29 December 2013

Mr Iturbi will see you now

I recently watched the 1945 MGM musical Anchors Aweigh for the first time. In it, Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra are two decorated Navy sailors with a four-day pass in Los Angeles. Intent on wooing the local dames, they encounter the beautiful Suzie (Kathryn Grayson), who is bringing up her peppy young nephew Donald (Dean Stockwell, in his first big role), who is just crazy about joining the Navy despite being only nine years old. As is usual with such films, there is much silliness and bursting into song.

Aside from its top cast, the film is probably best known for its fantasy sequence in which Kelly dances with the animated Jerry Mouse (of Tom & Jerry fame) - quite a technical feat for the time (clip). It must have been a nightmare to keep the perspectives and sightlines accurate, because it's a proper hyperactive Kelly song-and-dance number including plenty of tricky movement between the foreground and background. In the DVD extras a short clip of animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera reveals that the cartoon dance partner was originally intended to be Mickey Mouse, but Walt Disney flat-out refused to allow his character to appear in an MGM picture, so Jerry and his MGM bosses got the job instead.

Much of Anchors Aweigh revolves around the quest for the lovely operatic soprano Grayson to obtain an audition with the MGM bandleader and pianist Jose Iturbi. Iturbi (1895-1980) plays himself in the film, as he did in several other MGM productions, and the film is lavish in its treatment of the Catalonian star, peppering the script with numerous mentions of his skill and influence, and engineering a piano number for Iturbi to play and the bell-bottomed Sinatra to skip through. Such is Iturbi's busy schedule in Anchors Aweigh, Sinatra and Kelly spend much of the film struggling to keep up with him, forever just missing the busy pianist as he scuttles from one appointment to the next in his sidecar-equipped motorcycle.

In one grand location shoot the boys tumble out of the hills surrounding the Hollywood Bowl as Iturbi practices Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, composed in 1847. (The film's producer Joe Pasternak was originally Hungarian, which may have something to do with the choice of material). The camera cranes back from Iturbi at his grand piano to reveal he is accompanied by an impressive orchestra of no less than eighteen other grands, one of which may have been played by his sister and frequent collaborator, Amparo Iturbi. It's a brilliant example of classical music in popular cinema, with deft camerawork to bring out the dexterous performance, including a skilful tracking shot above the heads and keyboards of the young orchestra, resolving to an overhead shot of the puissant Iturbi himself, a closeup of his powerful hands at the keyboard, and flipping to an innovative reverse-angle shot of the same hands from underneath a (separate, edited-in) transparent keyboard.

Anchors Aweigh won an Oscar for Best Original Music Score, and was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Kelly), Best Cinematography (Colour), and Best Song, for the Sinatra number I Fall In Love Too Easily, by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne. The sailor-themed film partnership of Sinatra and Kelly was later revisited in 1949 in the more famous On The Town.   

See also:
Trailer: Anchors Aweigh
Music: Iturbi plays Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu (1941)
Blog: High Society, 26 November 2012
 
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