|On the Town (1949)
Run time: Passed | 98 min | Comedy, Musical, Romance
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Writers: Adolph Green, Betty Comden
Stars: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett
On the Town changed the landscape of movie musicals, opening the filmmakers’ eyes to what could be done on location. When brilliant location and studio production are blended it could be – as here – ebullient up – and at – ‘em perfection.
Budget: $2,111,250 (estimated)
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I’ve rewatched both these movie musicals in the space of a week, and ON THE TOWN is no SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. I mean, what is? By 1952, the sheer technical mastery of Gene Kelly had melded perfectly with an entire soundtrack of classics and a clever, satirical plotline with some of the best film characters ever created (Lina Lamont, anybody?).
Having got *that* out of the way, however, there is simply no denying that ON THE TOWN is essential viewing in the Kelly oeuvre. It tells the story of three lonely sailors who finally get shore leave in New York for 24 hours. Of course, they’re on the prowl to paint the town red, preferably with girls on their arms. (Though for a brief while Sinatra does charmingly play a skinny little geek bent on seeing the sights of New York, flinging facts from his guide book and appearing unaffected by Betty Garrett’s streetwise cabbie flinging herself at him.) Gabey (Gene Kelly) falls for ‘Miss Turnstiles’ or Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen), and spends the day trying to track her down from information on the poster. Chip (Frank Sinatra) meets cabbie Hildy (Garrett) who teaches him how to have a little fun while they romp gaily through two great duets together (‘Come Up To My Place’ and ‘You’re Awful’). Ozzie (Jules Munshin), in the meantime, gets entangled with the Claire Huddesen (an absolutely delightful Ann Miller), who likes how much he resembles her ideal ‘Prehistoric Man’. They dance and sing their way through a series of misunderstandings between Gabey and Ivy, but all comes right in the end as the girls bid their fellows farewell from the dock.
So what’s so good about ON THE TOWN, you ask? Well, first of all, it’s brilliant fun and very amusing–from the dancing to the singing to the snappy dialogue. It takes a while to get used to the *very* forward New York women (played with marvellous wit and charm by Garrett and Miller), but once you get over their throwing themselves at Chip and ‘Specimen’ respectively, you really appreciate ON THE TOWN for what it is: pure, unadulterated, and unpretentious entertainment.
Granted: The songs aren’t as catchy as in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. But there are definitely some minor classics to be heard here–‘You’re Awful’, Frankie’s serenading of Betty, and ‘Count On Me’ being among them. I thought it was a really nice touch to have Bern Hoffman singing a lazy-morning song, ‘I’m Feeling Like I’m Not Out Of Bed’ to bookend the film beginning and end, to give the sense of a full day having passed.
It should probably also be granted that there isn’t quite enough dancing, especially not from Gene Kelly (who is always a delight to watch, even when mostly playing the bystander as he was in the ‘Count On Me’ number) and Ann Miller, who got the chance to show off her amazing tap-dancing skills and gorgeous gams in the wildly energetic ‘Prehistoric Man’. (It only whetted my appetite to see *more* of her dancing and singing! I’d have liked it if Miller’s role was expanded, period. She gave her character an indescribable life and vivacity in the limited screen time she had and overshadowed Vera-Ellen easily.). I’d have loved it if Kelly had danced properly with Miller too, the latter being one of the best female tap-dancers in the business. All the same, the sweet ballad ‘Main Street’ that Gabey sings to Ivy is accompanied by a beautiful dance routine that shades naturally and easily from dancing to walking and back again–a perfect example of Gene Kelly’s ability as both dancer and choreographer to present and capture movie magic with no special effects. I actually much prefer the ‘New York Ballet’ in this film to the one in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, mostly because it fits the plot beautifully, and is smaller and more intimate and more focused on Gene Kelly the dancer rather than Gene Kelly the choreographer. It gives Kelly the opportunity to shine as both dancer *and* actor: the scenes when he dances with the Miss Turnstiles poster are achingly believable in the way they could only be if Kelly were dancing in them. The shadow sequence at the ballet barre with Vera-Ellen is also something incredible to behold and perfectly-staged.
ON THE TOWN is a great night at the movies, and is time well-spent with a few characters you really get to know, an excellent cast (Alice Pearce practically steals the entire show as Lucy Schmeeler, for example–not an easy task considering who she was playing against!), and a great soundtrack. It’s probably one of the best precursors you could have to Kelly’s much more ambitious musical undertakings in the form of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. But on its merits, it is definitely worth watching. Perhaps again and again. 8/10.
Here’s an idea: Get a group of exceptionally talented performers together, sketch in an outline of a story based on a successful Broadway show, then supply the score, songs and setting in which they can individually and collectively showcase their respective gifts, turn them loose and see what happens, see if it works. Of course, by the time this film was made in 1949, MGM knew it would work, as it had for them many times previously; there was no guess work involved. The result this time around was `On The Town,’ a lively musical which marked the directorial debut of co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, with Kelly starring and also doing the choreography. The plot is simple: Three sailors get twenty-four-hour shore leave in New York and set off to make the most of it. Chip (Frank Sinatra) wants to see the sights; Ozzie (Jules Munshin) wants to play; and Gabey (Kelly) immediately falls into an obsession over a girl he sees on a subway poster, `Miss Turnstiles’ of the month, Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen), and vows to find her. Along the way they run into a quirky cab driver, Brunhilde (Betty Garrett), and a young woman, Claire (Ann Miller), doing some research at a museum. But what this movie is really all about is entertainment, and it delivers it by the songful.
Kelly and Donen bring it all to life through the words and music of Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein, and the score, which earned an Oscar for Roger Edens and Lennie Hayton. it kicks off with Sinatra, Munshin and Kelly doing `New York, New York,’ in which they enlighten you to the fact that `The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, and people ride in a hole in the ground–‘ a dynamite opening that sets the stage for all that comes after. And it’s pure entertainment that just sweeps you away with it while you hum along with the six stars of the show as they do what they do best, and it’s a delight from beginning to end.
Without a doubt, Kelly emerges as the star among the stars, and his solo numbers and the ones he performs with Vera-Ellen are especially engaging; but this is one of those musicals in which one memorable number follows another, with each of the principals getting their own moment in the spotlight. Vera-Ellen has a great number early on in the film, in which Miss Turnstiles is introduced; Ann Miller taps her way through a rousing routine in the museum (in which she is joined by Sinatra, Munshin, Kelly and Garrett) that really gives her a chance to show her stuff; and Sinatra and Garrett engage in a memorable bit in song, as she attempts to get him to `Come Up To My Place.’ Through it all, Sinatra exudes a certain boyish charm while Garrett and Munshin provide the comic relief. All of which makes for a fun and thoroughly entertaining movie experience.
The supporting cast includes Alice Pearce (Lucy), Sid Melton (Spud), Hans Conried (Francois) and Florence Bates (Madame Dilyovska). Some movies are made simply to transport you to another place for a couple of hours, put a smile on your face, a song on your lips and just make you feel good; and `On The Town’ is certainly one of them. This is pure, uplifting and satisfying Entertainment, beautifully crafted and delivered and guaranteed to make your day a little brighter. The fact is, they just don’t make em like this anymore, and it’s a shame. Because this is what the magic of the movies is all about. I rate this one 9/10.
Grand, sure-fire musical entertainment courtesy of MGM, "On the Town" brings euphoric life to the ‘Big Apple’ like no other piece of celluloid, comedy or drama, before or since. More than just a breath of fresh air, this breezy souffle of a movie is like taking a huge whiff of pure oxygen, leaving you so exhilarated you’d swear you were on some kind of substance-induced high. Drenched in old-fashioned innocence and loaded with dazzling footwork, it gave a tremendous boost to the careers of all involved and helped to create a whole new style of musical film.
Three swabbies on a 24-hour shore pass during WWII bask in the sights and delights of NYC while running into new lady loves in the interim. That’s all there is to it. The first musical to actually shoot on location, the viewer has the surreal-like thrill of a first-time vacationer as the movie juxtaposes every tourist trap imaginable, plus some, while capturing the pulse and heart of the City to endless effect.
Briskly co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, the movie would initially appear to have everything going AGAINST it. The plot is so thin and flaky it almost evaporates into thin air. Moreover, the directors made the seemingly unwise choice of dumping nearly all of the charming Leonard Bernstein score and Betty Comden/Adolph Green libretto for newer, untried songs by Roger Edens. Well, in good reliable hands, this not only works, it dances circles around the original!
There’s so much going for this movie in the name of talent that its hard to know where to begin. Gene Kelly prepped his choreographic talents here for the later landmark musicals "An American in Paris" and "Singin’ in the Rain." He is sheer delight as the lovelorn sailor who pines for "Miss Turnstiles," a billboard fantasy. Jules Munshin unleashes pure Ed Wynn buffoonery as the sailor with the least animal magnetism. Even Frank Sinatra, allows himself to get caught up in all the fun.
And the girls are irresistible too. Betty Garrett shoots with both barrels as the man-chasing cabbie and proves she is quite capable of stepping up to the plate in the dance department. Lithe and lovely Vera-Ellen, who never won the attention she fully deserved, is poetry in motion as Kelly’s dream come true. In particular, her adagios with Kelly are imbued with such unsullied passion that it can’t help but tug at the ol’ nostalgic heart-strings. Peppy Ann Miller is, as always, a revelation as the toe-tapping anthropologist, taking full advantage of the zingy score’s newer songs and embellishing them with now-classic dance routines.
As a special treat, my favorite character actress, Alice Pearce, offers side-splitting comedy relief as Kelly’s impromptu blind date managing to steal one song from the star ensemble while finding a touching moment of pathos in her final scene. The homely comedienne went on to play nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz in the "Bewitched" TV series to Emmy-winning acclaim. Florence Bates also makes the most of her patented huff and scowl as a tipsy ballet mistress, and see if you can scout out an unbilled Bea Benadaret (Kate in "Petticoat Junction") as a subway tootsie.
Still the highlight, and there are many highlights, is the infectious title tune atop the Empire State Building with Kelly & Company. Nowhere in the history of filmed musicals will you find such barn-storming talent and exuberant fun packed into one simple little tune. That sequence is a natural tape-rewinder.
You know the old saying, "They don’t make ’em like this anymore?" Oh, they are so right.
Three soldiers on shore in New York City have a 24-hour romp in the city. That’s it. There is nothing else to the plot of this fantastic musical, but that doesn’t hurt ON THE TOWN one bit.
New York has been the focus of film since the beginning of film itself when a 10 minute short about the New York City subway system was made. Here, although not all scenes were actually filmed in New York (and according to Betty Garrett, she and the other girls never saw the city except for the final scene on the harbour, the subject and main character of the film is New York itself: bustling energy, its loud, screeching subway system complete with adverts and pin-up posters (one of Ms Turnstiles which catches Gene Kelly’s attention), its (then) tallest building the Empire State Building, its urban landmarks.
As I said in the beginning, there is not much plot. What plot there is consists mainly of the three soldiers pairing off with three women: Jules Munshin with Ann Miller, Frank Sinatra with Betty Garrett, and Gene Kelly with Vera-Ellen, the only one with a back-story and a secret, one that has her slipping from Kelly’s arms and leading to a remarkable chase against the clock to find her. The musical numbers are outstanding (especially Garrett’s and Sinatra’s frantic duet "My Place" which, if this weren’t a musical-comedy, would send men running to the hills at the sight of an aggressive man-hungry cab driver) and all women dance admirably, but the only one who one remembers is Miller in the museum sequence, twirling like a Tasmanian devil and looking fabulous while doing so. Not a great actress, she could move like not many dancers-turned-actresses could, and it’s a pity she decided to basically retire from movies so early and only came back for her small role in MULLHOLLAND DR. As a matter of fact, all except Kelly and Sinatra virtually stopped acting in the late 50s, possibly due to MGM-styled musicals coming to an end at that time.
As a curious note, there’s a cute appearance as well by Alice Pearce who would later be remembered as the nosy neighbor Gladys Kravits in the TV series "BEWITCHED." According to facts, she is the only one from the theatrical version to reprise her role here and this role made her career move ahead as well as it gave her a chance to walk away with the movie as well.
ON THE TOWN is one of the best musicals of all time, up there with SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and WEST SIDE STORY.