75 Years of Film: 1945–Anchors Aweigh

This is a continuing series studying film and history changes, one movie year at a time. For a brief introduction and a list of all movies discussed so far (and to join in those discussions yourself), click here

Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra? What could be more 1940s? This seemed like one of the definitive period pieces, and neither my wife nor I had ever seen Kelly or Sinatra do…well, anything, so we decided to give Anchors Aweigh a go.

Two Navy sailors are on four-day shore leave. Joe (Kelly) is a suave ladies’ man, but his friend Clarence (Sinatra) has no such luck. Thus, Joe tries to help Clarence get the gorgeous singer Susie (Kathryn Grayson), but their shenanigans spiral out of control when they make promises they can’t keep. Even worse, Joe begins to fall for Susie himself. What’s more important? Dames or pals?

Heck to the yeah! Admittedly, the pacing is awkward because there are several times the story will flat-out stop for an instrumental or dance number. Normally, I’d rave about such poor storytelling, but in this film, those showstoppers are just so darn entertaining! I don’t know if I’d own it, but boy is it fun to watch!

Here’s how you know you’re watching an old musical: it’s not just a film, it’s a talent show. Old musicals like Seven Brides for Seven BrothersFiddler on the Roof, and others had showstopping moments where they displayed the various talents of their actors. Even the Marx Brothers movies would show off Chico’s piano skills and Harpo’s harp prowess.

You just don’t see that in modern musicals, not really. Phantom of the OperaRentOnce, none of these have any many moments where you see how jaw-droppingly awesome someone is. And if they do, they’re usually glazed over. The film has no desire to show off. Granted, that’s helpful for the story…but when you do a talent show right, it’s incredible.

Gene Kelly was a masterful dancer. If you watch this movie, slow down and really observe his movements. The grace, speed, and fluidity will astound you. The scene where he’s dancing with Jerry Mouse should have been insipid, but it was amazing because Kelly knew how to dance with a partner…who wasn’t really there.

And Frank Sinatra! Holy cow does that man deserve his fame! As my wife pointed out, “That man could melt candles with his voice.” He’s just a smooth singer. Oddly, I never much listened to Sinatra before, but I certainly will be scouring Spotify now.

Here’s another thing about older movies: they really had to try. Nowadays, you can mostly fake anything (not that everybody does, of course), but back then they didn’t have the same tricks and gimmicks. Watch a Gene Kelly dance sequence and you’ll soon realize he’s been dancing for five minutes without a camera cut and hasn’t made a single mistake. Watch the candle move when Frank Sinatra sings at a restaurant and you’ll see he’s really singing; it’s not some studio voiceover.

This kind of skill takes dedication. It takes endless practice, trying again for the one hundredth time. It takes insistence on perfection and sheer enjoyment of your craft. On the set of To Kill a Mockingbird, actors reported that Gregory Peck simply was Atticus. His very personality was that of the character. Even so, the man could be seen rehearsing over and over and over to get it right. He was perfect for the role and still committed himself to practice.

You just don’t see that kind of dedication many places these days.

Back to Anchors Aweigh, the talent isn’t reserved to Kelly and Sinatra. There’s a scene in which twenty grand pianos are playing at once. And there’s no trick; all twenty players are actually playing with shocking skill. There are other such musical sequences with pianist and composer Jose Iturbi that will make your jaw drop.

And the talent goes farther still. Once or twice, there’s a shot against a grand piano where you see the reflections of other performers playing. It’s a cool shot, but one that could easily be done via CGI today. In 1945? Not so easy. There’s even a shot where a camera peeks through another camera’s viewer, then pans out to reveal it was doing so. How do you even do that?

This is part of the fun of going back in time and watching older films: you could really see the talent in the makers and the sheer effort they put into film making. Yes, there are stinkers from back then and winners today (we’ll examine those much later), but with fewer tricks and cheats, you have to try harder.

Think about it: how many musicians of today can actually hold a screen today?

MAJOR EVENTS IN 1945 (source):
Jan 5–Cartoon Pepe LePew debuts.
Feb 23–Famous photograph: Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima (I mistakenly reported this on an earlier year).
Feb and Mar–Pretty much everybody declares war on Germany.
Apr 12–U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt dies in office, replaced by Harry Truman.
Apr-May–Multiple concentration camps liberated.
Apr 30–Adolf Hitler, sensing defeat, commits suicide. (source 2)
May 8–Victory in Europe Day when Germany surrenders.
Jun 26–UN charter signed by over fifty nations.
Jul 17–Postdam conference (Meeting of U.S., U.K., and U.S.S.R. leaders Truman, Churchill, and Stalin). Churchill left office on the 26th.
Aug 6–First use of atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
Aug 9–Atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.
Aug 14/15–Victory over Japan Day; end of World War II.
Aug 17–Korea divided into North and South (One war ends, another is foreshadowed).
Aug 22–Vietnam conflicts begin as Ho Chi Minh leads a successful coup (And yet another).
Oct 10–Elvis Presley’s first public appearance, age ten.

After that, everybody went about rebuilding their lives from the war.

State Fair
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Rome, Open City

PREVIOUS YEAR: 1944–Meet Me In St. Louis

NEXT YEAR: 1946–Gilda

2 thoughts on “75 Years of Film: 1945–Anchors Aweigh

  1. Too bad you missed “Laura” in 1944! Classic Film Noir. If you haven’t seen it, please so. And in 1947 another major classic, and one of my favorite films of all time “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.” A MUST SEE 🙂


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