New York! New York! It’s a wonderful town!
The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down
The people ride in a hole in the ground
New York! New York! It’s a wonderful town!
And with these words “On the Town” gets off to a rousing start gliding us through a montage of three sailors on a one day pass seeing the sights of the city, New York City. The Brooklyn Bridge, the Village, Little Italy, Chinatown, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Central Park, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center. It’s a world wind tour, a sparkling pioneering opening and possibly an early inspiration on music videos. Based on the 1944 hit Broadway musical with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The book, also by Comden and Green, was based on an idea for a ballet called “Fancy Free,” by Jerome Robbins who choreographed the stage production. In 1949, MGM brought the musical to the screen and of course had to change things including dropping most of the original songs and adding new ones (Bernstein’s music was considered too highbrow for movie audiences), this despite the fact that MGM was an investor in the stage production! Only four songs survived and, of those, the opening number had to be “toned down” (the line New York, New York, It’s a hella of town was change to read it’s a wonderful town) to appease the censors and blue noses. Additionally, the storyline was changed, enlarging and focusing more on Gabey (Gene Kelly) and Ivy (Vera Ellen) than Ozzie (Jules Munshin) and Claire (Ann Miller).
Then head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer had to be persuaded into to purchasing the film rights because he was repulsed by the show, finding it “smutty and communistic” and furthermore he was offended by a scene where a white sailor danced with a black girl.
More than sixty years after it was made, “On the Town” remains one of Hollywood’s grandest, joyful and innovative of musicals. The plot is simple. Three sailors are on a 24 hour pass in New York; all three are in the Big Apple for the first time. The boys, Gabey, Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) quickly meet up with three girls. The shy, timid Chip, who at first is more interested in seeing the city’s majestic sights than picking up dates, is seduced by Brunhilde Esterhazy (Betty Garrett), but you can just call her Hildy, a surprisingly sexually aggressive, man chasing, quick talking, adorable female cab driver. Ozzie is swept off his feet by anthropologist Claire and Gabey falls quickly for the charms of Miss Turnstile, his Subway dream queen, Ivy Smith. Also in the cast in a small role is Carol Haney who was Kelly’s assistant choreographer. (1)
Each of the leads is given a chance in the film to shine, together and separately, but it is Gene Kelly who is the most engaging. His solo number and dance duets (Main Street and A Day in New York) with Vera-Ellen are spectacular. This is not to take anything away from the others in the cast. Ann Miller has a fabulous turn, along with the rest of the cast, with “Prehistoric Man,” while Sinatra and Betty Garrett are charming doing the humorous, “Come Up To My Place” and later, the romantic, “You’re Awful.”
The film even takes some gentle pokes at Ava Gardner who Sinatra was dating at the time, as well as some references to “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Lost Weekend.” If the film has a down side it is the treatment of Hildy’s unattractive roommate Lucy Schemer (Alice Pearce) who is used and abused and left to go home alone at the end of the big night. Some will recognize Pearce who later became known as Gladys Kravitz, the next door neighbor on the 1960′s TV series, “Bewitched.” (2)
The film is nicely bookended by Bern Hoffman as a construction worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard singing, an early morning, sleepy version of “I’m Feeling Like I’m Not Out of Bed.” In between there are some spectacular and original musical numbers, directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen and produced by MGM’s guiding light of musicals, producer Arthur Freed.
The film was innovative in many respects, most obviously, the location shooting, the first for a musical, and spectacular sights of New York City. The editing of this sequence can be, as previously mentioned, seen as an influence on today’s music videos. Also, two of the female lead characters are fairly straight forward and sexually aggressive when it comes to getting their man and what they want.
Some folks who had seen the initial stage production at the time complained about too many of the original songs being dropped from the movie, especially a stunning tune called, “Lonely Town” but, at least for me, and I believe this is true for most of today’s audience who are not familiar with the Broadway musical version, it’s not a problem.
“On the Town” was Radio City Music Hall’s spectacular Christmas attraction for 1949 and I cannot imagine a better holiday treat filled with humor, romance, music and the extraordinary dancing of Gene Kelly, Ann Miller and the rest of the crew. For anyone who saw the film at the time, in such a spectacular venue, it must have been a nice added touch to the holiday season.
(1) Carol Haney originally had a small role in another Broadway musical, “Pajama Game.” The show’s director, George Abbott liked her performance so much he combined her role with another and came up with the much larger role of Gladys Hotchkiss for which Haney won a Tony. Sadly though, for Haney, about a month into the production she broke her leg. Soon after, Hollywood producer Hal B. Wallis came to see the show, specifically to see Haney only to discover Haney’s understudy took over the role. Her name was Shirley MacLaine who Wallis soon after signed and brought to Hollywood and fame.
(2) Alice Pearce was the only member of the original Broadway show to reprise her role in the movie.
This review originally was written as part of Wonders in the Dark’s Musical Countdown in October of 2011.