I recently got into a bit of trouble with a joke I made in my review for Anchors Aweigh, in which I’d cheekily noted that my favorite film genre was “Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as girl-chasing sailors on leave.” Of course, this is a “genre” that spans exactly two films–Anchors Aweigh and On the Town–so I felt bad when someone eagerly commented seeking a watch-list of other films they thought they had overlooked.
Because sadly, once you add in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, you’ve reached the end of that very particular list of Gene and Frank together on screen… but, oh, what a list.
Anchors Aweigh was their first collaboration, and introduces the classic set up of them as Navy sailors on leave, hunting for girls and generally having a good old time. This time they’re on leave in Hollywood, and their object of pursuit is Susie, played by Kathryn Grayson. Their game evens out a bit in later films, but here their relationship is much more unbalanced–Frank is the shy choir boy in need of some serious schooling by ladies’ man Gene. But it’s charming to watch, even if it doesn’t work out quite so well for Frank–who ends up with “The Girl from Brooklyn” (as she’s credited–as played by Pamela Britton) instead, a late but convenient addition to the list of players to ensure a happy ending for all.
Their on screen chemistry is so great that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of which girls they actually end up with–I get the sense, at least, that no matter what happens with the girls, they’ll still be friends after the movie. And that’s good, because it’s an especially delicate relationship to portray–for most of their films, they’re technically romantic rivals, but there’s never a meanness to their interactions or pranks or underminings, when they do appear. It’s all in good fun, and at the end of the night they’ll each have someone, whether it’s the leading lady or a mysterious girl from Brooklyn.
Brief interlude: did Frank Sinatra purposely choose a bunch of roles where he doesn’t get “the girl,” or is that just a coincidence? His smooth persona as a musician seems in contrast to the many film roles (Anchors Aweigh, High Society, It Happened in Brooklyn…) where he’s portrayed as a kind of shy introvert who doesn’t end up with the lady he set out to pursue at the beginning. Maybe it’s just the inherent drama to that type of role, or maybe it helped him with the ladies off-screen–who’s to say?
Their next teaming-up was Take Me Out to the Ball Game, which features the endearingly goofy premise that two star baseball players are also vaudeville performers in the off season. Back on the field, their new manager is K.C. Higgens, who turns out to be Katherine Catherine Higgins, who turns out to be Esther Williams. Both the boys start going after her, but this time Frank has Betty Garrett waiting in the wings, as Wolves superfan Shirley. Again, the shift in romantic affections requires waiting for the perfect moment to both maximize the drama in the rivalry for K.C.’s hand, but giving the audience to accept the alternate and believe that this is a conceivably happy ending.
On the Town marks their last appearance together, but it’s the one that made perhaps the most permanent mark on the classical film canon–it’s currently (and well-deservedly) ranked #19 on AFI’s list of greatest musicals. Gene and Frank return to their “roots” as sailors on leave, this time bringing back Jules Pushin as the third in their trio and Betty Garrett as Frank’s love interest. This film is about as purely fun as it gets, especially as the focus drifts away from the entangled romantic rivalries of the previous two, and more on the exploits of the already coupled-off pairs running around New York for a night.
Gene and Frank are in top form here, and part of what works so well about their partnership is that they’re both among the very best at what they do. Frank may not be able to perform the same acrobatics as Gene, but boy can he sing a tune. And Gene’s voice might not have the same resonance as Frank’s, but give him a pair of tap shoes and he’ll show you what’s what. They’re both so good that I never get the sense that either of them are showing the other up, and it’s always a treat to see these two titans at play. I love their work individually, but when they’re on screen together, I think their friendship and chemistry lift them both up to greater heights.
Gene and Frank were supposed to work together again for the musical spoof Robin and the Seven Hoods, with Gene playing the role of producer and director this time. Early press indicates perhaps a veiled conflict already brewing, as Gene tells the Associated Press here that since it’s Frank’s money, he can do whatever he wants. The AP valiantly tries to spin the statement, but the quote still certainly sounds like it’s coming from the context of a larger, more serious argument. And indeed, three weeks before principal photography begins, Gene exits the picture. One source suggests that their work styles were too different, and that Gene walked away from the working relationship in order to preserve their off-set friendship. Frank was later quoted as saying he felt like he was just taking orders in regards to the film, not making decisions.
While I selfishly would have loved to see Gene and Frank together again (and I think Gene’s directorial influence probably would have improved Robin and the Seven Hoods a bit), in the long run, I think it’s probably best that they didn’t stretch the relationship to the breaking point. Anchors Aweigh, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and On the Town remain a time capsule of two actors at the height of their abilities, and who are both so, so awful… nice to watch.