On the Town (1949) / Musical-Comedy
MPAA - Not Rated, but probably G, for all audiences
Running time: 98 min.
Cast: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Florence Bates, Alice Pearce, George Meader
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Screenplay: Adolph Green, Betty Comden (based on their play)
Review published August 24, 2011
One of MGM's most memorable and purely enjoyable musical films, On the Town features good stars and excellent song-and-dance numbers, and more emphasis on comedy than many classics of its ilk, adapted from the stage musical which debuted five years prior. It's somewhat dated in a few ways, particularly during one of the few not-so-good songs, but that also lends to its unique, wide-eyed appeal. it captures the optimistic spirit of the times it had been created in, during the post-WWII phase where America felt proud of its military and the great society it had been living in where people could forge their own paths and their dreams could come true if they just ventured out to find them.
Like many musicals, the story itself isn't much to relate or be inspired by. Three Midwestern sailors -- Gabey (Kelly, An American in Paris), Chip (Sinatra, The Manchurian Candidate) and Ozzie (Munshin, Easter Parade) -- in the U.S. Navy are on 24-hour leave to enjoy the hustle and bustle of downtown New York City. They do what all sailors are aching to do, to spark up some romance with the local ladies to pass the time with. Gabey goes on a search for 'Miss Turnstiles', the woman selected to be the pin-up beauty to represent the subway system for the month, Miss Ivey Smith (Vera-Ellen, White Christmas), though her actual job is far from the celebrity status the boys attribute to her. Joining in on the hunt is a feisty lady cab driver named Hildy (Garrett, Take Me Out to the Ballgame), whom Chip develops a thing for. Lastly, Ozzie finds most fetching the student of paleontology they meet at the anthropological museum, Claire (Miller, Mulholland Drive).
Star power and good casting give the infectious film the chemistry it needs in order to carry up audiences and entertain them with a variety of catchy songs (Leonard Bernstein's "New York New York" being the most memorable, though the film offers several songs not in the stage musical), stunning dancing, sumptuous sets, and overall romantic atmosphere that keeps toes tapping and elicits many smiles for audiences throughout. Solid first time direction by master of musicals Stanley Donen (Singin in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) keeps the action tight and tone light, while co-director Gene Kelly, also his first time, pulls together some truly magnificent dance numbers well worth whatever price for admission is required. It is also notable for shooting a portion of its footage on location among famous landmarks in New York City, rather than fully within a lavish Hollywood soundstage, though it does feature plenty of the latter.
Sinatra, in one of his first starring roles, gets his chance to croon, Kelly to dance, and Munshin to pull in the yuks, while the rest of the cast, particularly Vera-Ellen and Ann Miller, shine brightly in their own set pieces, with ballet and tap dancing showstoppers, respectively.
The aspects that may rub a few viewers wrong include the inherent sexism and racism that permeates many films of its era, including commentary on women as objects (though Hildy is shown as working a job, there is some commentary regarding how she shouldn't be now that the war is over), and the visuals to the film's (arguably) worst song, "Prehistoric Man", which depicts the all-White cast donning African and Native American garb, stereotyping these cultures as savages. This number is saved by the incredible dancing of Miller, at the top of her form. For some viewers, there is a more troubling subplot, played mostly for laughs, regarding Hildy's sickly, homely roommate Lucy, though this side story ends with grace (thanks to Kelly's charm), and it does produce some humorous moments.
If modern audiences are able to keep an open mind to the prevalent views of the times the film had been made in, there is more than enough in On the Town to recommend for lovers of musicals, particularly those who enjoy the dancing of Kelly and co., and the singing of Sinatra. It's charming, humorous, effervescent, and a perfect postcard to all that exemplifies the infinite paths and possibilities of New York City at its 'Big Apple' finest.
©2011 Vince Leo