ON THE TOWN (1949) Starring: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin and Vera-Ellen. Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Written by Adolph Green and Betty Comden, based upon the Broadway Musical. Produced by Arthur Freed. Run Time: 98 minutes, Color. U.S. Musical, Comedy
Three sailors, Gabey (Gene Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) are in New York with a 24-hour leave. Starting at 6 AM, they have until the same time the next day to see all the sights of the city that none of the men has ever been to before. All of them are from small towns and visiting New York is like going to Oz for them. Chip, armed with an outdated visitor’s guide from his grandfather, has a long list of sights, but the other two are more interested in meeting girls while they’re on shore.
Gabey falls in love with the photo of the June Miss Turnstiles, Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen). And while they quickly run into her on a publicity shot, she disappears into the city and the boys take chase. Using the publicity poster for clues, they flag down a cab driven by Brumhilde “Hildy” Esterhazy (Betty Garrett), who takes a keen interest in Chip. Even though her shift is over and the cab is overdue, Hildy takes up the chase with the boys, so she could be with Chip.
Following the clue that she goes to museums, they head to the closest one they can find, a museum dedicated to Anthropology. There they run into Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller), a scientist who thinks Ozzie looks like a cave man. While Ozzie isn’t thrilled with the comparison at first, he does like the attention Claire pays to him. After accidentally bringing down a huge dinosaur skeleton, the five escape to the streets.
At Hildy’s suggestion, they break up into groups; she and Chip, Claire and Ozzie and Gabey to go in search of elusive Ivy Smith. They agree to regroup on the Empire State Building at 8:30 that night. But while Gabey is determined, the others are more interested in each other than finding Miss Turnstiles. However, Gabey does find her at the next place he looks, Symphony Hall, in one of the practice rooms.
Ivy and Gabey agree to meet and Gabey goes away happy. But the title Miss Turnstiles is not as prestigious as he thinks it is. Ivy also has a real job to do, a cooch (burlesque) dancer on Coney Island. Her dance teacher, Madame Dilyovska (Florence Bates) insists on it, so that she can get paid for the lessons. She threatens Ivy that if she doesn’t go to work on time, Madame will have to write her parents for money, which Ivy doesn’t want. Ivy agrees to leave her date with Gabey at 11:30 to get to work and Madame promises she’ll check up on her.
Everyone meets up on the Empire State Building at the appointed time and everyone is happy, at least for a while. They hit the down and few well-placed bribes by Hildy and Claire get Ivy special attention at the night clubs, keeping alive Chip’s vision of her as a celebrity. But at 11:30 Ivy abruptly disappears. Hildy tries to fill Chip’s void by inviting her roommate, Lucy Scheele (Alice Pearce) to join them. While Lucy is no substitute for Ivy, Gabey is nice to her and walks her home. After that, the five go out in search of Ivy, once again. But now, they’re running just ahead of the law as the museum is after Ozzie for damaging the dinosaur and the cab company is after Hildy for stealing the cab.
But they make it to Coney Island and find Ivy again. At this point, Gabey finds out that Ivy is from his same hometown in Indiana. Before things can go further, the police converge on them. The sailors try to disguise themselves as dancers in the show and when the police see through their costume malfunction, the boys narrowly escape, but run right into a Shore Patrol van, which takes them back to the ship. The girls, meanwhile, caught by the police, talk their way out of their charges and take off for the docks.
There the three couples each share one last kiss, before the next group of sailors get their leave at 6 AM.
The movie is a fairly straightforward boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back type of story. But what makes it so much fun to watch are the musical numbers, some written by Leonard Bernstein and Roger Edens and others from the original show with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and the sheer talent of the cast. Perhaps the best known song from the movie is “New York, New York”, not the other song of the same name that Frank Sinatra would popularize 31 years later. In this case, it is the Bronx is Up and the Battery’s down song. But no matter how memorable the song is the cast always seems to be their all into every number.
One of the things that made ON THE TOWN such a unique film is that much of it was actually shot on location in New York City. There were soundstage sequences, but in many cases the cast is singing and dancing in the Big Apple, not on MGM’s back lot New York set. Kelly and Donen share the credit for directing and the choreography is very inventive and interesting to watch throughout.
The clear star of the film is Gene Kelly. Kelly is the second greatest dancer in film history, only behind Fred Astaire in stature. Where Kelly is a physical dancer, Astaire is more about finesse and grace. Not only could Kelly dance, but like Astaire, he could sing. Comparing them is like apples and oranges and there were definitely roles that each was perfect to play. Gabey is the perfect part to showcase Kelly’s talents. But while both were great artists, Kelly seemed to make the artistry look more serious. There is a fairly long dance sequence, in which Kelly’s Gabey, retells the plot of the story up to that point in dance. While it shows off Kelly’s artistry, it also, momentarily, grounds the fast paced story to a halt.
Frank Sinatra, best known as a singer, made ON THE TOWN just before his career stalled in the 1950’s. But he was not only a great singer, but a great actor as well. (He would go on to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his part in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY in 1954.) In this film, he plays the overly shy Chip as if he really was uncomfortable around women. History would prove that he wasn’t.
In addition to Kelly and Sinatra, the cast includes Vera-Ellen, who was an accomplished dancer and Ann Miller who was a legend in her own right, having danced in movies since 1938. Betty Garrett is another Broadway actress who successfully made the move from the stage to film and later in her career to television. Her Hildy nearly steals the movie.
It is worth noting that the two women Miller and Garrett portray are much more sexually aggressive than the men they chase. Maybe it’s the case of big city girls and small town boys, but this wasn’t something that was seen all that often in Hollywood films up to that point. But it works well with this story and gives it a more timeless quality.
All the attention to the others in the cast is not to leave out Jules Munshin. Of all the cast, there is probably less known about him, but he is more than a competent song and dance man and prefect for the role of Ozzie.
This is a fun film to watch and one that I would recommend to see if you have not already. And see it again, if it’s been awhile since you last did. Watch it for the talent of the cast and for the quality of the songs, but also appreciate its comedy, which is still fresh 62 years after its initial release. ON THE TOWN’s sense of joy is contagious.
On the Town is available from the WB Shop: