Not even halfway before it was over, my viewing companion christened MGM's musical Hit the Deck as the "lamest movie ever." Ouch. If not exactly a classic of the Singin' in the Rain sort, this 1955 effort still amuses with a fun, perky cast. In its defense, the Warner Archive made-to-order Blu Ray edition of this colorful widescreen production looks and sounds fantastic - and there are enough dazzling musical moments to make up for the less-than-exciting plot.
Made when moviegoers were abandoning big screens for television in droves, Hit the Deck typified the prime directive of 1955 Hollywood (similar to 2014 Hollywood, actually) - do something familiar, only bigger, bolder and more outlandish than ever before. Story-wise, Hit the Deck used a dowdy "sailors on leave" property which had already been kicking around town for a good 25 years. It started as a Broadway musical in 1927, transferred to film as a Jack Oakie vehicle three years later, then it was bowdlerized as the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers romp Follow the Fleet in 1936. MGM's impossibly lush adaptation took bits and pieces from the original (like the lively song "Hallelujah") while keeping it in line with the studio's previous escapist seafaring outings like On the Town and Anchors Aweigh.
Vintage MGM musicals are nothing without big stars, and in the case of Hit the Deck they did well with casting the lead roles with energetic, appealing talents (well, five out of six ain't bad). Bland, stalwart Tony Martin had a strong baritone voice and little in the way of screen presence, but he does a decent job as a Navy officer who gets in trouble with his superiors. The acrobatic Russ Tamblyn and handsome, smooth-voiced Vic Damone fare much better as Martin's fellow gobs. Hard-edged yet mesmerizing tap queen Ann Miller has several great showcases as Martin's frustrated showgirl sweetheart, while pert soprano Jane Powell and spitfire Debbie Reynolds provide a double dose of pizazz. The film also touts an "introducing" credit for a matronly classical singer named Kay Armen, who plays Damone's earthy mother.
And what about the story? Naval officer William Clark (Martin) and his buddies/subordinates Rico Ferrari (Damone) and Danny Xavier Smith (Tamblyn) are a trouble-prone trio who wreak more havoc during their shore leave in San Francisco. Upon arrival, William finds that his dancer girlfriend Ginger (Miller) has broken off their six-year engagement and plans to marry another man. Rico discovers that his widowed mom (Armen) has been deceitful about her age to her new boyfriend (J. Carrol Naish), a local florist. Meanwhile, Danny goes to see his strict father, Rear Admiral Daniel Xavier Smith (Walter Pidgeon), and his loving sister, Susan (Powell), who is preparing herself for a date/audition with a conceited older actor, Wendell Craig (Gene Raymond). Danny then goes to a theater and meets-cute with a perky dancer named Carol (Reynolds), who tells him that Wendell is a lecher who takes advantage of every aspiring actress he meets. In an effort to defend his sister's honor, Danny rounds up William and Rico to confront Wendell, but they end up in a violent scuffle with two Navy shore patrol officers (Alan King and Henry Slate) being sent after them under misunderstood circumstances. In the ensuing chase, Rico and Susan fall for each other, Danny and Carol fall for each other, William and Ginger find a way to patch things up, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Hit the Deck exemplifies the kind of middlebrow cheer that came from the offices of MGM's second-in-command musical producer, Joe Pasternak (Arthur Freed headed up the artsy projects with A-list talent; Pasternak did the gimmicky stuff that filled the seats). Director Roy Rowland dutifully films the story with little imagination, although the musical sequences still provide some oomph. Their peppy arrangements, outstanding production design, and bright performances more than make up for the fact that they lack a certain warmth. Each lead actor gets at least one great number, climaxing with the lavish "Hallelujah" with Ann Miller speed-tapping on a gigantic, gloriously fake aircraft carrier set. My personal favorite: the elaborately staged "A Kiss Or Two," with Tamblyn and Reynolds energetically romping about in a carnival's House of Horrors. MGM approached these movies as if they were Detroit automakers, outdoing the previous year's model with bigger, shinier chrome embellishments - dazzling, and a little bit soulless.
Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials and other sources, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
The Blu Ray:
Warner Archive's made-to-order Blu Ray edition of Hit the Deck sports an appealing package front derived from original poster elements and a non-generic menu design. The back includes a photo montage with some seriously ugly Photoshop abuse, which is only worth noting since their products normally don't have such shoddy design.
This movie might be cheese of the highest order, but at least it looks ravishing. Warner Bros. has secured a clean and beautifully saturated print for this disc's 2.55:1 1080p presentation. The Eastman Color photography pops with fantastic detail, and the kind of specks and dirt which normally show on film this age are mostly absent. The picture quality tends to get blurred and less saturated when scenes transition into each other, otherwise it's a splendid-looking disc.
Hit the Deck's original stereophonic soundtrack has been mixed in 5.1 Surround, a carryover from the DVD edition. The musical and non-musical segments have two distinct mixes, which can get jarring. Dialogue sounds a bit flat, while the musical numbers are so crystalline and lush it practically feels like being in the recording studio. An English SDH subtitle track is also provided.
A Theatrical Trailer, full-screen and yellowed with age, is the sole extra on this disc. A musical performance selection menu is provided in lieu of a scene-selection menu. Sadly, the Blu Ray is missing the extra audio outtake and bonus shorts from the DVD.
The corny mid-level MGM musical Hit the Deck doesn't win any prizes for originality, yet the bright cast and eye-popping production numbers make it worthwhile. Warner Archives' spiffy Blu Ray presentation transforms this overstuffed marshmallow-whip pie of a movie into a great purchase for fans of glitzy, brainless musicals. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.