On the Town: Beyond Broadway

THEY PAINT THE TOWN WITH JOY!

onthetownAfter several successful collaborations between Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen in the 1940s, MGM gave them a chance to direct a movie. They had choreographed and worked in other ways on films like Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949). When they decided on an adaptation of the Broadway hit “On the Town” they were smart enough to rely on people they knew they could work with. Not only does the movie reunite them with a buddy, Frank Sinatra (who was at the height of his popularity at the time), but the cast list for On the Town virtually reads like a reprise of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. A lot may look familiar – but Kelly-Donen’s directing debut was part of a new wave.

Three sailors, Gabey (Kelly), Sinatra (Chip) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) are on a 24-hour leave in New York City and they are dazzled. Apart from catching all the sights, the boys are also looking to find three gals for the evening. Ozzie hooks up with Claire (Ann Miller), an anthropologist, at the Museum of Natural History, and Chip is quickly wooed by a female cab driver (Garrett) who doesn’t take no for an answer. As for Gabey, a poster of “Miss Turnstiles” catches his fancy and he’s thrilled when he finds Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen), the young lady who posed for the picture. She’s an aspiring actress; the sailors don’t understand that a poster doesn’t really make her a star… but Ivy is flattered by Gabey’s attention.

When Claire helps open a few doors at a hot nightclub, she makes it look like a favor paid to the “famous” Miss Turnstiles. But no fantasy lasts forever…

Moving at breakneck pace
This is one of Hollywood’s most famous musicals, but not part of the old “let’s put on a show” genre. Moving at breakneck pace, its story moves out of the typical Broadway theater, although there are heavily stylized scenes (such as the “Miss Turnstiles Ballet”) that depend on meticulously staged dancing and pastel-colored sets. Much of the action is filmed on New York City streets, showing what the Big Apple looked like almost 70 years ago.

This is obviously something the original Broadway show could not achieve, but critics have on the other hand pointed out what the filmmakers couldn’t do right – they skipped many of the show’s strongest songs that became hits in the 1940s in their own right. They were replaced by new Roger Edens tunes, but most songs (except the opening “New York, New York”, an immortal classic) are outshone by the dancing and the choreography. There is such pleasure in watching the cast perform numbers like “Prehistoric Man” to such dizzyingly silly, funny and engaging heights that you can’t take your eyes off them. Kelly, Sinatra and Munshin complement each other perfectly, and the women are wonderful; the sweetness of Vera-Ellen, the very physical comedy of Garrett and Miller’s dancing prowess are all on very attractive display.

It’s also a film that has outstanding dialogue courtesy of Adolph Green and Betty Comden. It’s certainly enough to make you forget that there’s not really a story, just a brilliant mess of set pieces, comedy, performances and music. There’s even a car chase involving very softhearted NYPD cops. Isn’t that lovely?

A final note on Sinatra’s firm-looking ass here. After reading later that he was so skinny at the time that his sailor costume needed padding, I realized the full extent of Hollywood magic at work. But I also appreciate sprinkles of realism such as the location shooting. It helps give this Big Apple musical its flavor.

On the Town 1949-U.S. 98 min. Color. Produced by Arthur Freed. Directed by Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen. Screenplay, Book: Adolph Green, Betty Comden. Cinematography: Harold Rosson. Songs: Leonard Bernstein, Roger Edens, Adolph Green, Betty Comden (“New York, New York”, Prehistoric Man”, “Main Street”). Music: Roger Edens, Lennie Hayton. Cast: Gene Kelly (Gabey), Frank Sinatra (Chip), Vera-Ellen (Ivy Smith), Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin.

Oscar: Best Scoring.

Last word: “It was tough shooting [in New York City], it wasn’t a routine, the city wasn’t out to help you like they are today. Frank Sinatra was like The Beatles, everywhere he went was chaos. It was madness. Fun, I knew what I wanted to do, we didn’t shoot much here. Maximum of two weeks. Then a studio in Los Angeles. In those days MGM thought musicals could only be done on a sound stage. I suspect because, let me make a lecture here. Silent films could be made anywhere. Camera was all you needed. Went all over the world. When sound happened in 1929-30, sound controlled making films. That’s when all the sound stages were insulated. Otherwise you heard noise on the outside street. The early musicals and talkies, they could only record in these walls. […] By the time we did ‘On the Town’, all the music was prerecorded. The sound wasn’t controlling at all. We recorded it separately. When you’re making a movie about New York City, it seems ludicrous to reproduce this amazing city on a sound stage, particularly in those days there was no computer generated imagery. They really believed you couldn’t shoot it anywhere but on stage. The only reason it happened was that Gene was a star, said we have to shoot [in New York].” (Donen, DGA.org)

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