I was delighted to spot this one coming up on my Rare Musicals list for October, as the sailor musical has quickly become one of my shortcuts to making my movie selections. I was particularly interested in Hit the Deck because of the stellar cast, as well as the fact that it’s both a late-stage MGM musical and late-stage for sailor musicals in general–coming nearly 10 years after the end of WWII.
The film was based on a popular musical play from 1927, which itself was based on a 1922 play called Shore Leave, by Hubert Osborne. The first film version of the musical was released in 1930 by RKO starring Polly Walker and Jack Oakie; however, the last known copy of this film was destroyed in a fire in the 1950s. Additionally, the 1936 Astaire/Rogers picture Follow the Fleet was also based on Shore Leave, if any of the below plot details sound achingly familiar. There’s clearly something about this story that spoke to audiences, something that rang true even throughout these very different historical climates–throughout the aftermath of WWI, the comparatively peaceful interwar period, the lead up to WWII, as well as after the sailors from WWII, and even the Korean War, had already returned home.
But let’s focus back on the 1955 version that brought us here in the first place. The film opens with our three guys–Danny Smith (Russ Tamblyn) and Rico Ferrari (Vic Damone), two seamen, who, along with their superior officer William Clark (Tony Martin) conspire to find a way out of ice swimming detail while stationed in Alaska. Thus begins the series of pratfalls that lead them to a few transfers (Operation Ice Cream, Operation Mud Pie) and, finally, to a 48-hour leave in San Francisco.
As is commonly expected in movies of this type, each of the sailors has their eye on a girl, and pursues her throughout the film. William has Ginger (Ann Miller), who’s itching for a wedding ring after dating him for six years; Danny goes after Carol (Debbie Reynolds), a sweet actress starring in the film’s musical-within-a-musical; and Rico sets his sights on Susan (Jane Powell), who is Danny’s sister. Susan also incites the film’s main conflict, as she gets into trouble with the wickedly lecherous theatrical producer Wendall Craig, requiring the boys to defend her honor, while also setting the Shore Patrol hot on their tails following the brawl. This, of course, involves a lot of various hijinks to avoid the two bumbling officers, including an attempt to blend in with dancers during a funny on-stage chase in one of the film’s big numbers.
There’s not a ton of new material to make this film unique–indeed, a film that is the sixth permutation of the same story spanning (literally) generations necessarily has to be a little generic. But there are a few great numbers, and the actors elevate the movie to, generally, “charming.” In particular, I loved the devilish carnival fun house scene with Debbie Reynolds and Russ Tamblyn, with the choreography making full use of the various moving tracks, elongated mirrors, and spinning tubes you’d find in a typical fun house. The costumed devils chasing them around as they sing makes it an even more memorable fare.
I also loved the finale, particularly Ann Miller’s great tap sequence in rhythmic harmony with the sailors marching in formation, as she weaves serpentines through their straight lines wearing a fantastic gold dress with turquoise underskirt. There’s also a charming subplot about the boys trying to help Rico’s mom in her own romance; a talking parrot; and perfect, adorable, diminutive Jane Powell punching a grown man right in the eye.
You can almost sense the end of an era in this film–it was Jane Powell’s last MGM musical, and one of the last films made under Dore Schary’s leadership at MGM (his reign included classics like An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and It’s Always Fair Weather). Although it’s enjoyable to look back at as a modern viewer, I can’t help but wonder how a contemporary audience would have felt seeing a story rehashed in so many different forms… Well, on second thought, maybe it’s best left said that today, in that regard, we do certainly have still something in common with those vintage moviegoers.