The MGM musical classic Anchors Aweigh turns 70 in July, so here’s a spin through the record album based on its live-action/animated sequence supervised by Hanna and Barbera.
THE KING WHO COULDN’T DANCE (from MGM’s Anchors Aweigh)
Narrated by Gene Kelly
A Columbia Children’s Record Book J-25 (10” 78 RPM)
“Gene Kelly: Children’s Songs & Stories” Columbia Special Products P2-15024 (1979)
“Gene Kelly: The Happiest Birthday in the World” 51 West Records (1979)
Downloads on mp3: itunes and amazon.
Released in 1945. Writers: Isobel Lennart, Stanley Donen. Incidental Music: Lehman Engel. “The Worry Song” by Sammy Fain and Ralph Freed. Running Time: 7 minutes.
“The King Who Couldn’t Dance” sequence from the 1945 Technicolor MGM musical, Anchors Aweigh, is a staple of Hollywood montages that include the combination of live-action with animated characters, as well as profiles of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. The sequence is the results of a perfect storm of the talent of every kind available on the MGM studios lot during its heyday.
The “lookit me, I’m dancin’!” exclamation of Jerry as the King could just as well be attributed to the confident, assured Gene Kelly, whose extraordinary athleticism and cinematic ingenuity (with nods to Stanley Donen and other collaborators) made him ideal to pair with cartoon characters. His agility rivals the capabilities of an animated figure. (Jerry’s dance moves, but the way, were worked out with Kelly by his longtime associate Carol Haney and used as a guide for animators Ken Muse, Ray Patterson and Ed Barge.)
Original Sequence from Anchors Aweigh
When this sequence is used as an excerpt, it usually cuts right to the castle and the overall story context is left out. There’s more to The King Who Couldn’t Dance than “The Worry Song”, just as there is more to Anchors Aweigh than the animated sequence. (I’ve grown to love the film as a whole much more than as a kid, when I wanted to get through all the other stuff–about Mr. Iturbi and Aunt Susie, a shy Frank Sinatra and the lady who played Mrs. Brown on My Favorite Martian — and see the cartoon part.) The record allows the whole story to be told, with less emphasis on the dance sequence, since it is an audio experience rather than visual. The accompanying book contains interesting composites of a photographed Kelly with spot-color illustrations. It is very likely that the MGM cartoon unit supplied the art.
MGM did not release its film soundtracks on records until 1947, starting with Till The Clouds Roll By on their own label. Most recordings of film music were non-soundtrack re-creations. There were rare exceptions, most notably those of the Disney studio, whose soundtracks had a ten-year lead on MGM’s. At the time Anchors Aweigh was released to theaters, children’s records were hitting the height of their popularity; all the major labels had successful Disney titles and Capitol’s line of children’s records starring Bozo, Looney Tunes, Woody Woodpecker and others were just getting underway.
Under the direction of innovative producer Hecky Krasnow — who was responsible for Gene Autry’s hit versions of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “Frosty the Snowman” and “Peter Cottontail”, among many other records—Columbia was a major contender in the genre. Kelly recorded several Columbia children’s 78’s, almost all of which were reissued over subsequent decades on various LPs and singles.
For The King Who Couldn’t Dance, an entire audio production was created around Kelly’s narration, with a full orchestra and two actors, who are not identified (Jerry does not sound like Sara Berner played him on the record). Very likely it was recorded in New York at Columbia’s West 57th Street studio, if only for the presence of New York music legend Lehman Engel, who wrote and conducted the original background score for the record. Engel was responsible for many important records for the label, in addition to major works for Broadway and television. He also founded the prestigious BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, whose illustrious participants include Alan Menken, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.
The Kelly/Jerry sequence has become so much a part of our cultural fiber that it was even given affectionate tribute with Stewie Griffin on The Family Guy:
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“The King Who Couldn’t Dance”
This is the recording with the illustrations from the book bound into the album. Note that Kelly describes the fantasy world as “painted”, a clever way to convey the nature of the animated settings in a storybook-friendly way.
SPIN BONUS #1 Two more MGM-Hanna-Barbera animation/live-action sequences:
From “Invitation to the Dance”
From “Dangerous When Wet”
SPIN BONUS #2 Here’s the entire story book that was included in the original storybook album: