On the Town, 1949, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen. Directed by Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen. Technicolor, 98 minutes.
Three sailors (Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin) face their 24-hour shore leave in New York City with great anticipation, and their hopes are soon rewarded. In short order, they’re riding a subway when a poster goes up with that month’s “Miss Turnstile,” Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen). Gabey (Gene Kelly) falls for her immediately, and sets out to find her in the short time remaining on his leave. Remarkably, it doesn’t take long for an initial meeting, but then she disappears in the crowds.
But love doesn’t leave Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) high and dry. Not at all. As the three set off to find Ivy Smith, following the clues left on the poster (which they’ve taken with them), they meet up with an assertive, if not aggressive, cab driver named Brunhilde (Betty Garrett), or Hildy for short. Hildy’s fallen for Chip, who initially shows no interest in her as he wants to see the sites of New York. She takes them first to the Museum of Anthropological History, where Ozzie meets Claire (Ann Miller), a scientist who notices a remarkable resemblance between Ozzie and a statue of a caveman of yore.
From there, the remaining 24 hours are full of adventure for the six.
On the Town won one Academy Award, for Musical Score. It was also nominated for one Golden Globe award, Best Cinematography–Color.
This marked the directorial debut of Gene Kelly as well as Stanley Donen, and the two were ambitious. “I really believed it would be a milestone,” Kelly said, “because I set out to try to make it so. Everything we did in the picture was innovative–from the way we flashed the time of day across the screen as if it were a news flash to the way we cut the picture, which was pretty revolutionary for its time, and which was greatly admired and copied by the French. The fact that make-believe sailors got off a real ship in a real dockyard, and danced through a real New York was a turning-point in itself.”
The two faced opposition from Louis B. Mayer, who wanted the entire thing shot in the MGM lots with their New York sets. He was reluctantly persuaded to allow them to shoot some of the film in New York City, but only allowed them five days. “I desperately wanted one extra day to wrap up shooting,” Kelly said. “When I think that we managed to shoot stuff at Brooklyn Bridge, Wall Street, Chinatown, the Statue of Liberty, Greenwich Village, Central Park, Columbus Circle. Rockefeller Center and Grant’s Tomb, I still can’t believe it, particularly as two of our five days were spoiled by bad weather.”
Critics and audiences alike responded well to all the innovations in On the Town, with Bosley Crowther of the New York Times writing, “Gaiety, rhythm, humor and a good, wholesome dash of light romance have been artfully blended together in this bright Technicolored comedy.” There were a few glitches, such as the substitution of two ballet dancers in one scene for Sinatra and Munshin, but overall, audiences were pleased with the film. Kelly’s fear that men would not respond well to the ballet aspects turned out to be unfounded; men saw the virility of the dance and applauded.
On the Town is fun fare with a wonderful musical score. While it doesn’t have the romantic ending some may want (the men must return to their ship, leaving the women behind) there’s nothing saying romance is out of the picture permanently. Kelly and Donen’s risks paid off; this is a picture every classic musical fan must see.