Director: George Sidney
Writer: Isobel Lennart (screenplay), Natalie Marcin (story)
Cast: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson, Dean Stockwell, Jose Iturbi
One of the most enduring memories of my childhood will always be that of my entire family gathered around the television set, watching Gene Kelly twirl little Sharon McManus around in an exquisite little dance. It’s one of those sequences that is so beautiful and subtle, and beautifully subtle, that it is simply unforgettable.
Kelly’s character, Joe Brady, has just realised a scary but important truth. His heart is conflicted, and his spirit slightly broken, and soon after he lets out an utterly defeated sigh, he finds himself face to face with a grim-faced McManus. And he does what any good sailor with a penchant for the two-step would do.
Directed by George Sidney, and written by Isobel Lennart, Anchors Aweigh tells a sweet, although not particularly complex, story of two sailors who, for their bravery at sea aboard USS cruiser Knoxville – that includes Brady saving Doolittle’s life after an explosion – have earned four days of leave on shore
He bows, extends his hand, and offers her the dance. The strains of Las Chiapanecas can be heard coming from the cafe, and Brady and the little Mexican Girl dance his/their troubles away. When I look back, and search through my memories for the exact moment at which the love for classic Hollywood set in, the answer is clear. It’s all down to this one scene from Anchors Aweigh.
Directed by George Sidney, and written by Isobel Lennart, Anchors Aweigh tells a sweet, although not particularly complex, story of two sailors who, for their bravery at sea aboard USS cruiser Knoxville – that includes Brady saving Doolittle’s life after an explosion – have earned four days of leave on shore.
They are two very different men. Joe Brady is notorious for his charming smile, good looks, and smooth way with the ladies. Clarence Doolittle, played by Frank Sinatra, is the quiet one. And the stark contrasts between their characters is quickly established early on in the movie with a scene that involves a bunch of sailors crowded around one single payphone, that, without giving away details, I’ll say you simply need to watch.
It serves to let us know that Joe’s moniker as the ‘sea wolf’ with a girl at every port is entirely justified. While Clarence is most definitely, if unfortunately, the chump – the small town boy who is nervous around women – that they refer to as ‘Brooklyn’.
When the two are let loose on the city of Los Angeles, our story begins. Although Brady believes that each of them ought to go their own separate way, Doolittle has an entirely different idea. He’s hoping that Joe will introduce him to a girl – someone he can write to, think about when he’s at sea, and come home to.
Joe has no intention of doing this, of course, until Clarence stumps by telling him that he owes him that much. After all, “What's the sense of having your life saved if you can't have any fun with it?” he asks, disarming, frank faced and blue eyed.
Of course, since Anchors Aweigh is one of those movies that only works when there’s some amount of trouble that can lead to chaos, confusion, and best laid plans being derailed, there needs to be a catalyst.
In this case, that comes in the guise of a cherubic little boy named Donald Martin, played by Dean Stockwell, who decides he wants to run away from home and join the navy. And with him, comes Aunt Suzy, played to perfection by a very graceful and stylish Kathryn Grayson.
So there you have it. One beautiful young lady. Two sailors, both nice enough chaps in their own right. And the typical trials and tribulations that come with a love triangle, further complicated, in this case, by the rather deplorable lies the sailors cook up in order to gain her trust and affection.
Now, since the plot doesn’t seem all that complicated, and the story doesn’t really promise too many twists in the tale, what makes Anchors Aweigh worth watching? To begin with, there’s the fact that it’s got so many elements that make you smile, even if it is, in its own way, simple.
Let’s face it, this is a movie that’s almost always overlooked when people begin listing popular musicals. It’s even a movie that people often miss when they think of the combination of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra together – On The Town and Take Me Out To The Ballgame are far more popular. But lists aside, this one really does have it all down pat. The singing, the dancing, the acting.
While Kelly’s Brady starts out rather scandalously, with plenty of the seafarer’s version of locker room talk, he reigns it all in in the way his character develops as his friendship with Doolittle does, as do his feelings for Suzy. Then there is his ability to dance his way into the hearts of the audience.
The sequence with McManus is given a rather close run for its money with the sequence that has Kelly dance alongside Jerry Mouse (a scene that the animators had to rework, because when they first saw the footage they realised that Kelly’s feet moved so fast that they needed to blur Jerry’s feet in order for it to match).
Then there’s Clarence Doolittle – Frank Sinatra in one of his most endearing, if slightly annoying, roles. Could someone else have played the hapless Doolittle, who has very little regard for the personal space (watch the movie closely and you’ll see what I mean) of other people? Probably.
But would they have managed to do it in as disarming a manner as old Blue Eyes? Decidedly not. And of course, that terrific singing voice of his does come in handy when he needs to croon to Tchaikovsky.
This is a movie that’s almost always overlooked when people begin listing popular musicals. It’s even a movie that people often miss when they think of the combination of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra together – On The Town and Take Me Out To The Ballgame are far more popular
And then there’s Grayson’s Aunt Suzy. It’s a character that’s done well. She works hard to raise her nephew, she sees no shame in singing to earn her keep at a local Mexican cafe (which she does ever-so-elegantly in a lovely white dress with a sunflower pattern on it) , and she’s got the gumption to go and pursue her dream of being a singer in the movies, even though she’s roughing it out as a movie extra.
Suzy is a little naive perhaps, but she’s still a strong character, who clearly knows what she wants, long before either of the men have figured out what they want, or had the gumption to confront their own feelings.
Best of all, though, is the combination of the three that makes Anchors Aweigh so special. Then there is the supporting cast. Adding a little zing to the movie is Pamela Britton, who, in her brief role as the waitress from Brooklyn, manages to be snippy and sharp. And there’s Jose Iturbi who plays himself, and does a darned good job of it, comic timing and all.
Anchors Aweigh, then, is the movie to pick when you have a leisurely two and a half hours to spare in order to enjoy the lovely song and dance of it all, and the rather pretty movie sets too. It will also help if you have a comfortable couch upon which to cuddle, plenty of popcorn on hand, and the company of likeminded people. Give it a go. You won’t be sorry.