Hit the Deck (1955)
After last week’s melodramatic masterpiece Now, Voyager, it’s time for an exuberant, sparkling MGM musical where the worst things that happen are lovers’ quarrels and easily-fixed misunderstandings. So here is Hit the Deck, a joyful, absurd romp in CinemaScope!
Hit the Deck follows that classic pattern of three sailors on leave in the city. Obviously there are three girls involved, as well as a pompous star, an Admiral, and a florist.
There is also an entire sequence set in a carnival fun house, and an amazing finale on a battleship with gorgeous gold gowns, turquoise petticoats, and Ann Miller‘s fancy feet.
This film was based on a stage musical of the same name that premiered in 1927. The musical, in turn, was based on a play called “Shore Leave” by Hubert Osborne.
Hit the Deck was the second film adaptation of the musical. The first was a 1930 RKO production that was a faithful version of the stage musical. This Hit the Deck has some plot changes, but the score is relatively intact.
Fun fact: Reynolds, Powell, and Damone had worked together on the film Athena (1954), and Powell and Tamblyn had just scored a huge hit with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Plus, Powell and Damone had recently performed a duet in the film Deep in My Heart (1954), a biopic of Sigmund Romberg. So this movie was sort of a cast reunion.
After the patriotic credits, we move to Operation Ice Cream, somewhere ridiculously chilly where our three sailors are stationed. Think Antarctica or the North Pole.
Just as Rico and Danny are about to jump off an ice floe and into the frigid water as part of an exercise, Bilge arrives. He is searching for two sailors who can bake a cake, and naturally he picks his two buddies. We learn that it is the skipper’s birthday, but the cook is sick and there is no birthday cake! If Rico, Bilge, and Danny can make a cake they might get transferred out of that icebox.
One sailor already tried to bake a cake, but his rubbery attempt appears inedible. So now it is up to our three guys. Trouble is, none of them have the faintest idea how to bake a cake. But they still have time to sing in the kitchen! Hurrah for musicals!
After their song, Rico and Danny decide to drench the other guy’s rubbery cake in rum rather than trying to make their own. (Strangely, they can’t figure out how to bake a new cake, but they are capable of icing the nasty, rum-soaked cake very professionally.) The skipper is delighted, but when he blows out his candles, the cake is engulfed in a rum fireball. You can watch the scene here.
Next thing we know, all three guys have been sent to Operation Mud Pie, which is just as unpleasant as Ice Cream, but in a different way. We don’t follow our sailors in the bayou for long, though, because after a brief scene in the swamp they’re on leave in San Francisco, their home! (The Ice Cream/Mud Pie scenes were basically an excuse for the kitchen song. The movie could have started with the three guys in San Francisco.)
Fun fact: the films on the Olympia marquee behind the sailors are Woman of Taste and The Proud Land. “A Woman of Taste” was the novel that Dick Powell’s character was writing in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), (thanks, Dave, for pointing that out!) And The Proud Land was the movie that destroyed Kirk Douglas’ career in The Bad and the Beautiful! Posters for The Proud Land also appear in Minnelli’s film The Band Wagon (1953) during “The Girl Hunt Ballet:”
Also, I’m pretty sure MGM used the same fake marquee in The Band Wagon and in Hit the Deck. Compare:
And they’re most likely filming on the same “city street” set on the MGM backlot in both movies, too. Cool, right?
Anyway, our three sailors walk to a nightclub where Bilge’s fiancée, Ginger (Ann Miller), is headlining. Fun fact: RKO’s musical Follow the Fleet (1936) starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, was also loosely based on the musical “Hit the Deck,” and Ann Miller’s name in this film is an homage to Ginger Rogers.
Rico and Danny are suitably impressed by Bilge’s girl. But Danny and Rico have to go see their families, so they leave Bilge to watch Ginger’s act from the wings.
She sings the song “Keeping Myself For You” about being faithful even when one’s love is far away. Rather appropriate for Ginger and Bilge, don’t you think?
It’s a toe-tapping, sofa-utilizing performance with rhinestone dotted stockings and fur muffs. Ann Miller was one of the greatest tap dancers in Hollywood, and she struts her stuff in this film. Miller started as a child dance prodigy, but since she looked much older than her age, she bluffed her way into work at nightclubs when she was only thirteen. (She told them she was eighteen.)
Lucille Ball and Benny Rubin saw her at a club and brought her to RKO, where thirteen-year-old Miller signed a contract in 1936 (they also thought she was eighteen.) She eventually danced her way to MGM and appeared in such classics as Easter Parade (1948) and On the Town (1949, the quintessential three-sailors-on-leave movie). She’s a big personality who dominates the screen even when her magic feet aren’t whirring.
Bilge wants to surprise Ginger, so he subs in for the male singer who croons from backstage. You can watch the number here.
But Bilge doesn’t get the happy reaction he was expecting. Instead, Ginger confronts him in her dressing room with the Guys and Dolls thing about being engaged for years without getting married. Ginger says she’s been waiting around for Bilge for six years, and she’s finished.
As she changes into a shockingly purple tutu, she tells Bilge that she’s going to marry a nice civilian named Herman. Bilge is completely confused by her attitude, which shows us how clueless he is.
Meanwhile, Rico and Danny aren’t having the homecomings of their dreams, either.
Rico comes home to find his mother (Kay Armen, a popular singer) on a date with Mr. Peroni. She is not super pleased to see Rico because it exposes her lie. She’d told Mr. Peroni that her son was a little boy because she didn’t want Mr. Peroni to think she was old. Mr. Peroni is flabbergasted to see a very grown up Rico. He leaves.
Now Rico feels bad. But what was his mom’s end game here? At some point Mr. Peroni was going to meet her son!
Anyway, Danny gets home to a beautiful mansion and a cold, formal reunion with his father, who happens to be an Admiral (Walter Pidgeon). Danny has kept his father’s lofty position secret from his buddies because he doesn’t want any special treatment, but that just irritates his dad. The Admiral is desperate for his son to go to Annapolis and become an officer.
Fortunately for Danny, the Admiral only has time for a handshake and a tense conversation before he has to leave on business.
Unlike their father, Danny’s sister Susan (Jane Powell) is thrilled to see him. But she has to hurry away for an audition that’s also a date with an actor named Wendell Craig. Danny can’t face the fact that his little sister is all grown up. After all, he brought her a wind-up penguin as a gift, which is what every twenty-something girl wants. Danny sends it into Susan’s room as she is getting dressed for her date.
Oddly, Susan is utterly delighted with her gift and even sings to it! Again, hurrah for musicals!
But the song she sings, “Lucky Bird,” didn’t become a standard, despite classic lyrics like: “You don’t have to scheme and plan how to get a certain man, lucky bird!” and “You can even gain some weight, and you still can hold your mate, lucky bird!” You can watch “Lucky Bird” here.
As she sings, she changes out of her dotted dressing gown and into a coral red showstopper.
Helen Rose designed the costumes for this film and she did not skimp.
After Susan heads out for her audition, Danny goes to investigate this Craig fellow. He ends up backstage at the theater where Craig’s new show, “Hit the Deck,” is opening in a few days. He watches a pretty girl rehearse a number with three sailors, and it isn’t long before Danny jumps right in.
It’s strange to randomly join a rehearsal, but it’s even stranger that Carol (Debbie Reynolds) doesn’t stop despite the addition of a fourth sailor whom she has never seen before! You can watch it here.
Debbie Reynolds seems so young in this film even though it was released three years after her star turn in Singin’ in the Rain. But she was only twenty when Singin’ was released, which makes her a very old 23 or so in Hit the Deck. Powell also plays young in this movie, especially when compared to her great performance as Milly in Seven Brides (1954), or as Ellen in Royal Wedding (1951). Powell was about 25 when she made this movie.
When the song ends, Carol finally asks Danny what the heck he is doing there. He explains that he was hoping to watch a friend audition for Wendell Craig. No auditions here, she says! Uh oh. When Carol learns that it’s Danny’s sister “auditioning” for Craig, she gently tells him that it’s probably not on the level. Craig has a bad reputation.
Big brother Danny is horrified, but what can he do? So he rejoins his buddies at Ginger’s club. She amazes them with a quick change but tells them to get lost.
So all three guys go feel sad in an alley behind the club. They sing a song of woe about being all alone and uncared for.
Here are our sad sailors rehearsing:
After their self-pitying tune, they snap out of it and decide to go rescue Susan.
The damsel in distress is actually having a great time! A cozy dinner for two, a song, and some kissing is exactly what Susan was hoping for. You can watch Susan’s “audition” here.
Susan flits and twirls around the apartment, which I believe is the same set where Ann Miller tornadoes in Kiss Me, Kate (1953). You can watch that scene here.
Just as Craig (Gene Raymond) and Susan start to kiss, though, Rico, Danny, and Bilge march in. They don’t realize that Susan doesn’t need to be rescued, nor do they calmly talk things out. Instead, fists fly!
Rico grabs Susan and drags her away. They struggle and carp down streets and through a park. At one point, Susan breaks free of Rico’s grip and almost eludes him, but he catches her right in front of a policeman. Rico says they were just racing, and since he caught Susan, she has to kiss him. The cop tells Susan that she’d better kiss him if that was the bet! It’s a little disturbing. And ironic that the man who “rescued” Susan from Craig’s advances is now making unwanted advances of his own.
Then they calm down and sing a duet before Susan pretends she’s lost her shoe. When Rico goes back for it, Susan takes off in a taxi and heads for Craig’s apartment.
Craig is furious. He has a black eye, his promising evening is ruined, and his apartment is a mess. He calls the Shore Patrol and is determined to punish the three sailors. Susan overhears his plot and hurries off to warn the boys.
Meanwhile, Ginger is giving a different sort of performance at the club. Instead of rhinestone stockings and high heels, she’s the “lady of the bayou” in a sultry, barefoot number.
The dances in this film were choreographed by Hermes Pan, who is most famous for his work with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on films like Roberta and The Gay Divorcee. This number is definitely a departure for Ann Miller and for this movie, most of which adheres to a more classical tap-based style.
It’s a fun number, but it feels a little forced. Ann Miller is just so brassy and bold that it’s hard to buy her as a sultry and mysterious barefoot voodoo brothel lady. Cyd Charisse can pull that off, and maybe even Vera-Ellen. But it’s a stretch for Ann Miller. Her over-the-top costume with its enormous flame-colored feathers doesn’t help. She’s rather overdone compared to the shabby male dancers.
You can watch it here.
The shore patrol watches Ginger from the wings and follows her back to her dressing room to ask if she knows where Bilge is. But wait, what is that on the left side of the frame?
Why, it’s a woman dressed in a bathing suit originally worn by Esther Williams in On An Island With You (1948)! MGM and the other studios often re-used costumes, especially on extras and in crowd scenes, but it’s always a thrill to find them.
As Ginger is being questioned by the Shore Patrol, everyone else, including Carol, gathers at Rico’s mother’s house. But they’re glum. If the Shore Patrol finds them, they could be in huge trouble. But there is still time for a song!
Here they are posing for some behind-the-scenes pics.
Instead of coming together to find a solution, everyone quarrels with everyone else and soon the ladies are hanging out on a bench singing the same sad song the men did in that alley. Ginger, despondent after wasting six years on Bilge; Susan, who recently had four men fighting over her and now has zero; and Carol, who literally just met Danny a few hours ago but is still very miserable.
All the men are very worried about Susan hanging out with Craig, but no one acts concerned or even questions Carol’s presence with Danny. If Susan is so reckless and naive to go on a date with Craig, Carol is just as bad, if not worse. We know Danny is a nice guy, but she doesn’t! Plus, she’s an actress, and we know what that might mean!
Maybe that’s why Helen Rose adorns Carol in all those trim collars. Every costume that Debbie Reynolds wears in this film has a collar (except her rehearsal outfit which substitutes a neckerchief), including her adorable green polka dot evening coat.
The collars could be read as a subtle reminder that although Carol is an actress who runs off with strange men, she is really a good girl.
Anyway, the girls sing their woeful song as the camera pulls back to emphasize their loneliness. It’s one of my favorite songs in the whole movie. The choreography is hardly choreography at all, just well-timed forlorn poses, but it’s a pitiful-funny scene performed by three pros. Susan’s glorious pink, orange, and coral petticoat certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
There’s nice symmetry with the men’s rendition of it, too. You can watch the ladies’ version here.
As our main characters wallow, the Shore Patrol makes its way to Danny’s house. They ask for Daniel Smith, and are shown into the Admiral’s study. You see, Danny is named after his father! The Shore Patrol realize immediately that this imposing Admiral Daniel Smith is most likely not the sailor who brawled over a girl, but they’re stuck.
The Admiral figures out that the Daniel Smith they are looking for is his son, but he doesn’t say anything. He wants to get to the bottom of this himself.
The next morning, Susan and her father have a tense, roundabout conversation while breakfasting on the terrace. The Admiral’s main concern is that Danny won’t get into the Naval Academy with a fight on his record. He has no idea that Susan was the girl Danny fought over…
Fun fact: Walter Pidgeon had played Jane Powell’s father in Holiday in Mexico (1946), too.
But when is the next song? Don’t worry, a tender ballad comes pretty soon when Bilge visits Ginger’s apartment. And soon they’re back together. Herman, if he ever existed at all, is forgotten. You can watch the tender scene here.
So one couple is reunited, but what about Carol and Danny? Well, they meet at a carnival. Danny is making out with a monkey when collared Carol arrives, but almost immediately they spot the Shore Patrol and hide in the “Devil’s Funhouse.” Carol even pretends to be an Animatronic attraction to evade their pursuers!
Danny and Carol slip into the funhouse and are immediately in a weird world designed just for their particular talents. Tamblyn was an acrobat turned dancer best known for his roles in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and West Side Story (1961), and Reynolds trained as a gymnast. They’re both athletic and energetic performers, so the funhouse with its slides, moving floors, trampolines, and assorted spinning objects showcases their abilities.
It’s a wild, weird, extraneous romp with cyan-faced devils and smoke machines.
Fun fact: This number took three days to film. Also, Russ Tamblyn is actress Amber Tamblyn’s dad!
They play with trick mirrors and spin near hanging frogs (lower left image):
When it’s over, you’re not quite sure what just happened, but you feel changed.
While those two weirdos are wasting time in a funhouse, Wendell Craig is preparing for opening night. He’s got a brilliant black eye, and he’s still furious about the fight. He’s also a bad man.
Susan comes to his dressing room to plead with him to drop the charges. He says he will, but only if the sailors apologize to him in person. So stupid Susan runs off to fetch them, while wily Wendell calls the Shore Patrol to set up a trap. Rico, Bilge, and Danny arrive at his dressing room but escape at the last moment thanks to Susan’s quick thinking. Unfortunately, they’re stuck in the theater, but fortunately, the show is full of sailors, so they blend right in.
Costume appreciation break. At first Susan’s beige dress appears dull, but notice the layered, sparkly skirt, the scalloped hem, the sheer sleeves, and the burst of warm coral that runs across and around.
Back to the movie. The guys hide backstage as Carol performs her “Loo-Loo” number in, you guessed it, a collared tutu!
We forget about the guys’ predicament as we watch Carol dance and sing in that ridiculous costume.
But the Shore Patrol gets closer and closer until the fellas are forced onstage. To make things worse, the Admiral and his aide are in the audience.
The theater dissolves into chaos when our three are finally apprehended. They ended up slightly out of position as the curtain closed, which made them very easy to tackle. You can watch the scene here.
Here they are during a break in rehearsal:
The Admiral handles the case personally and is astonished to find out that the girl the men were fighting about was his daughter. That puts things in a different light.
Then the ladies show up and overwhelm the poor Lieutenant (Richard Anderson).
So he gets the full story, too, and decides to take matters into his own hands. He goes to see Wendell Craig…
Meanwhile, Susan puts on a chic suit and gets a stern talking to, but she manages to explain the situation and even gain her Papa’s respect. Win-win!
Fun fact: this was Jane Powell’s last film for MGM, the studio where she’d worked since 1944. She’d signed with them when she was only fifteen. But the era of big musicals was ending, and Powell hoped to get better parts elsewhere. She would make only one more musical, The Girl Most Likely (1957) at RKO before turning to a very successful stage and television career.
Then the Admiral gets a surprise visit from Craig, who explains that he wants to drop the charges after all. The Lieutenant kindly threatens him, telling him he’d better marry Susan, drop the charges, or face the wrath of an Admiral. Craig can’t marry Susan (he’s already married and he doesn’t want to anyway,) so he opts to drop all charges.
Maybe it’s just me, but that Lieutenant might be the best catch of the bunch!
Anyway, now everything is cleared up, everybody is matched up, and it’s time for a slam-bang finish on board a battleship with plenty of gold and turquoise! Hallelujah!
And yes, Carol’s dress has a collar and a bow tie.
The finale starts out as a group effort, but Ann Miller quickly takes control.
She spins and taps and wins.
Nobody can work a skirt like Ann Miller, and what a skirt it is! Pleated gold lamé with turquoise crinoline…I’m drooling.
After Ann Miller’s exuberant solo, she’s joined by Bilge and the other couples for a quick kiss and finale flourish:
“Hallelujah” is one of those numbers that has completely given up on “realism,” (though this movie had only a tenuous grasp on that in the first place). Hit the Deck just goes for it at the end, thank goodness! There is no rational explanation for what is happening: everyone is on the deck of a massive ship, (obviously a set), the women are in coordinating dresses, and everyone performs straight to the camera. Also, the entire Navy knows how to dance. It’s marvelous. You can watch it here.
Many point to this film as the end of MGM’s wonderful tradition of musicals. The studio used to churn out musicals like this with large ensemble casts and tons of numbers constantly in the 1940s and early 1950s, but production had slowed. Hit the Deck was not the last MGM musical, but it could be considered the last of a certain type. But what a way to go with a finale like this!
As the trailer proudly proclaims, Hit the Deck is “The Happiest, the Bounciest Bundle of Entertainment of the Year!” Here’s the trailer, enjoy! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook! Thanks for reading! And you can buy this fun film here!