Sunday, 14 September 2014

On the Town (1949)

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I have mentioned before that I am not a big fan of musicals. That would probably have been before the swath of excellent musicals in the thirties like “Footlight Parade”, “Love Me Tonight” and “Top Hat”, movies that challenged my perception of musicals. You might think that such films would have converted me, but “On the Town” reminds me why I generally dislike musicals (time for a big *sigh*).

Musicals are all about the singing and the dancing and if the pictures are beautiful that is no harm. “On the Town” has all that in spades and so the standard musical lover would have plenty to be satisfied about. In fact I can already hear fans of the genre cry out in indignation over my negative tone. No problem with me, if you love musicals, you will love this one and I will not even disagree with you.

My problem is that singing, dancing and pretty pictures just does not cut it for me. There needs to be something more. A plot, storyline, drama, something to move the story ahead. Here the story is paper thin, the drama is… where? And anything outside the musical pieces is just filler. It also lacks a James Cagney or a Fred Astaire who through personal magnetism can throw enough charm on the film to make it tasty. Sure Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra are legends in their own right and I was looking forward to the first movie on the list with either of them, but I think here they took one for the team and it actually took me a while before I could tell one from the other. It did not help that the songs did not exactly click with me. They are not bad, not at all, but you will not find me humming the tunes afterward.

That essentially means that it is all down to singing, dancing and pretty pictures. That just gets a bit bland.

“On the Town” is about three sailors, Gabey (Gene Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) in the Navy on a 24 hour leave in New York. Their quest is, almost cliché, to get laid. As it happens the lads are in luck. Over the course of only a few hours they meet a randy taxi driver, Hildy (Betty Garrett), an equally randy anthropologist, Claire (Ann Miller) and the wannabe posh (but just as randy) Ivy (Vera-Ellen) and so the game is on. The excuse for a plot is that Ivy, the famous (or not so) Miss Turnstiles is elusive and takes a bit of hunting down. But no worries they find her and make some sweet lovin’.

There can be no doubt that as dancers and singers the six of them are outstanding. Who can fault Sinatra for his singing or Kelly for his dancing? And the three girls, different as they are in appearance are gifted dancers and quite pleasing to the eye. Originally this was a Broadway musical and the stage show quality of it has been brought on to the screen. So much in fact that some of the musical elements do take place on a stage. Others use New York locations as stage but stages they are none the less. In fact I believe you could walk into a theater and get much the same experience live and that may be where the shoe is pinching. As good as the musical qualities are this is just not a movie, but a transplanted stage show, and therefore of less interest to me.

All these musical acts are very pretty. The Technicolor makes glory or the primary colors used for the girl’s dresses and that does peel years off a film. The location shots presents New York from its most handsome side and even the subway looks appealing. I suppose it is no coincidence that the use of color in the 40’ies were mainly for musicals and stage related films. If you want to show people and places as pretty there is no second to Technicolor, while gritty and dirty begs for black and white (or some serious filters, which were not really in vogue yet…).

There are comedic elements that has to be granted. The exuberance of the characters is clearly designed to make people happy, though these exaggerated smiles and the giddiness look so overdone that to me they have almost the opposite effect. However near the end we get a silly car chase followed by a mouse and cat game on Coney Island. That is actually funny. It is too little and too late, but it earns it a point in the end.

What does not is the introduction of the Lucy Schmeeler (Alice Pearce) character. She is a comedic sidekick, a geeky girl with poor timing, squeaky voice and a mousy face who is supposed to be “the date from hell”. I fully understand that Gabey is sad that Ivy disappeared and is in no mood to take on another girl, but the way he tries to hide Lucy so the other sailors from the boat will not see her with him is truly horrible. Lucy is actually a lot of fun and not someone to be ashamed off and if we for a second believe this story is real then this sailor got an excellent chance to make a girl happy who needs it badly. I did not like that scene at all.

I know, I know, this musical is a fantasy. It is what boys and girls dream of doing if they could take 24 hours out of their real life and have a great time with no consequences. What are the odd that these six will end up together? Never mind that, it is just a dream. If you want the antithesis to this film then watch “The Docks of New York”. Sailors, women and frolics on a 24 hour leave, but not quite as much happiness.

One thing I wondered about while researching the film is why the editors chose this one rather than “Easter Parade” from 1948. To my mind that is a more memorable musical, but maybe it is just me preferring Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly.


  1. Yep. On the Town is harmless overall, but it's the sort of film that divides the "musical lover" from the "musical hater." There are plenty of musicals out there (your mentions of Top Hat and Love Me Tonight come to mind) that even the most die-hard musical hater can enjoy. But this one? There's nothing here for those of us not a fan of the style to latch onto and everything for the musical lover to enjoy.

    It's a great example of the style, but not one I'd go out of my way to watch again.

    1. My thoughts exactly. I understand if this is considered a good musical, but as a film I do not find much in it.

  2. I'm a musical lover and On the Town is not a favorite with me either. The musical numbers are just not stand-outs, at least for me, and without that there's just nothing to bring me back. The film might have worked out better if the songs in the original Bernstein stage musical had been retained but that was not to be.

    1. I think it is a minimum requirement for a musical that the songs are standouts and memorable, especially as dancing does not do much for me. I feel a bit more on safe ground to read that you are not super excited about this one either.

  3. I'm also a person who tends to like musicals, but On the Town didn't do much for me. It's not one I'll ever watch again.