On The Town
Though the premise of “On The Town” is pretty straightforward- the action follows three sailors on a 24-hour leave in New York City- it has its share of thrilling moments. Starting from the top, as the film opens, you can see that the first scene was filmed on location. When watching movies from this era- musicals especially- it’s hard not to be hyper-aware of the artifice of the whole thing. These things are a construct. No matter the film’s setting, the true origin is a sound stage on a Hollywood backlot. Now, many scenes in “On The Town” originated from that exact locale, but there is a nice mix of on location scenes here, and it’s a welcome surprise. Being on location always keeps me psychologically closer to the film.
Another thrill is the opening musical number. Our three sailors- portrayed by Frank Sinatra (Chip), Jules Munshin (Ozzie) and the namesake of of this marathon, Gene Kelly (Gabey). It appears that most of this sequence was also filmed on location, as the friends dance around town, singing the praises of the city and seeing the sights. This number sets the tone of the proceedings skillfully: it captures the whirlwind of the day and the excitement and anticipation the sailors are feeling. And I found it personally thrilling to see two icons share the screen and kick open the door to this film in such energetic fashion.
Of the three male leads here, Munshin obviously sticks out like a sore thumb, but it’s also kind of the point of his character. He’s tall and goofy, makes bad jokes and basically has trouble staying out of his own way. He plays the part well, and I’m sure it fit the era, but I mostly found him grating. He was necessary if for no other reason than to set off the b-plot of the police looking for the trio after Ozzie accidentally knocks over a dinosaur skeleton at the Museum of Anthropological History. Surely Sinatra and Kelly were too smooth to ever make such a mistake. But overall, his type of schtick hasn’t aged incredibly well.
Speaking of the two icons, Kelly is the standout. Sinatra was insanely talented, but he never seems as at ease with acting as Kelly does. Only when he’s crooning to his love interest does he seem mostly in his element. But Kelly glides throughout the picture, shifting from gleeful anticipation to nervous excitement to broken-hearted melancholy with relative ease. (And by the way, he also handled choreography and co-directing duties.) Sinatra and Kelly’s scenes together, however, are a delight. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary male lead duo eliciting the same type of response.
The three ladies that the men inevitably pair up with throughout their day are also a joy to watch. Betty Garrett (Brunhilde, Chip’s love interest) brings a spontaneous and sex-crazed energy to the proceedings that is incredibly fun. You get the feeling that she would’ve been a tremendous party guest back in the day. Without her presence this film would’ve suffered greatly. Only slightly less entertaining was Ann Miller as Claire, Ozzie’s flame. To me, Miller is the most stunning of the three ladies, and her number at the museum shows tons of promise. The only problems here are a.) she’s just not given enough to do from that point forward and b.) I had a hard time imagining her freely choosing Ozzie over the other two.
Lastly you have Vera-Ellen as Ivy Smith. Ivy has recently won the title of this month’s “Miss Turnstiles”, a distinction that carries little weight to basically all members of the human race except for Gabey. Whether he’s awed by her beauty or her title (a bit of both, it seems), Kelly’s Gabey can’t relax until he finds her. While Ellen isn’t quite as fun as the other two ladies, she fits the role, and meshes exceedingly well with Kelly during their dance numbers.
I have to say that this film didn’t exactly click for me as I watched it, but it’s one of those that has grown on me in the days since. There are some issues that stuck out to me at first. First of all, the musical number in the museum. It is difficult to describe just how weird that is (but I’ll try). It starts off relatively tame, but as the song progresses, there’s a percussion breakdown where the characters start donning prehistoric and native American garb and begin chanting. Not long after, Ozzie’s wearing a loin cloth, equipped with a club a pulling Claire across the floor by her hair. You can’t help but cringe. There’s NO way these scenes get made today. But it’s a time capsule, I guess.
Another scene that is patently ridiculous is when the cops have cornered the guys on top of the Empire State Building (where else?) and Chip and Gabey hide Ozzie by dangling him over the side of the building. I know this is a comedy, but come on. I’m pretty sure 99 of 100 people would’ve said “Alright, you got me.” I guess Ozzie was number 100. After that, the cop subplot sort of comes and goes, but it comes back with a fury in the last 20 minutes, which I felt were a bit rushed.
Otherwise, when I think back on the film as a whole, most of the other scenes bring a smile to my face. I can’t remember a musical number that was a dud, and I thought the dream sequence of the play was inspired. The titular number on top of the Empire State and on the sidewalk below was the crowning achievement. It’s not surprising that it included all six of the lead players. But again, when Kelly’s on the screen, I’m always locked in. Even more so when he’s tap dancing, which does with Ellen in their big one-on-one number.
Like any film of the era, there were some warts, but for me they definitely weren’t enough to overcome just how much fun it was to spend a day with these six characters as they cavorted around the city. The charisma on screen could’ve filled up a second film in addition to this one. That’s not always a recipe for a perfect film, but here it adds up to a damn good time.