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Star of the Month: Jane Powell
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,Hit the Deck

Hit the Deck (1955)

Hit the Deck, a 1955 musical extravaganza, probably would have been a bigger hit had it been released just five years earlier. With its previously filmed (and often imitated) tale of sailors on shore leave who end up putting on a show and falling in love it was very much a thing of Hollywood's past. At the same time, its emphasis on younger performers -- particularly Debbie Reynolds, Russ Tamblyn and Vic Damone -- and a prominent role for jukebox favorite Kay Armen, pointed to the Hollywood of the future. Within ten years producer Joe Pasternak, who had made stars of Deanna Durbin and Jane Powell in Hollywood's golden years, would be guiding Elvis Presley through some of his best later musicals. By that time, the film's cast would have moved on to non-musical roles or stage and nightclub work as the traditional Hollywood musical came to an end.

But for the almost two hours that Hit the Deck runs, the film is a testament to the kind of razzmatazz that made even the weakest of MGM's musicals surefire crowd pleasers. The 1927 Broadway hit first filmed in 1930 had a dynamite score, mostly by Vincent Youmans, including such standards as "Hallelujah," "Sometimes I'm Happy" and "More Than You Know." And in 1955, MGM still had the best voices to showcase numbers like that, including Powell, Tony Martin and Damone. Just to up the energy quotient, choreographer Hermes Pan, who had worked on Fred Astaire's films with Ginger Rogers, came up with a barefoot tap-dance for Ann Miller and a rousing number set in a fun house for the more athletically inclined Reynolds and Tamblyn.

But it was clearly the end-of-the-line for the MGM musical. Although Powell had just scored a hit with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Hit the Deck marked the end of her MGM career. With changing styles and budget cutbacks, the studio didn't have any more roles for her and let her go. It probably didn't help that she had just ended her marriage as the result of a scandalous affair with singer-dancer Gene Nelson. It was one thing for sexy dramatic stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner to trigger scandals. But for the pure-voiced girl-next-door to do so was almost unforgivable. Press coverage had gotten so heated that Nelson, under contract at Warner Bros., was barred from visiting Powell at MGM, and rumors flew that the studio was going to replace her on Hit the Deck. Fortunately, she stayed around to deliver some of the best vocals in her career (particularly on "Sometimes I'm Happy" and "Lucky Bird"). But with all of Hollywood cutting back, she made only one more musical, The Girl Most Likely at RKO in 1957, before fading from the screen. More recently, she has returned as a character actress on various television series and with an acclaimed turn in the pre-Broadway tryouts of Steven Sondheim's new musical, Bounce.

Ann Miller and Vic Damone were at the end of their MGM tenure as well. Debbie Reynolds held on by developing her other talents. The same year Hit the Deck came out she scored a comic hit in The Tender Trap as the determined virgin who lands womanizing playwright Frank Sinatra. The year after that, she would show her dramatic chops as a working class bride in The Catered Affair, more than holding her own against such dramatic heavyweights as Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine. Although Russ Tamblyn would still have some shots at musical stardom -- the musical fantasy tom thumb (1958) and the Oscar®-winning West Side Story (1961) -- he, too, had to branch out into other roles, eventually moving into character work on the TV series Twin Peaks and developing his talents as a poet and visual artist. He's also watched his daughter, Amber Tamblyn, spearhead a new generation of stars with her work on the daytime drama General Hospital and the prime-time hit Joan of Arcadia.

Producer: Joe Pasternak
Director: Roy Rowland
Screenplay: Sonya Levien, William Ludwig
Based on the musical play by Herbert Fields and Shore Leave by Hubert Osborne
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Music: George E. Stoll
Principal Cast: Jane Powell (Susan Smith), Tony Martin (Chief Boatswain's Mate William F. Clark), Debbie Reynolds (Carol Pace), Walter Pidgeon (Rear Adm. Daniel Xavier Smith), Vic Damone (Rico Ferrari), Gene Raymond (Wendell Craig), Ann Miller (Ginger), Russ Tamblyn (Danny Xavier Smith), J. Carrol Naish (Mr. Peroni), Kay Armen (Mrs. Ottavio Ferrari), Richard Anderson (Lt. Jackson), Jane Darwell (Jenny), Alan King (Shore Patrol).
C-113m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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