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Hit the Deck (Blu-ray Review)

19 May, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$21.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Jane Powell, Tony Martin, Debbie Reynolds, Walter Pidgeon.

MGM’s once tough-to-see 2.55:1 musical will never win any Andre Bazin awards for mise-en-scene, but I can still see why I, at age 7, eagerly pronounced it “the best movie I had ever seen” (the first one I’d ever designated as such). A stew of previous stage and screen offerings (Shore Leave; then a 1930 eponymously titled RKO musical; even elements of the Astaire-Rogers Follow the Fleet), it already had a lot of naval mildew on it by 1955, even though the story utilized here differed substantially. This is one of the few movies I’ve even halfway designated as a guilty pleasure in my adult life — the reasoning always being that pleasure is enough of a challenge in life to find, so why feel guilty about it? I don’t even feel guilty about liking, say, Howards Hawks’ forever-maligned box office catastrophe Land of the Pharaohs, which came out the summer after the early March that Hit the Deck played Radio City Music Hall.

Essentially a fantastic soundtrack album (and MGM/Rhino did a fab Deck CD several years ago) looking for keener scripting and direction, this is, appropriately, a shore leave musical that romantically teams Jane Powell with Vic Damone, Ann Miller with Tony Martin and then-youngsters Debbie Reynolds with Russ Tamblyn. Seen here just a year before Forbidden Planet, Walter Pidegon plays a rear admiral and grouchy father to siblings Powell and Tamblyn, while Gene Raymond (who, at the time, hadn’t been seen in an ‘A’ picture or even many ‘B’-movies since the mid-1940s) is a married stage producer whose chorine tom-catting keeps earning him shiners (something I found quite funny when I was a youngster). Comic and future Ed Sullivan mainstay Alan King is a member of the shore patrol, which figures heavily in the action during the picture’s final third.

You don’t even have to get past the opening number (gobs Martin, Damone and Tamblyn performing “Hallelujah!” while baking a booze-filled cake) to sense that journeyman director Roy Rowland is going to take an anything-goes approach to numbers, which not infrequently commence at unexpected or unmotivated times. Though in this case, our “Twilight Zone”-ish tipoff to the overall tone is the sudden gonzo appearance of an African-American quartet of waiters who bound through the kitchen door at a snowbound military base to punctuate the presentation — a show-up to rotate any viewer head “360” (or at least “358”) in Linda Blair Exorcist fashion. Exceptionally attractive performers aside, the virtues here are a silly (even dopey) script that nonetheless moves fast most of the time and a Vincent Youmans-Leo Robin-Clifford Grey-Irving Caesar score that’s not just a solid winner but one packed with standards: “Sometimes I’m Happy,” “More Than You Know,” “I Know That You Know” and “Ciribiribin.” 

Though it managed to get held over for a second week at a 2,800-or-so-seater in my home town, Deck is another of those MGM musicals that seriously underperformed at a time when Chuck Berry and other rock contemporaries were on the immediate horizon, hastening the genre’s not just decline but near-annihilation. Presumably because of the property’s underlying literary rights, it was withheld from TV sale and never played on local TV or on the ubiquitous prime-time network movie nights during the 1960s; I was finally able to see it again only by programming it at the AFI Theater in Washington, D.C., in 1980 — a quarter-century wait for me to finally re-see a picture I’d loved so much as a child (in addition to the music, there was probably an early hormonal reaction to Powell and Reynolds).

Hermes Pan did the choreography, and he has a better time of it filling one of those super-wide frames of the initial CinemaScope era — these photographed by Meet Me in St. Louis’s George Folsey, who makes the very most (particularly on this super Blu-ray release) of anemic Eastman Color, which degraded a lot of MGM projects starting around the time I started seeing current movies in theaters all the time. Even Powell’s dresses are “yowza” enough to rate constant comment, and the sound recording is surprisingly robust for early stereo recycled for today’s home markets. The movie’s top number comes at the very end: Miller and the others romantic parties reprising “Hallelujah!” on a ship (or ship set) for no apparent reason — the best tap extravaganza that sure-footed dancer ever had on screen (and her last one, in fact). It was featured in one of the “That’s Entertainment!” collections, which was only its due and sends you to bed with a smile or maybe with thoughts of Powell, who had a most compatible haircut here and never looked better on screen.

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