During the ’40s and ’50s, a radical notion was introduced into the American musical. Someone got the bright idea that song and story — largely considered two separate entities within a show — just might work in tandem, each serving as an extension of the other. It was a move that changed the genre and brought upon some of the most bold artistic achievements it would ever produce…it’s too bad that 1955’s Hit the Deck didn’t get the memo. With the bulk of its soundtrack having not a damn thing to do with what’s happening on the screen, it’s no stretch to rank this among the frothiest of cinematic musicals, which is just fine; even the greats like Astaire and Rogers had to hoof it on air many a time in their careers. Though it may two-step along with a flimsy narrative for a bit on the long side, Hit the Deck isn’t without good times to share, with its lively tunes and eye-grabbing visuals making it an ideal choice for the Warner Archive Collection’s growing Blu-ray catalogue.
In the tradition of maritime musicals like Follow the Fleet and On the Town, our story concerns three sailors who want to be anywhere but in the service. But after having a heck of a time wrangling themselves some shore loves, Bilge (Tony Martin), Danny (Russ Tamblyn), and Rico (Vic Damone) finally get themselves two days to hit the city and live it up as fast as they can. Unfortunately, as soon as they set foot off the boat, these gobs proceed to get themselves wrapped up in troubles of the romantic kind. Bilge rushes to his dancer girlfriend Ginger (Ann Miller), only to find her fed up with having waited six years for a marriage proposal that never came. At the same time, Danny begins courting stage actress Carol (Debbie Reynolds), while Rico falls for Danny’s big sister Susan (Jane Powell) after rescuing her from a lothario’s arms. An impromptu brawl sends all three boys on the run from the shore patrol, leaving them with only a few hours to sort out their love lives and avoid the law before the Navy calls them back.
I won’t begrudge Hit the Deck‘s desires to put on a good show for its audience. With a string of up-and-at-’em anthems to its name (including its signature song, “Hallelujah!”), the movie’s optimism and energy are hard to deny. It’s a spirit-raiser in the oldest tradition, with director Roy Rowland (The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) seeming to have pulled out all the stops to make sure that viewers are kept entertained. The songs are belted out as passionately as they can be, the legendary Hermes Pan’s choreography nicely complements the soundtrack, and the production design exhibits a poppy nature that skews sentimental over tacky. No matter what, Hit the Deck at least looks like a million bucks, aiming to give folks their money’s worth through their eyes alone. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes, in which Reynolds and Tamblyn cavort about a carnival’s house of horrors, doesn’t even feature any singing at all, yet it’s a pleasure enough just to see each actor bounce, bound, and flip all over the place.
But while you can argue that Hit the Deck is a bubbly little musical that never harmed anyone, it’s still a whole lot of nothing with whom we have to spend nearly two hours. All we get to string our interest along for the running time are the romantic antics of its three leading men, all of whose situations have conclusions to foregone for us to care about what happens. Everyone’s guaranteed to make it out alright from the word go, and the film doesn’t even pretend to disguise it, from what little suspense and how few trials the characters experience en route to their happily ever afters. Not even the flick’s closest thing to a bad guy (that being a philandering actor played by Gene Raymond) carries very much wait, amounting to just more busywork for the story to sift through as it stalls for time. Everyone in the cast has appeal out the wazoo, but outside of dancing, telling hokey jokes, and playing the occasional broad ethnic stereotype, none of them have a whole lot to do. They all just smile, do their jobs, and hope the audience has enough collective patience to last them to the final curtain.
Though saying it makes even a fleeting impression is doing it a kindness, I don’t have anything against Hit the Deck. There’s not much to it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to have a grand old time, which the terrific tunes, charismatic characters, and dynamic dance moves work hard to make happen. Hit the Deck amounts to little beyond a couple of hours killed, but there’s enough fun here to convince you not to give up the ship so soon after setting sail.
(Hit the Deck is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)