Classic Film Talk: ‘On The Town’ (1949)

Reels of Gold: Classic Film Talk

Today we reminisce about

On the Town (1949)

Directed by Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen

Main Cast of Characters

Gene Kelly –Gabey / Vera-Ellen – Ivy Smith aka Miss Turnstiles

Frank Sinatra – Chip / Betty Garrett – Brunhilde “Hildy” Esterhazy

Jules Munshin – Ozzie / Ann Miller – Claire Huddesen

 

Brief Synopsis

“New York, New York – it’s a wonderful town!”

The film begins very early in the morning at a port in New York City. Dozens of men in uniform are hurrying off a naval ship for their 24-hour day of leave – a day to have to have fun by taking in all the sights and sounds. Three of these sailors – Gabey, Chip & Ozzie – decide to take the subway and while on the train they spot an ad with a beautiful lady called Ivy Smith, aka Miss Turnstiles for the month of June. Gabey falls instantly in love with her and decides that all three must spend their day trying to find her. Chip and Ozzie are not keen on using their day off looking for a girl but hesitantly go along with the plan. Along the way, they end up meeting an eccentric female taxi driver called “Hildy” and a man hungry amateur anthropologist called Claire. The two women join the three sailors in the search for Miss Turnstiles though along Chip and Ozzie, they eventually leave Gabey to search on his own. He, in turn, manages to find Miss Turnstiles and makes a date with her for later on that evening to meet him and his buddies atop of the Empire State Building. Ivy comes but leaves the date prematurely without saying goodbye, once again prompting Gabey and the gang to seek her out. They end up finding her at Coney Island and she reveals the truth about her real identity to Gabey. The three sailors manage to make it back in time to their ship before their leave is over but before they go, they engage in a long embrace with the girls. After their adventure on the town, the ending is left open as to what their fates might be.

Observations

I remember feeling quite exhilarated after watching On the Town for the first time. The story is simple but cute, the characters are humorous and the dance numbers are happily energetic. Though the subject of romance is present in the movie, the overall tone is lighthearted and less overly sentimental than other films within its genre. It is also unique in that it was partially filmed on location at a time when musicals were, by and large, only recorded on sound stages. Seeing late 1940s New York City landmarks in Technicolor is something special. Donen and Kelly had wanted to shoot the movie in its entirety there but MGM was unwilling to foot the bill. The result is that, in particular, Donen was very unhappy about how the studio sets looked and believed that it lowered the appeal of the film. He specifically recalls having to shoot the end of the movie several weeks after it had initially wrapped and needing to use a set to re-create the New York City port. To be honest, I never noticed anything out of the ordinary the first few times that I viewed this film and accepted without explanation the switch between the use of sets and on-location shots. After reading more about the production notes, however, I can understand the co-directors’ disappointment because they sought to bring an innovative, daring musical to the screen. Instead, they felt that it was just another run-of-the-mill musical production. While On the Town may not have lived up to their own personal expectations, the pair achieved much success three years later in 1952 with Singin’ in the Rain.

The cast, finely balanced into three solid couples, is well-rounded and all of them bring a little something special to the film in terms of talent.

Gabey & Ivy

Gene Kelly is a very fine stage and Broadway actor and it really shows in this film. His dancing numbers are not as extravagant as they were in some of his previous films or in the ones that would come in later years but they fit the story and are entertaining. I like the fact that Kelly does not try to steal the limelight from his co-stars and is truly an equal among them. He was very sweet in his scenes with Vera-Ellen, with whom he had previously danced with in the film Words and Music. Vera is lovely as Ivy Smith but, in my opinion, she doesn’t have enough screen time or dialogue. This is not particuarly the case in the scenes between Kelly and herself but is more noticeable when all six main characters are together. She often appears quiet and reserved, nodding or gesturing when cued but never ad-libbing a random line here and there or even relaxing in front of the camera. It is likely that Vera was nervous and wanted to be overly perfect in her role because it could have given her more of a leading lady status.

Chip & Hildy

On The Town marks the 3rd time Sinatra & Kelly team-up for an MGM musical, the first being 1945’s Anchors Aweigh and the second being early 1949’s Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Sinatra was not a trained dancer and struggled in his first pairing with Kelly despite taking lessons. So, it was with probable relief that in this film he stuck to what he knew best – singing. This is also the 2nd time that he is paired with Betty Garrett, a fellow MGM player who was a fine comedienne and seasoned dancer. Garrett’s character Hildy turns the tables on the usual male/female courtship and agressively pursues Chip, even being so bold as invite him up to her apartment for a good time.

Ozzie & Claire

This was Jules Munshin’s 4th career picture and, like Sinatra, he had also appeared with Kelly in Take Me Out to the Ballgame earlier that year. He was a physical song-and-dance comedian with overexaggerated reactions very much in the likes of Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rooney. He was paired with one of MGM’s finest dancers/hoofers, Ann Miller, and they make a very cute couple. Like Hildy, Claire is very romantically agressive towards Ozzie and admits that she is turned on to him because he resembles a statue of a pre-historic man at the Museum of Anthropological History. Miller performs a very clever tapdance sequence with some slightly bizarre, now outdated, elements where she looks incredibly beautiful in a green dress with tartan trim. I get goosebumps everytime I see her performance.

On the Town is a fun-loving musical and an earnest effort from novice directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. It doesn’t have the same appeal of other Kelly musicals, particularly An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain but I would still recommend it without hesitation.