I’ve always thought that certain movies ought to be watched at certain times of the year…and in certain weather. Horror belongs in the fall, during a storm or at least some rain. Fog and gloom are especially preferable. Film noirs can also be watched in the fall, but definitely all winter. But musicals belong in the summer. I’ll watch a musical around Christmas and New Years…but for me a musical truly is at home in the sunshine and warmth of a summer evening.
Musicals can also be watched during the day, unlike horror and noir, which is best viewed in the dark. But a musical during the day can stick with you as you go about your daily tasks.
Which is to say that I’ve been watching a lot of musicals recently. This week I watched MGM’s 1955 Hit the Deck with Jane Powell, Tony Martin, Debbie Reynolds, Ann Miller, Vic Damone, Russ Tamblyn, Gene Nelson and Walter Pidgeon. It’s a very full cast. A slight musical, but a full cast.
Three sailors – Bill Clark (Tony Martin), Rico Ferrari (Vic Damone), and Danny Smith (Russ Tamblyn) – are trying to get a transfer from the Arctic to someplace like Hawaii by baking a cake for the Admiral’s birthday. Their baking skills are less than impressive, however, and they are transferred to a swamp. Eventually, they do get a 48 hour leave in New York.
Bill visits his girlfriend of six years, nightclub performer Ginger (Ann Miller), who is tired of waiting for Bill to propose and dumps him. Rico and Danny – as in all sailor musicals – are also looking for a date. Danny is the son of Admiral Smith (Walter Pidgeon), but he likes to keep it quiet because he doesn’t want preferential treatment. He has a somewhat distant relationship with his busy father, as does Danny’s sister, Susan (Jane Powell), who is looking to bust out of her proper and circumspect lifestyle as the admiral’s daughter by going out with actor Wendell Craig (Gene Raymond), a smarmy performer currently starring in a musical who offers to give Susan an “audition” at his apartment.
When Danny learns about Susan’s escapades from Wendell Craig’s fellow performer in the show, Carol Pace (Debbie Reynolds), he and his buddies break in on the audition and give Wendell Craig a black eye, much to the chagrin of Susan. Soon the sailors are on the run from the shore patrol after Wendell Craig lodges a complaint. Meanwhile, Rico falls for Susan, even though she still half thinks she’s in love with Wendell, while Danny and Carol Pace go for each other and Ginger proves how much she loves Bill, even though everyone tells Bill he’s a sap for not for seeing how much Ginger loves him and marrying her.
It’s a fairly familiar story. Hit the Deck was originally a play, then a Broadway musical in 1927, then a movie in 1930. The songs were composed by Vincent Youmans, with lyrics by Clifford Grey and Leo Robins. It’s a fun musical, worth seeing if you enjoy musicals, but I have to agree with many people that the film lacks a certain spark. One doesn’t quite feel the emotional investment in the characters.
I was in awe, however, at the the kind of top-notch resources, talent and professionalism that MGM could effortlessly toss off, even in a mediocre musical. MGM was extraordinarily slick, which I don’t think I appreciated until I watched some of their lesser efforts.The cast is talented, the songs are catchy, the dancing is first rate. Tony Martin and Vic Damone sing well, if not terribly dynamic as actors. Russ Tamblyn and Debbie Reynolds are adorable, high energy, and get to do a fun, inventive acrobatic dance together in a fun house that doubles as a kind of chamber of horrors with demons and fire. Debbie Reynolds character gets almost nothing else to do besides perform in a few dance numbers. Jane Powell’s character has probably the most to do of all the women, but the role of Susan feels like a slight reversion after her more mature role in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers the year before.
And MGM knew how to keep people from looking ridiculous (in the words of Rod, from the publicity department in Singin’ in the Rain, “The studio’s gotta keep their stars from looking ridiculous at any cost”). Tony Martin and Vic Damone can’t dance? Have them sing and put them in group settings where they can move around and look fluid without looking strained. Ann Miller can dance? Give her several knockout dances. Russ Tamblyn and Debbie Reynolds provide the energy and the cuteness. Jane Powell sings the songs and gets the majority of the character arch – perhaps because she is one of the better actors of the six leads. Everyone looks good, an absolute absence of strain, very slick. It’s pretty awe-inspiring.
Hermes Pan provided the choreography for all the dances in the film, which is definitely a highlight in the movie. Here is Ann Miller in “Lady from the Bayou.”
Tony Martin, Vic Damone and Russ Tamblyn sing “Hallelujah” at the beginning of the film instead of baking the cake, which might be just as well since they sing better than they bake. Russ Tamblyn also demonstrates his superior juggling and acrobatic skills.
Hermes Pan worked closely with Fred Astaire during his years at RKO, which might explain the influence of Astaire’s dance in Follow the Fleet (which can be viewed here) – where Astaire dances while a troop of sailors keep time behind him with their feet – on the ending tap dance with Ann Miller where the entire cast reprises “Hallelujah.”