Some of the best early films Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly made, they made together: "Anchors Aweigh" (1945), "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1948), and "On the Town" (1949). Both men were at the beginning of their star careers, and both of them were at the top of their game. Together, they were terrific.
All three films (also available separately) in this box-set collection, "The Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly Collection," are fun, dynamic, and forever entertaining, but if I had to rank order them, I'd choose "On the Town" first, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" second, and "Anchors Away" third. It's just hard to beat "On the Town" for pure energy and verve.
Their earliest film was "Anchors Away," with George Sidney directing and Kathryn Grayson, Jose Iturbi, Dean Stockwell, Pamela Britton, Rags Ragland, Billy Gilbert, and Henry O'Neill co-starring. More important, Kelly choreographed it with pizzazz, and the segment where Kelly dances with an animated Jerry the mouse is classic.
The next collaboration was "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," with the noted Busby Berkeley directing his final film and Esther Williams, Betty Garrett, Edward Arnold, and Jules Munshin co-starring. It's a period piece about a pair of singing ballplayers. The film so impressed producer Arthur Freed that he gave the pair the go-ahead to do their very best film later that year, "On the Town," which I'd like to concentrate on here.
Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly co-directed "On the Town," and it was the first directorial effort for both of them. Donen went on to do "Singin' in the Rain," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," "Funny Face," "Damn Yankees," "Charade," and "Bedazzled," among many more, and Kelly did "Singin' in the Rain" and "An American in Paris" among others. So, "On the Town" was a big starting point for both of them.
Adolph Green and Betty Comden wrote the movie's screenplay based on their own stage hit (from a story idea by Jerome Robbins). Green, Comden, and Leonard Bernstein co-wrote the lyrics and music. Gene Kelly did the choreography. And Arthur Freed (who was MGM's biggest musical-comedy producer) brought it all together. The film has quite a pedigree.
Since "On the Town" is an old-fashioned musical comedy, the plot is almost nonexistent, the better to showcase the songs and dances. The story involves three sailers (Sinatra, Kelly, and Jules Munshin) on a twenty-four-hour leave in New York City, with the action chronicling their adventures hour by hour. One of them, the most naive one, played by Sinatra, wants to go sightseeing. The other two want to pick up girls. They compromise: They'll pick up three girls and the six of them will go sightseeing. Betty Garrett plays a randy cabdriver who immediately falls for Sinatra and wants nothing more than to take him home to her apartment. Ann Miller plays an anthropologist who takes a shine to Munshin because she thinks he's a perfect example of a prehistoric man. And Vera-Ellen plays a girl just awarded the honor of "Miss Turnstile" for the month of June; Kelly sees her picture on a poster and falls in love with her, figuring she's a lot classier than she really is.
Most of the movie has Kelly and the others chasing around town trying to find the girl of Kelly's dreams, all to song and dance. Which is really what the film is about. The show's most-famous number, "New York, New York," bookends the movie. Then there's the "Miss Turnstiles" dance, "Come Up to My Place," and "A Day in New York" ballet among many more tunes that highlight the picture. When the main characters aren't involved directly in the music, they're watching nightclub acts singing and dancing. That's what it's about.
The movie is a nonstop musical comedy, the first spoken words being song. It's romp, it's a romance, it's a songfest, it's everything that has now become rather passe in a musical comedy, if such a thing even exists anymore. Besides, it's filled with songs and music with real melodies and substantially different melodies, too, not the same basic theme hammered at you throughout the show in a multitude of variations.
One passing trivia note: I hadn't seen "On the Town" in many years, and I'd rather forgotten it co-starred Jules Munshin. With Sinatra and Kelly so overshadowing him, he gets rather lost in the shuffle. Yet he's quite good and has every bit as big a part as the his more-illustrious co-stars. When I did see Munshin, I was also rather surprised at how tall he is. Not only did I forget he was in the picture, I remembered him as a much shorter guy. Odd, how the memory works.
Warner Bros. present all three movies in their original standard-screen aspect ratios, with all three of them looking good in freshly polished Technicolor. "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" is probably the smoothest of the three, with "On the Town" showing the most grain because the filmmakers shot it mostly on location. The image can look a tad soft in all three movies, and the colors never exactly glisten. But the hues are natural enough that I doubt anyone will complain.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural processing comes up well for all three films. It's quiet, warm, clear, realistic, and fairly dynamic for its kind. Sure, it would have been great to hear these soundtracks in full surround audio, with wide frequency responses, but we have what we have. No complaints here, either.
Each of the three films contains a different set of extras. "Anchors Aweigh" includes a two-minute archival interview with animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera discussing "The Worry Song" that has Kelly dancing with Jerry the mouse. It turns out the filmmakers originally wanted Mickey Mouse for the part, but Uncle Walt wouldn't allow Mickey to appear in an MGM picture. So, they got the second most-famous mouse. Next, there are cast and crew listings, and third, there are theatrical trailers for all three films in the box.
On "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" you'll find two deleted musical numbers, "Baby Doll" and "Boys and Girls Like You and Me," complete with text notes on why the filmmakers excluded them; then cast and crew notes, and again theatrical trailers for the three films in the box.
"On the Town" gets short shrift with only a cast and crew listing and a theatrical trailer. Oh, well. All three films include plenty of scene selections (between twenty-nine and thirty-eight) but no chapter inserts; plus English and French spoken languages and subtitles.
These Sinatra-Kelly films might no longer seem in vogue to today's younger audiences, especially compared to musicals like "Sweeney Todd." These days, musicals usually have better developed characters and plots, and the songs are better integrated into the story lines. But they don't have any better music. "Anchors Aweigh," "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and "On the Town" are far more gentle, more innocent, and a heck of a lot more energetic and tuneful than anything made in the last twenty years. That doesn't necessarily make them superior products, though, just different. It's nice to have them available, whether you're a musical-comedy fan or not. They're just plain fun.
On a related note: Concurrent with this and other Sinatra movies, Warner Home Video are releasing (separately) their 1992, Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning TV miniseries "Sinatra." It's in a two-disc set, 238 minutes, divided into two parts, with 41 and 26 chapters respectively. The film stars Philip Casnoff as Sinatra, with Olympia Dukakis, Joe Santos, Gina Gershon, Nina Siemaszko, and Marcia Gay Harden in supporting roles, and it covers Sinatra's life from his youth through his return from retirement in 1974. The best part: hearing Sinatra's voice again in original recordings. The two discs present the picture in its 1.33:1 television aspect ratio and in quite good color, with English 2.0 stereo sound and English captions for the hearing impaired.