Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
ON THE TOWN (1949)
Hey, remember when I was pretty disappointed by Anchors Aweigh? Well, I’m in luck, because Hollywood decided they could take a mulligan and try the whole “Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as singing sailors on shore leave” angle all over again with On the Town. What’s different this time? New York! Jules Munshin tags along! It’s a digestible 98 minutes! And other improvements!
I’m finding in my cinematic journey thus far that the best musicals are built around either complex stories with songs woven into the themes of the film or very simple concepts that pave the way for great tunes and dances. On the Town falls into the second category. It’s three sailors with 24 hours to explore the Big Apple. They meet gals. They see the sights. They sing about them.
Bada bing, bada boom.
Brace yourself for cliché impact, but the sailors and their goals (get laid, the end) aren’t as interesting as the real main character, the city of New York itself. (Gag, right?) The boys see a poster of a pretty lady on the subway and run off to find her. The chase takes them all over NYC, to the Museum of Anthropological History and the Empire State Building and even Broadway, where things get meta.
I honestly can’t fill a third paragraph here, and that’s not a bad thing. A simple story isn’t a problem if everything else is fun.
Cops chase ‘em at some point. ‘Cuz they broke a dinosaur. But none of that matters.
For being the protagonists of the movie, our three sailors’ performances aren’t incredibly memorable. Gene Kelly is the horndog Gabey, a real stretch from when he played the horndog Joe in Anchors Aweigh. Frank Sinatra’s Chip is more interested in the sights than the ladies, but that’s more of a script quirk than anything he brings to his character. Jules Munshin is the trio’s standout as Ozzie, the goofball that provides plenty of one liners and physical comedy.
Here is a shot of them clearly exhibiting those traits.
The ladies they meet, on the other hand, have infinitely more personality. Vera-Ellen is Liv “Miss Turnstiles” Smith, a sweet and talented jill-of-all-trades determined to further her dance career.
“Stick with me, doll, and I’ll have you dancin’ with cartoon mice!”
Ann Miller is my new crush as the fierce tap dancing anthropologist Clair Huddesen. She’s an irresistible spitfire that likes her men primitive and her displays lifelike.
Go for it, Claire. We won’t tell anyone.
And rounding out this trifecta of stellar actresses is Betty Garrett as the streetwise cabbie Hildy Esterhazy, whose wacky charm and raging libido rival that of any sailor.
“I wanna get you in the back seat, windows up…”
Other cast members of note include Alice Pearce as Hildy’s cold-ridden roommate Lucy Schmeeler and Bern Hoffman as an uncredited singing shipyard worker that bookends the film.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
We open on the aforementioned shipyard worker singing a couple of lines about how it’s too damn early to be working, and then KA-BOOM, our three sailors bust off the boat belting out the only song from this flick that I was previously familiar with, “New York, New York.” I’ll admit, it’s too repetitive for my taste (by the fourth time I heard “the Bronx is up but the Battery’s down” I was ready to scream), but it’s a good song for cutting to tourist attractions.
Psst! Guys! Behind you!
Later the fellas see a poster profiling “Miss Turnstiles” and they fantasize up an instrumental dance number about her many interests that’s honestly insane. It’s got several rapid costume changes, set changes, and ballet moves that no screencap could possibly do justice.
And yet, here is the one I have chosen.
When we pop over to the museum, that scientific temptress Claire performs “Prehistoric Man,” a bangin’ percussive number which is basically about boning a caveman. Her vibrant tap dancing is nothing short of incredible, while everybody else trying on tribal garb from around the world and making dumb faces and “ooga booga” noises is delightfully cringe-worthy.
Please please please cut back to Ann Miller.
Chip and Hildy eventually end up alone together and share a song called “Come Up to My Place.” Chip wants to see the sights, but Hildy’s only recommendation is her vagina. The lyrics start out fun (his guide book is out of date!) but after a while Hildy’s repeated ignorance of his rejection gets kinda… squirmy. Still, it’s a movie, so anybody that gets harassed wanted it the whole time, phew! Anyway, it’s a fairly sucky tune that devolves into Hildy just shouting, “My place!” over and over.
She’s not talking about her apartment.
Oh, and then Gabey sings some song about bringing Liv to his hometown and it’s all “gee, shucks” innocent and also forgettable and yawwwwwn, what was I talking about?
I think it’s called “Main Street.” There’s tap dancing. Okay.
Once Chip has given in to Hildy’s rampant sexual advances, they go on a date at the Empire State Building and share in some wordplay with “You’re Awful,” a great song in which the first half of each line sounds like an insult but turns out to be a compliment. It’s a fitting duet for their character dynamic/frightening pattern of mental abuse.
And then… “On the Town”! Once all six of our stars are in the same place at the same time, they’re ready to hit the streets to have an unforgettable night in the big city. The dancing’s great, the music is catchy, everybody’s cheerful, it’s a hit!
Commence the group sex!
Eventually Liv has to leave for her dance job and this bums Gabey out, so his pals try to cheer him up with a pun-packed ditty called “You Can Count on Me.” It’s wall-to-wall groaners (the title refers to an adding machine), and a helpful reminder that any depressed friend just needs to hear a few homophones to perk right up.
Ask your doctor if puns are right for you.
And then… something I’ve never seen before… Gabey fantasizes about being in a Broadway musical and the events of the entire movie are condensed down to an instrumental stage number with a different cast. Isn’t this an improv game? I’m not sure if these new dancers are from the Broadway version of the show, but either way, it’s a pretty cool idea.
At the end they redo the fantasy, which includes redoing the fantasy, ad infinitum…
I’ll be honest, the only reason I picked both Anchors Aweigh and On the Town for my musical list was so I could test this amazing tagline from the trailer that I saw on Turner Classic Movies several years ago…
I’m not exactly sure how this sort of thing should be measured, but I will simply point out that while the sailors in Anchors are fairly close, there’s a scene in Town where the boys discuss how they need some dating practice, so Ozzie pretends to be a woman so they can, um, bone up.
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
The song “You’re Awful” is packed with lyrics that sound like put-downs but turn out to be sweet, such as, “You’re awful… awful good to look at.” It’s pretty clever most of the way through, but the following line in particular was such a stretch that it ended up less of a pleasant surprise and more of a frightening vision of Betty Garrett attacking Frank Sinatra’s chest with a power drill…
“You’re boring… boring into my heart…”
Much like State Fair was a great state fair simulator, On the Town romantically captures the feel of trying to see all of New York City in 24 hours. The light story just leaves plenty of room to hang great songs and dances on, and the three leading ladies are wonderfully varied and irresistibly charming. And, while the comparison may be unfair but necessary, it knows how to rein itself in much better than Anchors Aweigh. I’m still looking forward to something more thematically complex down the musical line, but for now, this is a perfect example of the purely fun side of the genre.
Annie Get Your Gun (1950)