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On behalf of your commanding officer I'm sure I can tell Mr. Jose Iturbi that the officers and crew of ship are grateful to him for coming here, to lead our naval bands in this ceremony.
Along with every other civilian, it is I who am grateful to you, and to all the men in the United States navy.
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MGM was intent on making the most of its hot new properties Kelly and Sinatra in this affable sailor saga. The stars' characters were created with maximum screen impact in mind, and were to be retained (with minor adjustments) in "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" and "On The Town". Gene Kelly plays Joe "Sea Wolf" Brady, the twinkle-eyed Irish womaniser who never quite seems to get a woman. Clarence "Brooklyn" Doolittle, Sinatra's screen persona, was put together as a blatant attempt to pander to his bobbysoxer following. He is the bashful, slightly geeky ingenu, pushing his cuteness for all it's worth - "the romantical type fella".
"Anchors Aweigh" set the pattern for a whole assembly line of MGM musicals to come, and one could almost say it established an art-form. Kelly did the choreography, and his first-ever 'dream ballets', two of them, are on display here - the famous pas de deux with Jerry The Mouse, and the Zorro interlude. The dance sequences are brimming with innovative ideas - mixing human action with animation, artistic use of slow motion, 'playing' the items on the craft stall and bouncing on the beds in the servicemen's hostel.
MGM itself appears, almost as a character in the movie, with self-indulgent shots of the art deco facade and the bustle of the back lot. Jose Iturbi, the Spanish musical director contracted to MGM at the time, plays himself in a slightly odd role. He is the big noise at the studio whom Aunt Susie is anxious to impress, and in a bid to give the meandering storyline some cohesion, he opens the film conducting the Navy band (this strange set-up is 'explained' in a later throwaway line: he was brought in to tighten-up the Navy's musical style). There are two problems with giving Iturbi an important role in the movie - one, nobody has ever heard of Jose Iturbi, and two, his Valencian accent is so strong that it renders him virtually unintelligible. But anyhow, Iturbi conducts the said Navy band, and then an orchestra on the MGM sound stage, playing a "Rhapsody In Blue" rip-off. He presides over Aunt Susie's auditon, and plays some classical stuff at the keyboard (including an interesting "Hungarian Rhapsody" at the Hollywood Bowl, with massed pianos).
The plot (if that is not too choate a term for it) goes thus: an aircraft carrier puts in at San Diego, and two sailors are given shore leave. They encounter a little boy who leads them to his pretty Aunt Susie, a taco joint chanteuse who dreams of the big time. Without giving the game away, I can reveal that more than one person falls in love Susie, leading to the customary complications and misunderstandings. The energy and exuberance of the performances, and particularly that of Kelly, carry the madcap action along nicely, and the eccentricities of a storyline which goes from mariachi groups to Tom And Jerry don't seem so very outlandish after all. This new brand of musical comedy, breaking completely with the pre-war conventions of tuxedos and ocean liners, is attractive and refreshing.
Young Mister Sinatra, under a separate contract from the others, sings numbers specially written for him by Jules Styne and Sammy Cahn. By far the best of these formulaic boy-crooner ballads is the final one, "I Fall In Love Too Easily". Throughout the film, Frank sings in his upper register, aiming for a light ballad sound, and consequently not doing any justice to that reedy baritone voice.
The film has attractive visual gimmicks, quite apart from the man-and-cartoon-mouse stuff. Iturbi plays a transparent keyboard, shot from below. In a clever comment on the storyline, Joe rises from the table and physically comes between Clarence and Susie. The string section of the orchestra is filmed playing pizzicato in the reflection of Iturbi's grand piano.
Katherine Grayson is more than adequate playing the female ingenue, and her voice is spectacular, if a little too showy and operatic. The screen test is a knockout coloratura performance.
The film falls away a little towards the end. The Hollywood Bowl is incorporated, one feels, merely to give the movie a photogenic location to use, and this passage distorts the storyline somewhat. The fallings in and out of love are totally arbitrary, and the resolutions hurried and thin. But for all that, "Anchors Aweigh" is fun to watch, and its stylistic innovations paved the way for the great MGM musicals of the next ten years.
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