July 15, 2008

Kelly and Sinatra: MGM's Double-Play Combo of the '40s

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Reviewer: Steve Goldstein
Rating (out of 5): **** (for all 3 films)

When MGM first paired its rising musical star Gene Kelly with the heartthrob crooner Frank Sinatra, audiences must have expected Kelly to take the dancing turns and Sinatra to take the vocal spotlights. Instead, Kelly and Sinatra took the route of Paramount's then-current hit team of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. MGM's boys would share everything-the singing, dancing, joke telling and skirt chasing. There would be a difference, though. Hope and Crosby's movies conformed, often surrealistically, to their comedic personas. Kelly and Sinatra, in the three movies collected in the DVD box set "The Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly Collection" (Warner Home Video), served the genre - in this case, the movie musical. Their three movies together chart the development of the genre, as well as Kelly's expanding creative freedom as a dancer, choreographer and, ultimately, director.

In his foreword to Clive Hirschhorn's "Gene Kelly: A Biography," Frank Sinatra wrote that his movie career up until the point that he was teamed with Kelly had not added up to much. He saw himself as merely a crooner who perhaps did not belong in movies. Kelly's dismissive attitude at the start of their partnership gave Sinatra no reason to think otherwise. But Kelly was a workhorse who drove himself and everyone around him to heights of perfection. He rehearsed with Sinatra for eight weeks before they ever danced in front of a camera for Anchors Aweigh [previous edition]. Sinatra was physically a wreck after those eight weeks, and had lost weight he couldn't afford to lose. Even at that early stage in his career, he disliked rehearsal and felt he was at his best in his spontaneous first or second takes in the recording studio. He was not in charge here, though. Kelly transformed Sinatra into a dancer; he forced a recalcitrant, pugnacious and, worse, insecure, singer to become an important gear in a beautiful machine called the Hollywood musical. Sinatra said he had never worked so hard. It's unlikely he ever worked as hard again, once his creative partnership with Kelly ended. In return, Sinatra said he learned to believe that he did, indeed, belong in movies.

As for Kelly, he was eventually given a full set of keys to the Hollywood factory as a reward for being Sinatra's teacher. But the mutual growth in creative powers for Kelly and Sinatra was not the only by-product of their association. That was secondary to the movies themselves, which stand as joyful, life-affirming end-products of sweat and talent.

Anchors Aweigh (1945, produced by Joe Pasternak, directed by George Sidney, written by Natalie Marcin and Isobel Lennart) helped take the Hollywood musical models of the 1930s, such as the backstage productions directed by Busby Berkeley and RKO's swank Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, toward the MGM musicals produced by the so-called Freed Unit that consciously interweaved story, dance and music. Some stilted musical sequences with scores of extras aligned or moving in geometric patterns slow down Anchors Aweigh and date it a bit. It's as if MGM wasn't ready yet for the full-blown ideas of Kelly and his co-conspirator in musical staging, Stanley Donen. But the combo of star-in-the-making Kelly and Sinatra, who, at the peak of his World War II-era popularity, provides most of Anchors Aweigh with a dynamism that helps push the anachronistic touches into the background.

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As befitting the war's societal leveling, Anchors Aweigh casts aside the upper-class settings of the Astaire-Rogers musicals. Kelly and Sinatra's sailors on leave in Hollywood are strictly working class, and the Hollywood that Joe Brady (Kelly) and Clarence Doolittle (Sinatra) wander through in search of female company is littered with strivers just like themselves. Susan Abbott (Kathryn Grayson), whom the sailors get entangled with when they let their essential goodness override their yearning for some action, is one audition away from rising above the ranks of faceless extras. This world belongs to the hard-working and optimistic common folk, who are about to be rewarded for their efforts with a jet blast of postwar economic fireworks. When Joe, Clarence and Susan break into song and dance, it's not ridiculous - they embody the real, magical qualities of a young country that invented Hollywood and overcame a Depression with a war effort that helped topple the Axis powers and, now, would provide much of its populace with a standard of living that we now have to work twice as hard to barely achieve.

Kelly and Sinatra don't play down their ethnicity at all, and never mind that Sinatra's character is named Clarence Doolittle - he's an Italian kid from the city. In the three musicals they starred in together for MGM, Kelly is the Crosby-esque sharpie who knows, or thinks he knows, all the angles, and Sinatra the wide-eyed innocent who may never learn the ropes. Sinatra's movie persona in the Kelly musicals, while seemingly ridiculous, has its roots in the yearning romanticism of the lush music he recorded with arranger Axel Stordahl in the 1940s. Sinatra's brash, hip and somewhat tarnished persona of the 1950s, as seen in Young at Heart, The Tender Trap, Pal Joey and Some Came Running, isn't far from the Kelly persona in the movies they made together. Ten years after Anchors Aweigh, in The Tender Trap, Sinatra is the wolf, and David Wayne is the soul of innocence.

Kelly and Sinatra's working-class hustlers retain some edginess - they are chasing women, after all. It's not a great leap from these two to Truffaut's Jules and Jim and to Scorsese's Charlie and Johnny Boy. Working for Paramount, Hope and Crosby were free to express, and even trade in, the craven competition between the best of friends, whereas the MGM contract players Kelly and Sinatra must always sacrifice themselves for the good of each other. But even here, in the first of their musicals together, dark, self-pitying self-absorption pierces the surface, and the naked emotion comes as a shock after all the bubbly bravado. When Kelly's Joe finally understands that he's in love with Kathryn Grayson's Susan - his virginal pal Clarence's object of affection - the light goes out of his eyes, and a cloud of pain crosses his face. Later on, the Navy's so-called "Sea Wolf" forces himself to brighten up and dance for a little girl, as if it's the only way to prevent himself from downing a fifth of whiskey.

Sinatra's Clarence has his one moment of jittery naturalism. Taking refuge from a movie studio cop, Clarence ducks into a sound stage and takes a nap on a band riser. In walks composer José Iturbi, playing himself. Iturbi sits at a piano, plays a few flourishes and, unhappy with the sound, begins tuning the instrument. Clarence, now awake, walks over to Iturbi, not knowing who he is, and says, "How are ya?," and then, "You, uh, tune pianos or play 'em?" his Jersey accent finally shining through. Sinatra's no rube in this scene-it must have been a relief to get away from Kelly's overbearing presence. The movie slows down here, but in a good way. Sinatra and Iturbi take their time, two musicians uninterested in story movement and forced sunniness. They talk to each other, and just hang out, instead of spitting out lines of dialogue. It's the second-best moment in the movie. Iturbi hits a troublesome key after a bit of tuning, questioningly gives Sinatra the OK, and Sinatra nods approvingly, one musician to another.

These moments stand out as much needed dramatic counterpoint to the artifice of the musical scenes. Kelly's dance with with the cartoon character Jerry the mouse may be the most celebrated and innovative musical sequence in the movie, but it's the tandem dancing of Kelly and Sinatra during the song "I Begged Her" in the soldiers' hostel that gives the movie - and the Kelly-Sinatra partnership - its whole reason for being. Everyone knew Sinatra could sing, but who knew he could - or would - dance? Kelly deemed Sinatra a terrible dancer when they met, but under Kelly's tutelage Sinatra dances with him step for step, even if he can't leap as high or as gracefully as Kelly. They jump on cot after cot and, miracle of miracles, after the final cot leap Sinatra lands on the floor in step with Kelly, and a smile creases his face. He finally got it right, after God knows how many takes.

This is the reason to see the movies they made together: Sinatra dances alongside Gene Kelly. It's a special effect on par with King Kong, the Empire State Building and the biplanes. It's pure American teamwork, laced with a double dose of sheer talent, and it's meant to represent the risks and rewards of a war effort. The dance routine is real and dangerous work (especially for Sinatra), and their joy at completing it successfully is evident (especially for Sinatra). When they reach the end of the number, just as the scene fades to black, you can just make out Sinatra's sigh of relief. He didn't have to dance, in all probability. He could have just sung the songs in the movie, and Kelly could have taken care of all the hoofing. But if that had been his attitude, he never would have made it out of Hoboken. By jumping from that last cot and landing in tandem with Gene Kelly, Sinatra proves he not just a flash-in-the-pan band singer.

And by leading a neophyte - though a musical one - through an athletic tap-dancing routine and sharing the spotlight, Kelly was now on the road to leading his greatest group efforts.

Four years later, with Kelly's star on the rise and Sinatra's on the wane, MGM produced a follow-up, Take Me Out to the Ball Game [previous edition]. Although Busby Berkeley took the directing credit, the nostalgic musical looking back to the early days of professional baseball seems more like a test run for the future directing parnership of Kelly and Donen, both of whom devised the story and staged the musical numbers (Harry Tugend and George Wells wrote the screenplay). With producer Arthur Freed's apparent blessing, Kelly and Donen dispensed with the overblown musical sequences that slowed down Anchors Aweigh, as well as with the corny patriotism. Looking ahead to An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain, Kelly and Donen, assisted by the smart, functional songs of Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Roger Edens, blend story, music and dancing, so that the musical sequences advance the narrative and deepen character.

Kelly and Sinatra, meanwhile, pretty much reprise their characters from Anchors Aweigh: Kelly is still the wolf and Sinatra the wide-eyed innocent afraid of women. Sinatra is less believable here - his life experience has left its marks. Early on, Kelly tells Sinatra, "You're getting old enough to find out," and Sinatra replies, "To tell you the truth, lately I have been thinking a lot about romance and about girls." By March 1949, when Take Me Out to the Ball Game was released, Sinatra was hardly known as a stay-at-home family man. The role is so absurd that it seems as if he's playing it self-consciously, as if he knows that line is going to get some laughs, and he's inviting them. It's a good strategy, in this case.

Sinatra was probably itching for new kinds of roles by this point, but with his recording career slowly sinking, he was lucky to team up with Kelly again. From this vantage point, it's a lucky thing for us, too. Sinatra would get his juicy, dramatic roles in the next decade, and we have his then-limited options and MGM's control over his film career to thank for the second and third pairings of Kelly and Sinatra. And by the time of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Sinatra is a more self-assured song-and-dance man. The movie kicks off with a buoyant version of the title song, as Kelly and Sinatra tap-dance and sing together as if that's all they'd been doing during the latter half of the 1940s. The sequence is not quite as physically challenging - or dangerous - as the "I Begged Her" routine in the earlier movie, but Kelly still makes Sinatra work, and Busby Berkeley (or was it Kelly and Donen?) keeps the cuts to a minimum so we can see that Sinatra is really dancing here, with a smile on his face no less.

The turn-of-the-century ballplayers Eddie O'Brien (Kelly) and Dennis Ryan (Sinatra), moonlighting as vaudeville entertainers, complete their stage routine and rush to Florida, where their team (the Wolves, naturally) are in training for opening day. O'Brien, a shortstop, wants to get out of baseball and commit himself to show business and women full time; Ryan, the second baseman, can't wait to get back to turning double plays.

Word has spread that the Wolves have a new team owner named K.C. Higgins, who turns out to be a woman, and not just any woman: Higgins, as played by the knowing and statuesque Esther Williams, is a smart bombshell who knows her baseball. O'Brien and Higgins tangle, as she tries to get him to curb his late-night tomcatting and focus on baseball, and he tries to get her, period. O'Brien also gets mixed up with a gambler (Edward Arnold) who says he wants to promote his showbiz career, but actually just wants to wear down O'Brien with evening rehearsals so he can't perform on the field. Ryan, meanwhile, is literally chased throughout the season by a female baseball fanatic (Betty Garrett).

Although Take Me Out is Kelly's picture, he uses his growing power in Hollywood to take the spotlight off himself. The democratic nature of the performances in Anchors Aweigh takes a bigger leap forward here, especially where the women are concerned. Williams and Garrett don't just add romance to the brew, they deliver comedy and depth of feeling, and present themselves as people with sexual needs of their own. And if you were wondering what inspired Woody Allen to put Scarlett Johansson in a one-piece swimsuit in Scoop, look no further than the scene of Williams swimming in this movie.

Jules Munshin, playing first baseman Nat Goldberg, adds goofiness and period-perfect Vaudevillian touches, particularly in the centerpiece musical number, "O'Brien to Ryan to Goldberg." The three characters take the notion of teamwork to self-mocking, absurd heights, but there's no getting away from the heartfelt celebration of first-rate interplay behind the real-life performance of Kelly, Sinatra and Munshin. And, Jesus, Sinatra dances an Irish jig in the routine. How can you beat that? Well, Kelly beats that later on with his deeply Irish, ambitious solo choreograpy during the tune "The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick's Day."

Historically, Take Me Out to the Ball Game may be considered just a transitional movie, pointing the way toward On the Town, but as such, it lacks all pretention and serves as a handy reminder that Hollywood once manufactured artful fun-something that's now in short supply.

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On the Town, released five months after Take Me Out, reunites Kelly, Sinatra and Munshin, who this time play sailors on leave for 24 hours in New York. Kelly, along with his creative partner Donen, has by now taken complete creative control; he gives himself slightly better than equal billing with Sinatra and takes co-directing credit with Donen. On the Town (produced by Arthur Freed, written by Comden and Green) perfects Take Me Out's blend of music, dance, character and story, only this time the music is superior. The witty lyrics are again by Comden and Green, who got help from some guy named Leonard Bernstein, and the music is by Bernstein and, in some cases, Roger Edens. On the Town begins on an operatic note, as a shipyard crane operator kicks off the movie at sunrise singing that he feels like he's not out of bed yet. Kelly, Sinatra and Munshin tear across the gangplank from their ship and sing, "New York, New York, a wonderful town, the Bronx is up and the Battery's down, the people ride in a hole in the ground, New York, New York, it's a wonderful town!" Then come shots of the three sailors in actual New York locations - revolutionary for its time - jamming in as much sightseeing as they can, looking for the dates with whom they hope to share their one night on the town.

They find those dates: Kelly finds Miss Turnstiles (Vera-Ellen), Munshin finds a man-crazed anthropology student (Ann Miller) and a still-woman-fearing Sinatra is found by a woman cab driver (Betty Garrett, back in pretty much the same role she had in Take Me Out). Kelly and Donen spread democracy even further here - the six principals all get their individual spotlights, and share it in several production numbers. "Prehistoric Man" features an explosively leggy, tap-dancing Miller, and the group number "You Can Count on Me" bursts with witty expressiveness.

Combining scenes shot on the streets of New York with those shot on MGM's soundstages doesn't add up to more realism. Rather, the location shots enhance the fantasy of New York that grips all pilgrims. On the Town's depiction of how it feels to visit New York for the first time as an adult, with money to spend and an hourglass' grains of sand setting a poignant limit, is real enough to anyone who has ever been there. It's a cinematic song of New York, and has helped shape the perceptions, mythology and even the reality of New York in the same fashion as Woody Allen's Manhattan. The three sailors arrive in New York looking for dames, and instead they meet three independent, smart, struggling New York women with jobs and career goals and desires. Men and women are both hunter and prey in On the Town, and this gives the film, and the city it celebrates, its unforced energy.


Steve Goldstein is a magazine editor and freelance writer, and the author of our Political Thrillers primer. He lives in New York City.

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Posted by cphillips at July 15, 2008 10:11 AM
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