to hardcore fans of Sinatra and/or songwriters Rodgers and Hammerstein, while "Baby Doll" serves to remind just how awful Busby Berkeley choreography could get: Featuring Williams acting like a wind-up doll, it's a particularly lucid example of Berkeley's vaguely sadomasochistic tendencies and aversion to the appearance of spontaneity. The Anchors Aweigh disc boasts a two-minute clip from the documentary series "MGM: When the Lion Roars" focusing on the Jerry Mouse/Gene Kelly dance scene. An unnamed producer says they originally wanted Mickey Mouse, but Disney would not allow the character to appear in an MGM film. Then in an interview with William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, we learn exactly how the sequence was accomplished. (The secret, I guess, was rotoscoping.) Take Me Out to the Ball Game and Anchors Aweigh each include theatrical trailers for the trio of films in this box set as well as cast and crew bios; On the Town has a trailer for itself and no other extras to speak of. Originally published: July 22, 2008.