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Ship Ahoy (1942) makes up for its lightweight story with all the verve and fun that its title implies. A true product of its time, this now-forgotten MGM musical features the energetic dancing of Eleanor Powell, the swinging sounds of Tommy Dorsey's big band, and the striking voice of a young Frank Sinatra in only his second feature film appearance. In the end, these are the main reasons to recommend the movie, but they're certainly enough for fans of the era.
Ship Ahoy was originally called I'll Take Manila, but by the time the film was released in May 1942, the Japanese had taken the Philippines. The result was a new title, a new setting (Puerto Rico), and a new song: the number "I'll Take Manila" became "I'll Take Tallulah"!
That would be Tallulah Winters, the name of the character played by Eleanor Powell. She's a dancer with Dorsey's band on a passenger ship to Puerto Rico. On board, she gets involved in a spy plot involving stolen plans for a new weapon. Red Skelton, Bert Lahr and specialty performer Virginia O'Brien (with her trademark deadpan style) provide much of the comedy, but really it's the music and dancing that are the show here. Variety thought so, too, calling the picture "grandiose silliness" and praising the music above all else. The reviewer also declared Lahr to be "the comic mainstay of the film," outshining even Skelton, who had only recently become a star thanks to his turn in Whistling in the Dark (1941).
Eleanor Powell was one of the best dancers ever to light up the screen, and she does not disappoint. She had recently and memorably partnered with Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) and appeared in the starring vehicle Lady Be Good (1941). Her career wouldn't last much longer, however. She acted in I Dood It (1943) and Thousands Cheer (1943), soon thereafter marrying Glenn Ford and basically retiring to become a wife and mother. Deeply religious, she later wrote and acted in a 1950s television series called The Faith of our Children. Author Jeanine Basinger (The Star Machine) has written that Powell is used in Ship Ahoy to provide musical background in a vehicle primarily designed to further the stardom of Red Skelton. Still, Basinger writes, Powell displays a cornucopia of dancing: "She does a hotcha hula that irritated Hawaiians, a mock bullfight, and a hokey cowboy number with spinning lariats she twirls and jumps through." Her most entertaining moment, though, comes when "she taps out a Morse Code SOS to warn the hero about endangerment from spies."
Frank Sinatra had made his feature debut one year earlier, in Las Vegas Nights (1941). He'd only recently broken into the limelight, signing with Harry James's band in 1939 for $65/week before Tommy Dorsey snagged him away for $100/week. While with Dorsey, Sinatra appeared in Las Vegas Nights and Ship Ahoy, and soon afterwards he broke out on his own and won the enthusiasm of bobbysoxers everywhere. Here's how Sinatra explained his appeal: "Perfectly simple: It was the war years and there was a great loneliness, and I was the boy in every corner drugstore, the boy who'd gone off drafted to the war. That's all."
In Ship Ahoy, Sinatra sings "The Last Call For Love," "Poor You," and "Moonlight Bay." (Other tunes in the film include "Tampico," "How About You?" and "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You.") Tommy Dorsey's band at this time was at the top - up there with Glenn Miller. Sinatra was of course a huge factor, but Dorsey also had famed trumpeter Ziggy Elman and drummer Buddy Rich, late of Artie Shaw's band.
As George T. Simon wrote in The Big Bands, "Sinatra blossomed with Dorsey, and with Sinatra the Dorsey band became more successful than ever." Though they ultimately parted on not the greatest of terms, Sinatra respected the bandleader. In a 1940s interview, Sinatra said: "There's a guy who was a real education to me in every possible way. I learned about dynamics and phrasing and style from the way he played his horn, and I enjoyed my work because he sees to it that a singer is always given a perfect setting." Sinatra left Dorsey in the summer of 1942, just a few months after Ship Ahoy was released. Dorsey replaced him with Dick Haymes, and soon after that, Teddy Walters.
Though Ship Ahoy was an MGM movie, Sinatra was not under contract to the studio yet. RKO signed him to his first contract, and Sinatra made two films for the studio: Higher and Higher (1943), his first credited picture, and Step Lively (1944). MGM's Louis B. Mayer then bought out the contract and put him in Anchors Aweigh (1945), and Sinatra's film career really began.
Producer: Jack Cummings
Director: Edward Buzzell
Screenplay: Harry Clork; Matt Brooks, Bradford Ropes, Bert Kalmar (story); Irving Brecher, Harry Kurnitz (uncredited)
Cinematography: Robert H. Planck, Leonard Smith (as Arthur Miller)
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: George Bassman, George E. Stoll (both uncredited)
Film Editing: Blanche Sewell
Cast: Eleanor Powell (Tallulah Winters), Red Skelton (Merton K. Kibble), Bert Lahr (Skip Owens), Virginia O'Brien (Fran Evans), William Post, Jr. (H.U. Bennet), James Cross ('Stump'), Eddie Hartman ('Stumpy'), Stuart Crawford (Art Higgins), John Emery (Dr. Farno), Bernard Nedell (Pietro Polesi), Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra featuring Frank Sinatra.
by Jeremy Arnold