Can I just say, I’m fairly proud of myself that I got through the first two weeks of the July Five before falling behind on posting. However, Gene Kelly week is coming to a close and where are we? I deliberately started put Kelly’s 1950s titles first since, by then, he was established as a musical icon and director with a very tried-and-true formula for which all his films stemmed from. For the next two films we’re going a further back a bit, looking at two films he made with Frank Sinatra, an equally legendary master of music. (For the record, this is the first time I’ve watched either of these two films.) Based on a popular stage show, I expected that, much like Kelly’s other 1950s-era musicals, I’d be on the fence. You did read my review of An American in Paris, right? However, I was pleasantly surprised by this jaunty tale of sailors on shore leave, even if it’s too eager to play to the back row.
Sailors Gabey, Chip and Ozzie (Kelly, Sinatra, and Jules Munshin, respectively) are in New York City for 24-hours. In that time, they traverse the city and also find love with three different women.
Gene Kelly was never content to just say his lines and do a soft-shoe or two. Oftentimes he became the uncredited director on his films, particularly with long-time collaborator, Stanley Donen who is credited alongside his star. Kelly’s films, though, aren’t consistently perfect for me, particularly because he employs a staunch formula with nearly all of his films, and the mileage varies based on factors like actors and narrative. Where American in Paris went way too over-the-top with formula, making everything as grandiose as possible, On the Town works within the constraints without seeping over them, maybe because Kelly hadn’t exactly gotten the recipe down. So, much like other Kelly musicals, we get a “male gaze” dance number, this time with Vera-Ellen’s “Miss Turnstiles,” Ivy Smith, acting out the various hobbies she’s touted to have on her subway poster, and a lengthy ballet number during the climax that plays like an audition for “Gotta Dance” in Singin’ in the Rain.
With a Broadway show, of which On the Town is based, the audience expects a performance, a tacit acknowledgement from the players that they’re aware of the audience. That awareness is removed in cinema, so musicals generally work the numbers in as part of the action (Singin’ in the Rain predominately revolving around a musical being made) or singing to and for others (the various performances in Meet Me in St. Louis are usually directed at family and friends). On the Town utilizes those tropes, but much of their songs are performed directly at the camera, with the characters practically looking through the screen, eerily, at the audience watching them. It’s a breaking of the fourth wall that’s different, but casts a sheen of artifice around the film.
Thankfully, the artifice doesn’t extend to the actors. Each man gets an individual story within the overarching narrative, so while they’re all interested in enjoying New York in their own ways, they end up finding love with women who understand different facets of their personality. Surprisingly, Frank Sinatra’s Chip captures attention the most for how “un-Sinatra” it is. He lacks the pretension that comes with success. I’m not sure I bought it 100%, but it was nice watching Sinatra act vulnerable. Chip wants to see New York’s museums and monuments. He may have an outdated guidebook, but the intention is the same. The Chairman of the Board acts bedazzled by New York, but just as equally weak and shy; he covers his eyes at the thought of seeing a naked woman. It’s why his scenes with Betty Garrett, as brash cabbie Brunhilde Esterhazy, are so hilarious. Not only is she a female in a man’s profession, but she’s not at all shy about telling Chip to drop by “my place.” She practically growls it. You start worrying for poor Chip’s innocence at a certain point.
Sinatra’s storyline is the strongest of the trio. Not only because he’s compelling in an outsider role, but because he’s interested in more than a hook-up. I’d love to see the tagline for this film today: The story of two guys’ quest to get laid before midnight…and some other guy wants to see New York. It isn’t that Kelly’s plotline isn’t as compelling – he does want to find love and he’s the star – but it all feels more fortuitous for Sinatra. His plan is derailed by love, compared to two other men desperate for a temporary seduction….who end up with relationships that maybe will last past then.
Kelly and Vera-Ellen are adorable despite being incredibly two-dimensional as unknowing yokels who grew up in the same town. Vera-Ellen’s Ivy wants more out of being the equivalent of a Playboy centerfold (or whatever the 1949 equivalent would be….probably the same thing), so creates a rich fantasy life of dinner engagements and dates. From a dancing perspective, she’s a worthy partner alongside Kelly with some amazing balletic prowess and her personality has her coming off like a darling ball of energy.
Munshin and Miller are the weakest link in the chain, and that’s because there’s hardly any development of their characters. The two meet in a museum where Miller’s anthropologist character, Claire, sees too close a resemblance between Ozzie and a caveman. I enjoy Miller in whatever dose she’s given to me in, and her performance of “Prehistoric Man” is catchy and eye-catching, as well as being rife with innuendos. (Miller really emphasizes the dual meaning of the term “bear skin.”) By the end of the song, she’s a furious flurry of taps that you’re surprised the ground beneath her isn’t on fire. Also, like Sinatra, it’s fun watching Miller not playing a ditz or man-stealer. Actually, the women control a lot of the film’s events; taking the boys, proverbially, “on the town,” asserting their sexuality, and even helping each other out. As for Munshin, I can’t say I knew anything about him by the time the movie ended. He’s the watered down “third friend.”
Considering the plot machinations, it’s shocking how salacious the dialogue here is. MGM head Louis B. Mayer supposedly hated the play because of how vulgar its lines were, and there are a few risque double entendres and innuendos that slip in a time or two. When the men arrive on the streets of New York, Ozzie asks “Who do you got waiting for you in New York? Ava Gardner.” A subtle wink at Sinatra’s expense since him and Gardner were having an affair at the time and would eventually marry. Later on, Anne Miller is asked if she’s “Dr. Kinsey,” a saucy, and oddly prophetic line for Miller considering her performance of “Too Darn Hot” in Kiss Me Kate (1953), which contained an excised line about Kinsey.
The second-highest grossing film in MGM history, next to Meet Me in St. Louis, On the Town answers the question “What could happen to you in one day?” As Kelly, Sinatra, and Munshin learn, A LOT. With fun songs, including the legendary “New York, New York,” and some rare out-of-type characters for Sinatra and Miller, this was a fun surprise.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.