Anchors Aweigh
d. George Sidney / 1945 / USA / 139 mins
NFT1 @ BFI Southbank (London, UK)

Still from Anchors Aweigh

2010 marks the 75th anniversary of the British Film Institute’s National Archive, one of the most outstanding national moving image collections in the world – and as part of their celebrations earlier this year, they screened a selection of films on their original nitrate cellulose release stock. These were the first screenings of nitrate in the UK for a number of years, in the only cinema in the country licensed to show nitrate to the general public.

Up until the early 1950s, 35mm motion picture film was primarily produced with a base of nitrocellulose, an easily ignitable, highly combustible compound able to burn with little or no oxygen, also used to produce low-order explosives such as guncotton. And yet, ask any projectionist or preservationist of a certain age about nitrate film and their eyes will likely glaze over at the mere thought of the lustrous black and white images created by a film stock that also possessed a high silver content. The Long Live Film series at BFI Southbank did, of course, feature a number of black and white nitrate screenings, but sadly (or not) I only made it to Anchors Aweigh, which provided an equally interesting demonstration of the Technicolor dye process on nitrate stock.

It should be said, however, that the occasion of a nitrate screening wasn’t the only treat on offer, with the provenance of the print itself proving especially interesting, considering the film follows the on-shore exploits of a pair of Naval seamen, played by Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. According to research and physical inspection undertaken by BFI National Archive fiction curator John Oliver, the print for this screening seems to have come directly from the wartime organisation set up to entertain the troops, ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association or, as it was pejoratively known by servicemen at the time Every Night Something Awful).

And then, of course, there is the film itself – something of a classic (even if it only serves to emphasize just how awkward Sinatra looked was when he was younger), featuring the infamous, and ever-adorable, Gene Kelly / Jerry the Mouse dance sequence, amongst others.

And yet, all the while, I simply couldn’t get over the fact that I find Gene Kelly to be one of the most unintentionally sinister Hollywood actors of all time. And whilst I’m not exactly sure what brought it on, I’m surely not the only person in this world that finds Kelly a teensy bit scary. Maybe it’s that freaky VW Golf advert (with Gene Kelly’s head grafted onto David Elsewhere’s body as he performs to Mint Royale’s remix of Singin’ in the Rain), or perhaps it’s that same song’s association with a certain milk-guzzling, Beethoven-loving brute – whatever it is, I can’t help but see something sinister in Gene Kelly’s eyes, especially when he’s ‘acting’ angry.

Take, for instance, the scene in Anchors Aweigh where he is chastising Frank Sinatra’s character for making him oversleep. I mean, it’s only him looking at a clock, but how menacing is this:

Gene gets angry...

And then he shifts his baleful gaze to (young) Ol’ Blue Eyes:

He don't like Frankie, oh no...

And it’s probably just as well that looks can’t kill:

If looks could kill...

But all those looks simply express menace, so maybe Kelly’s just a good actor? Then again, surely this is the glare of a psychopath:

Freaky Gene

So there you have it, if Gene Kelly wasn’t so committed to all-singing, all-dancing merry-making, he almost certainly would have been a psychopath. Fact.

Okay, so maybe not, but he still kind of freaks me out, although not as much as Anthony Perkins.

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