Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Sinatra Centennial Blogathon: Frank Sinatra & Gene Kelly

In January 1944, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer saw a young crooner by the name of Frank Sinatra perform at a benefit concert for The Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. According to Nancy Sinatra, Mayer was so moved by her father's soulful rendition of "Ol' Man River" that he made the decision right then and there to sign Frank to his studio. Sinatra had been on the MGM payroll once before, singing with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the Eleanor Powell comedy Ship Ahoy (1942), although it is very likely that Mayer never bothered to see that film. Now that Frank was "hot," however, MGM made arrangements to buy half of his contract from RKO, with the final deal being signed in February of that year.

Gene and Frank in Anchors Aweigh
Being a contract player at the studio that boasted "more stars than there are in the heavens" gave Frank a sudden perspective regarding his own talents as a film performer. The "golden voice" that had sufficed at RKO was no longer enough to carry him through a picture. As soon as he started working on his first MGM feature, George Sidney's Anchors Aweigh (1945), he knew he was in over his head. He would still get to sing in the film, but he was also going to have to do something he had never done before: dance. And not just dance, but dance alongside none other than Gene Kelly.

Also a relative newcomer to the motion picture industry, Kelly was three years older than Sinatra and unlike anyone the young singer had met in Hollywood. Handsome, tough, cheerful and athletic, Gene Kelly was "a walking paradox: a blue-collar jock who happened to be a superlative dancer, the opposite of the slim, ethereally elegant Fred Astaire," whom Sinatra thought was "the class act of all time." Frank was clearly intimidated by Gene not by his classiness, but by his sheer dancing ability. Fortunately for him, though, Kelly soon took the crooner under his wing and decided to transform him into a credible dancer. Since he was both starring in Anchors Aweigh and directing its dance sequences, Gene figured that if he helped Frank rather than punished him, they would both come out the better for it. And there began the lifelong friendship between Francis Albert Sinatra of Hoboken and Eugene Curran Kelly of Pittsburgh.

As Joe and Clarence
Cashing in on the huge surge of American patriotism as World War II drew to a victorious close, Anchors Aweigh was built around the idea of two sailors on a four-day leave in Hollywood. Kelly played the wisecracking "wolf of the fleet," Joe Brady, and Sinatra was the awkward, girl-shy nerd Clarence Doolittle. When their leave is derailed by a little boy, Tommy (Dean Stockwell), who wants to join the Navy and whom they have to escort home, they meet his aunt Susan (Kathryn Grayson), a movie extra and an aspiring singer. First Clarence and then Joe fall for Susan and much of the plot centers on their attempts to get her an audition with the famous maestro José Iturbi (appearing as himself).

Since MGM was fully aware of Sinatra's limitations as a hoofer, Isobel Lennart's script included only one dance routine with Kelly, "I Begged Her," which required eight weeks of rehearsal, seven days a week. This period was emotionally and physically traumatic for the inexperienced Frank, who lost four pounds from his already minimal frame during the first week of training alone. A "pathologically impatient" person, Sinatra had an immense dislike for rehearsing and wanted to cut much of the sequence. In contrast, Kelly was a man of "inordinate patience" and painstakingly taught his clumsy co-star both how to move as a dancer and the particular moves necessary for their routine, all while enduring Sinatra's frequent bouts of ill-temper. To ease the process, Gene simplified the routine and Frank eventually progressed from "lousy to adequate." Besides "I Begged Her," they also sang two duets: "We Hate to Leave" and "If You Knew Susie."

In Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Anchors Aweigh opened on July 14, 1945 to critical and commercial acclaim. Variety, for instance, called it "solid musical fare. The production numbers are zingy; the songs are extremely listenable; the color treatment outstanding." Gene Kelly was particularly praised, with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times describing him as "the Apollonian marvel of the piece." The film community also showed their approval, giving Anchors Aweigh Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor for Kelly, Best Original Song for "I Fall in Love Too Easily" and Best Color Cinematography, awarding the statuette to George Stoll for Best Musical Score.

After the success of Anchors Aweigh, MGM was eager to have another vehicle for the duo, so Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) was conceived by Kelly and his young assistant Stanley Donen. In this lighthearted turn-of-the-century musical, Gene appeared as Eddie O'Brien, shortstop for a professional baseball team known as the Wolves, while Frank was his second baseman, Dennis Ryan. To capitalize on their fame, Eddie and Dennis play the vaudeville circuit together during the off-season. When spring training begins, the Wolves find themselves with a new owner, who is revealed to be a woman, K. C. Higgins (Esther Williams, replacing first Kathryn Grayson then Judy Garland). Romantic complications which were not that complicated at all involve man-hungry Betty Garrett (in the role of a passionate baseball fan named Shirley Delwyn) chasing Sinatra, who loves Williams, who loves Kelly.

Performing "Yes Indeedy"
Throughout the filming of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Frank could not get over the disappointment of being rejected in favor of 22-year-old John Derek for the second male lead in Nicholas Ray's courtroom drama Knock on Any Door (1949), which would have given him the chance to act alongside Humphrey Bogart. He took it out on the film's veteran director Busby Berkeley, showing up late, complaining about multiple takes and messing up lines, wasting hours of shooting time. On the dance floor, however, Sinatra worked hard on the musical routines, confident that Kelly would not push him to do anything beyond his still limited ability. As with Anchors Aweigh, the rehearsals were very demanding and Kelly was disconcerted by Frank's minimal lunches, which reportedly consisted of one bottle of Coca-Cola and one standard-size Mars chocolate bar. Their duets in the film include "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and the wonderful "Yes Indeedy."  

Take Me Out to the Ball was a great commercial success upon its release on March 9, 1949, though critical reviews were only mildly approving. The Chicago Tribune wrote, "The story makes no pretense at authenticity — it's just a vehicle for comedy and music [...] If you are in the mood for something light, you'll find this movie worth a try." And while Bosley Crowther of The New York Times praised the musical numbers, especially "Strictly U.S.A.," he felt the picture "lacks consistent style and pace [...] Don't be suprised if you see people getting up for a seventh-inning stretch."

Frank and Gene in On the Town
Two weeks after the premiere of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Frank and Gene got back into sailor suits and began filming on On the Town (1949), the first musical to be shot entirely on location in New York. With music by Leonard Bernstein and Roger Edens, and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, On the Town was an adaptation of the 1944 Broadway show of the same name, which in turn was based on a ballet by Jerome Robbins called Fancy Free. Mayer did not appreciate the original show, calling it "smutty" and "communistic," but luckily Kelly convinced him to move forward with the film version.

On the Town concerns three sailors Gabey (Kelly), Chip (Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City. While riding on a subway, Gabey sees a poster of Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen), the newly crowned "Miss Turnstiles" for the month of June, and immediately falls in love with her. Believing that she is a high society belle, he decides to go on a search for her. For his part, Chip wants to see the sights, but gets sidetracked when an agressively flirtatious taxi driver, Hildy Esterhazy (Betty Garrett), becomes smitten with him. In the meantime, Ozzie meets an attractive anthropologist named Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller), who thinks he is the perfect example of a "prehistoric man." When the three couples unite that night to go on the town, events unfold in a way that none of them could have predicted. Musical numbers include "New York, New York," "Prehistoric Man" and "On the Town."

Kelly, Sinatra and Munshin
Sinatra was reluctant to embark on a second Navy romp; he did not like either the costumes (in addition to a hairpiece, he had to wear padding in the rear of his trousers to fill out the sailor outfit) or the idea of repeating old concepts and required extensive coaxing from Kelly. The dancing was also at a more advanced level than he had previously performed, but Kelly once again diligently taught him all the routines. The result of their work paid off and On the Town was a critical and commercial hit upon its release on December 8, 1949. Crowther, for instance, described it as "delightful entertainment for all ages, sexes and seasonal moods [...] Gaiety, rhythm, humor and a good, wholesome dash of light romance have been artfully blended together in this bright Technicolored comedy. The holidays should be nicer for having On the Town around." The film went on to win Best Musical Score at the 22nd Academy Awards and has since been regarded as one of the greatest musicals of all time.

Rehearsing for Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back
On the Town marked the last film in which Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly shared the silver screen, though they did appear together in other events throughout the years, in addition to maintaining a close relationship outside the public eye. On the eve of John F. Kennedy's Inauguration Day, January 19, 1961, Kelly was one of the many Hollywood stars present at the pre-inaugural ball organized and hosted by Sinatra and Peter Lawford at the D.C. Armory. 

Twelve years later, Gene was Frank's sole guest on his Emmy-nominated television special Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back, broadcasted by NBC on November 18, 1973. They sang and danced together in a series of energetic routines, proving that they still retained the same charm and agility they had thirty years before. The program was a great success and the Chicago Tribune noted that "for two 'old men,' they sure hoofed up a storm." In 1978, Gene appeared in an episode of The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast to honor his old pal Frank. He looked back at their films together and described their relationship over the years as "nice and easy." Lastly, in 1983, Gene was invited to present Frank with one of the most significant tributes of his life, the Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievements. 

He worked with the best, from classics to jazz. They realized they were dealing with a consummate artist. "He's a giant," one of them said. "There's not a remotest possibility he will have a successor." Wherever he goes, on and off stage, he touches his audience. Whether it's kids everywhere or the most sophisticated nightclub patrons, he always gives them something special. He gives them himself.
(Gene Kelly at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony)


During rehearsals for Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back. How cute is this picture?

Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly were complete opposites, as different as chalk and cheese. But in this particular case, opposites attracted and the result was three fantastic films that went down in history as some of the best in the genre. Anchors Aweigh is, in my opinion, the finest of the three. It was also the first film I ever saw Frankie in and, needless to say, I fell completely in love with that skinny boy with baby blue eyes. He is incredibly uncomfortable and awkward in it, but when time comes for him to sing, your heart melts with every note. Frank and Gene are both gone now, but they have left us a brilliant legacy on film, a genuine lifelong friendship to look up to and two beautiful smiles that will brighten up even the darkest of days.

I was born with a couple of left feet, and I didn't even know how to walk, let alone dance. It was Gene who saw me through. We became a team only because he had the patience of Job, and the fortitude not to punch me in the mouth because I was so impatient. Moviemaking takes a lot of time, and I couldn't understand why. He managed to calm me when it was important to calm me [...] Apart from being a great artist, he's a born teacher, and he taught me how to move and how to dance [...] I couldn't dance exactly like he danced so he danced down to me. He taught me everything I know.
(Frank Sinatra)


This is my contribution to The Centennial Sinatra Blogathon hosted by Movie Classics and The Vintage Cameo. To view all entries, click the links below.

DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4



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SOURCES:
Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan (2011) | Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green (1999) | Sinatra: Behind the Legend by J. Randy Taraborrelli (2015) | Sinatra: Hollywood His Way by Timothy Knight (2010) | The Frank Sinatra Film Guide by Daniel O'Brien (2014) | The New York Times review for Anchors Aweigh | The New York Times review for On the Town | The New York Times review for Take Me Out to the Ball Game | Variety review for Anchors Aweigh

10 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for this great post on one of my favorite on-screen partnerships! They had one of those great relationships where they challenged each other—and made both of them better in the end. And how cute are those photos?!

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    1. Thanks for reading. :)
      And thank you for co-hosting a blogathon dedicated to this amazing man.

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  2. Wonderful tribute to two talented men, and their friendship. Thanks for providing all the behind-the-scenes info on the training and rehearsals the pair did for these films. They made the final result look so easy!

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  3. Fantastic post! I agree with your sentiments on Anchors Aweigh -- Frank was so cute and charming. I think it's funny that in those early films, Gene Kelly was cast as the wolf who had to teach Sinatra about women, which clearly wasn't true in real life. They were a fun team and I'm thrilled that their friendship went beyond their three movies.

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  4. *clap, clap* Wow, this post is absolutely marvelous! It was very complete and informative. I knew nothing of Kelly's meetings with Sinatra after the three films they did together. But I have to disagree with you: I find Anchors Aweigh a bit too long, and On the Town is my favorite of the three.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

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    1. Aw, thank you so much, Lê. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. :)

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  5. Thank you for this wonderful tribute! I love Anchors Aweigh and agree with you that I also like it better than On the Town - though they are both irresistible. Sinatra and Kelly make a wonderful combination, and it was very interesting to learn more about their work together and their friendship. Thanks so much for this great contribution to the blogathon!

    I haven't managed to see Take Me Out to the Ball Game yet, as it isn't available in the UK and is never shown on TV here - sadly, most films with baseball tend to be unknown over here, but I will definitely get hold of an import DVD soon!

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    1. Thank you for reading. And once again, thanks for hosting such a wonderful blogathon. :)

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