On the Town (1949)
Director: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Writer: Adolph Green and Betty Comden
Cinematographer: Harold Rosson
by Jon Cvack
Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra made three musicals together - On the Town, Anchors Aweigh, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game (the last of which I haven't yet seen). Functioning as a musical version of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, John Favreau and Vince Vaughn, or the most recent addition of Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell, the pair provides us with their second in the series, and a far weaker follow up than Anchors Aweigh.
The story involves three Navymen - Gabbie (Gene Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra), and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) - who get weekend leave and head out into the New York City streets, in order catch the sights, and more importantly for Gabbie and Ozzie, to find some girls. What both this and Anchors Aweigh demonstrate is that Frank Sinatra wasn’t always the smooth and suave man he’s now known for. In On the Town he’s a shy and humble man, whose more determined to catch every sight in his '100 Things to See in New York' book than about catching girls. Instead of getting the bombshells Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen) or Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller), he gets the perverse, aggressive and not all that attractive cab driver, Brunhilde “Hildy” Esterhazy (an all time great name played by Betty Garrett), miles from what we now would associate with Frank Sinatra (for all you immediate defenders, I understand this was just as he was starting out, but he also was attracting volumes of women during production).
I always wondered when I’d catch another performance from Vera-Ellen from White Christmas, who plays Ivy Smith, aka Ms. Turnstile (which is such a clever joke that it actually took me a second to wonder whether 1949 New York City actually considered such girls celebrities, or that it was as banal as it would be today [it was the later]). Gabbie is completely infatuated and chases her all over town, believing she’s some big time celebrity and creating funny - though not hilarious - situation after situation.
I had never really been into musicals, but when I went on a trip to Palm Springs and it's time warp feel, it created an immediate desire to check them out. It sounds generic to even say, but after watching Anchors Aweigh, Holiday Inn, and looking at my dad’s Rogers and Hammerstein Musical Boxet, these types of feel good musicals simply do not exist anymore.
On the Town does a fantastic job of incorporating McGuffin type devices in order to drive the story forward. As mentioned, Ms. Turnstile was introduced as the men are getting ready to hop on the subway, which later produces funny moments when the three Navymen and three women finally hit up the town. Ozzie and Claire meet at a museum where after an elaborate dance number, they’re responsible for knocking down a priceless brontosaurus, eventually attracting the police later in the film - and better - long after we have forgetten about it.
These storylines are meaningless, since like most great musicals, we’re simply for waiting for the next song and dance number, hoping that the moments in between are funny, or at least not all that boring, which the silly plots help to relieve.
I can’t think of too many feel good musicals in the last twenty years (though I’ll admit that’s with an American bias, as I probably haven’t even seen more than a half dozen foreign musicals, but I could even argue that while foreign films are great, there is an inherent sense of ‘work’ required - for lack of a better word - for having to read subtitles, no matter how easy they are; as the musicals as I discuss are completely superficial and, by definition, effortless). The first that comes to mind is Footloose, though even this contains a heavy political message. Most of what I’m seeing, such as High School Musical or Enchanted (both which I haven’t seen), are more oriented toward kids, rather than adults or even all four quadrants.
It looks like I’d have to go back 25 years - to the 90s once again - with Newsies (1992), Annie (1999), and of course Woody Allen’s throwback to the genre with Everyone Says I Love You (1996). Looks like it could use a revisiting.
NOTE: I have not yet seen La La Land, but hear that it might fit this description, which is quite the coincidence given that I wrote the first draft of this essay a year ago.
BELOW: Sinatra and his dame
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