#436) On the Town (1949)
OR “Fleet Week: The Musical”
Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Based on the stage play by Comden & Green and Jerome Robbins. Original songs by Comden & Green and Leonard Bernstein. Additional music by Roger Edens.
Class of 2018
The Plot: Sailors Gabey, Chip, and Ozzie (Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin) have a 24 hour shore leave in New York City, and they don’t want to miss a sight, and by sight I mean woman. Gabey pursues aspiring dancer Ivy, aka “Miss Turnstiles” (Vera-Ellen), Ozzie falls for anthropologist Claire (Ann Miller), and Chip finds himself in the arms of cab driver Hildy (Betty Garrett). There’s plenty of music and mayhem to be had by these six in New York, New York, a helluva wonderful town.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film no less than “movie magic”, praising the “sparkling direction”, “splendid songs”, and its representation of America’s post-war “national optimism”.
But Does It Really?: This one is definitely a minor classic. Overall it’s a fun output from Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, but we all know they can do much, much better. Still, “New York, New York” is one of the most iconic musical numbers in film history, and you can’t have this list without it. So the remaining 95 minutes of this movie, as dated and uninspired by comparison as they are, get preserved thanks to an unforgettable opening number. That’s a helluva legacy.
Shout Outs: Lucy asks Gabey if he’s ever seen “The Lost Weekend”.
Everybody Gets One: Special mention to leading ladies Betty Garrett and Vera-Ellen (though I suspect “White Christmas” will make the cut eventually). Neither Garrett nor Vera-Ellen had much of a film career after “On the Town”: Vera-Ellen retired from public life following a personal tragedy, and Garrett was blacklisted along with her husband Larry Parks. Garrett’s career would later rebound with work on “All in the Family” and “Laverne & Shirley”.
Wow, That’s Dated: In addition to the film’s antiquated skirt chasing, we get references to such ‘40s culture as “High Button Shoes”, Shmoos, and Alfred Kinsey! Also, suffice to say that New York is a very, very different city now.
Title Track: The title number “On the Town” was written specifically for the film, and I’ve already forgotten about it.
Seriously, Oscars?: A hit in 1949, “On the Town” won an Oscar for its sole nomination: Scoring of a Musical Picture. The film benefited from weak competition from fellow nominees “Jolson Sings Again” and “Look for the Silver Lining”. You don’t see either of them on this list, that’s for sure.
- MGM purchased the film rights to “On the Town” before the show even opened! When Arthur Freed finally saw the show, he hated it and made the film a low priority on his list. Stage director George Abbott was replaced by Kelly & Donen to distance the movie from the play. “On the Town” was the directorial debut for both Kelly and Donen, who had been seeking more creative control over their MGM projects.
- To further differentiate the film version, most of the play’s songs were deleted in favor of new numbers by in-house composer Roger Edens. What could have been if Arthur Freed had actually liked the show.
- Kelly & Donen pleaded with Freed to film “On the Town” in New York, with Freed eventually allowing them nine days to shoot in the city. Unexpected rain caused delays, but they managed to shoot the entire opening sequence. Watching Kelly, Sinatra, and Munshin cavorting around the real city puts “New York, New York” head-and-shoulders above the rest of the film.
- Jules Munshin is to this movie what Ernie Hudson is to “Ghostbusters”. Munshin is adept at the comic shtick he is provided, but this movie really doesn’t care about Ozzie.
- Vera-Ellen kinda looks like Michelle Williams.
- Gabey tracks down Ivy using clues in her “Miss Turnstiles” poster, but none of those clues appear on the actual poster he’s holding. That’s a pretty massive plot hole. How did no one catch that?
- Betty Garrett is having fun as Hildy, but she lacks the dynamite energy of a Nancy Walker or Lea DeLaria. Also, a woman being sexually aggressive towards Sinatra? Not so fun on this side is it, Francis?
- “Prehistoric Man” is an excuse to get Ann Miller’s feet a-tapping, and her costume is likewise designed to give her legs a good reveal. It’s fun, but man oh man the cultural appropriation in this number. That’s not making the highlight reel any time soon.
- Hildy’s roommate Lucy is played by Alice Pearce, aka Gladys Kravitz #1. Pearce is the only cast member from the original show to reprise their role.
- This film breaks the 180 rule of filmmaking on a few occasions, causing characters to suddenly swap places in the frame. Rookie move, Kelly & Donen.
- Just a reminder that Chip threw his guidebook off the top of the Empire State Building, no doubt killing an innocent bystander 1200 feet below.
- Wow, these new songs aren’t great. No wonder Sinatra didn’t add these to the act. Side note: Sinatra would eventually record “Lonely Town”, a song from the stage version.
- Shoutout to costume designer Helen Rose: Ivy, Claire, and Hildy have great costumes! I think it’s to make up for the necessarily dull sailor suits from the men.
- That’s voiceover actor Hans Conried in an early on-screen role as the Head Waiter.
- “Somewhere in the world is the right girl for every boy.” This movie just keeps adding to its “Wow, That’s Dated” section.
- “A Day in New York” is Gene Kelly’s mandated third act extended ballet. It’s fine, but we all know the best ones are just around the corner.
- Not a lot of movie musicals end in a car chase. I think just this and “Les Miserables”. Kidding of course: that movie sucks.
- Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen both started their directing careers with “On the Town”, and while they both found subsequent success making movies individually, nothing can top their collaboration on “Singin’ in the Rain”.
- The stage version of “On the Town” has been revived on Broadway from time to time, most recently in 2014.
- 70 years later, this film’s main takeaway is still the “New York, New York” number. Many have donned the sailor suit and belted a few bars, in one case in honor of that other helluva town: Springfield.
Further Viewing: 1945’s “Anchors Aweigh”, the OTHER Gene Kelly/Frank Sinatra “sailors on shore leave” movie musical. It’s the one where Gene Kelly dances with Jerry the Mouse!