Anchors Aweigh (1945) and the Real Life Seaman

While the Allied forces invaded Normandy, Gene Kelly prepped for his next film - Anchors Aweigh. Kelly was always professional during the production of a movie, but at this time his mind was constantly on the war. Still, the actor had a film to make - a film that would become a classic.

Anchors Aweigh follows two sailors (Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra) on shore leave in Hollywood who meet a waitress from Brooklyn (Pamela Britton) and a movie extra (Kathryn Grayson) who aspires to play lead roles. The plot is your basic boy-meets-girl which strings together spectacular musical numbers. We wouldn't have it any other way! Kelly dances, Grayson sings, Sinatra croons, Britton is charming, Jose Iturbi graces the screen with his amazing musical virtuosity and even cartoon legends Tom and Jerry share screen time with Kelly.

The film was released in summer 1945. The following year, Kelly garnered a Best Actor nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his role in the musical. To this day, the number featuring Jerry the Mouse in an animation/ live action dance duo with Kelly is mind-blowingly innovative.


However, behind the fun and glitz is a story with a bit more gravitas.

Kelly wanted to enlist during the outbreak of war but was initially told he could serve his country in a greater capacity performing for the troops at home, selling war bonds and being a morale booster in the movies. This, in part, accounts for the constant run of escapist fantasies from MGM and other studios at the time, including Anchors Aweigh.

But Kelly was restless. By 1944, the actor was accepted into the U.S. Navy and was to be inducted in November of that year.

According to the American Film Institute, the actor had finished with his role in Christmas Holiday with Deanna Durbin by March of 1944. Production for Anchors Aweigh would begin in June. Considering Kelly is the lead and is featured in over six songs or musical numbers and his induction date is fast approaching, the actor had to work like mad on the movie.

According to Photoplay Magazine, November 1945:
Out in Hollywood, a year ago, [Stanley Donen] had witnessed Gene’s frantic struggles to get Anchors Aweigh finished before entering the Navy – with everything possible going wrong at the last minute. The three big dance numbers for the picture were still unfilmed only a few days before Gene was due to report to his Naval Training Station, and by the time those days were over, Gene had run so difficult an obstacle course of his own, that the Navy obstacle course looked like a mere trifle!

Gene danced steadily, day and night, those last hectic days – with the painters on strike, the Cartoon Dance Song unwritten until the night before the dance was shot and recorded, and finally with a blood clot in his hand. This last blow came with the Tango Dance number. The rose thrown to him gracefully by Kathryn Grayson had a lead wire for a stem and it caught him as thoroughly as he caught it.

But he simply had to go on ahead of the Navy. So while the exhausted cameraman shot around his swollen hand, Gene went on dancing – until he got a charley-horse in one leg. Then he still went on dancing, getting the numbers on film hour after hour throughout the days and nights before he had to report for duty. By the time he reached San Diego in uniform his hand was bandaged, he was limping badly and his voice had sunk to a mere whisper.

But, though Gene was almost a hospital case, one of the most successful musical comedies ever made was finished – and while Gene was beginning his new life, the picture was delighting audiences all over the world. 

Modern Screen takes a more moving approach to the behind-the-scenes of Anchors Aweigh, by including Kelly's wife Betsy and reminding the reader that this couple is about to be parted - perhaps forever - like thousands of other wartime families. From May 1945:

Betsy was in New York when Gene got the nod from his Uncle Sam. She’d been expecting it right along. But, like so many things in life, it happened at the one moment when she wasn’t expecting it. Because everything had been arranged for Gene to go overseas and entertain the troops as soon as he’d finished Anchors Aweigh. That’s why she was in New York, seeing about a play… …he phoned. She knew right away what it was, because he wouldn’t phone except about something important…

Her main feeling was: Here I’ve wasted three weeks in New York, when I could have been with Gene…He met her at the airport. Neither of them said much. Gene hates what he calls slush. Besides, he’d been ready, willing and able for a long time. Betsy doesn’t suppose many men leap with joy exactly when their time comes – especially when they’re married and have children…almost the worst thing for Gene would be leaving Kerry…On the other hand he was infinitely better off than lots of fathers who’d never seen their children at all…

They didn’t have long days together before Gene left, because he was working like mad on the cartoon number of Anchors Aweigh. To get it done, he had to work nights and Sundays. Every evening Betsy’d go to the studio and have dinner with him. They liked it that way – doing the things they’d always done, not trying to cram the time with a lot of gay fun that wouldn’t have come natural anyway…
Modern Screen notes that when coming home on furlough, Kelly in uniform does not look odd to his wife since he had worn a uniform for so long during the filming of Anchors Aweigh. The next time  you watch this man pirouetting in a seaman's costume with a cartoon mouse, remember he is a guy "bucking to go," as he would later say, and ready to don the uniform in real life.

This post was written for the Classic Movie Blog Association's Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon
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  1. I love that scene between Jerry and Gene. It sp iconic and forever tied to Kelly's legacy as an innovator. Nice aside about how his wife was so used to him being in a Navy outfit that when he actually wore one she found it perfectly normal.

  2. I love this musical with all its great songs: bursting out all over,'We Hate To Leave','I Begged Her' and 'If You Knew Susie','What Makes The Sunset', 'The Charm Of You' and the best of all.. the dancing talent of, Gene Kelly and his sidekick Franky.

  3. Great background information!
    it's interesting how Anchors Aweigh received praises, like the Best Picture nomination. Even On the Town, considered by Gene himself his best film, wasn't so praised.

  4. For all the times I've enjoyed the musical delights in "Anchors Aweigh" I had not been aware of Gene's background with the Navy. Wonderfully interesting article.

  5. Loved the great background information you provided on this simply perfect musical. It just makes you smile from ear to ear!

  6. Java, some great background on Gene Kelly's dedication to his craft and on a film I'm ashamed to admit I haven't seen. Yet, that is, because I'm recording it off TCM today and will soon rectify this oversight. After reading your post, I'm looking forward to it more than ever.

  7. Thanks for this fascinating background. I'll look at the film differently now.

  8. Java, I was fascinated and moved by your discussion of the background of the wonderful ANCHORS AWAY! It had to be tough for Gene Kelly to be away from his family during wartime, as well as the challenges he faced both onscreen and offscreen. Great post!

    P.S.: I've added JAVA'S JOURNEY to my favorite "Further Distractions" section of my blog TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED. I hope you don't mind!

  9. Great background info surrounding this film classic!

  10. Java.
    So sorry it took so long to get to the reviews.

    I loved your article on Anchor's Away and especially the personal info on Gene. Betsy and his Navy career. I have a soft spot for servicemen and especially the Navy given my own time in that branch as well as a long history of family members.

    It feels like Gene and Betsy had a wonderful and loving marriage. Considering his dedication to his craft and the long hours he spent mastering it whether it was on the dance floor. choreographing or even behind the camera he gave 110%. Something to be admired and appreciated given we don't see that anymore.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your take on the film and the added personal info was a real treat.

  11. Java, "Anchors Aweigh" is a real favorite of mine and I enjoyed all the back-story you included in your piece. Especially interesting were the articles cited from "Photoplay" and "Modern Screen," two magazines I used to beg my mother to buy for me. And she did. Very nice tribute to Gene Kelly in honor of his 100th birthday.

  12. Thanks for a really interesting post. I'm putting "Anchors Aweigh" on my "Must Rewatch Soon" list - and now that I know the background, it won't be the same experience.

  13. Thank you everyone for your kind comments.

    And thanks, Dorian for adding me to your "Further Distractions" section!

    - Java


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