Musical Monday: On the Town (1949)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
On the Town (1949) – Musical #57

Studio:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:
Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

Starring:
Gene Kelly, Vera-Ellen, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin, Florence Bates, Alice Pearce, Hans Conried (uncredited), Dick Wessel (uncredited)

Plot:
Three sailors have 24-hours shore leave in New York City. Chip (Sinatra) is eager to sight-see, while Gabey (Kelly) and Ozzie (Munshin) want to meet girls. Gabey spots a sign about “Miss Turnstile” (Ellen) and searches for her.

Trivia:
• The dancers in the “Day in New York” number include Carol Haney, Bette Arlen, Dorinda Clifton, Jeanne Coyne, Luigi Faccuito, Gloria Marlen, Alex Romero, Lee Scott, Tyra Vaughn
• The film was based on a 1944 Broadway musical with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green with an idea that came from Jerome Robbins. Only four of the songs from the Broadway play were used in the film, and six other songs were created for the film.
• MGM bought the film rights in 1945 and hoped Broadway and film director George Abbott would direct.
• MGM filmed for nine days in New York City, including the on locations hots of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Wall Street, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park and Fifth Avenue. This marked the first time MGM filmed musical numbers in public in New York City.
• The lyrics to “New York, New York” had to be changed for the film version. The stage version said “It’s a helluva town” and Joseph Breen’s production code office said it had to be changed, so in the film it’s “wonderful town.”
• Alice Pearce reprised her role from the Broadway play as the roommate Lucy Shmeeler. This was her film debut.
• Actor Jules Munshin was afraid of heights, and you can see him holding onto walls and co-stars when they are singing on top of the Empire Statebuilding.
• Stanley Donen’s directorial debut; shared with Gene Kelly.

Jules Munshin, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in “On the Town”

Awards and Nominations:
• Roger Edens and Lennie Hayton won an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture

Notable Songs:
• “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet/New York, New York” performed by Bern Hoffman, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin
• “Miss Turnstiles” dance number performed by Vera-Ellen
• “On the Town” performed by Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Ann Miller, Betty Garrett and Vera-Ellen

My review:
It was January 2003 and school had just been canceled because of snow.

I was a freshman in high school, just recently getting into classic films and musicals. No school meant I could stay up later, and I selected a movie to watch I had been dying to see: “On the Town.” I tingled with excitement to watch the much anticipated musical for the first time.

But my excitement died down, and I found myself disappointed in the film.

Since that night back in 2003, I have revisited “On the Town” (1949) several times ⁠— about once every two to three years. Each time I watch it, I find it pleasant and laugh at scenes – particularly the scenes with Alice Pearce. But I can’t find the exuberance and thrill the seemingly everyone else has for the film.

I’ve courted the film, searching for the spark that will cause me to love this musical but the film romance never comes. And I don’t know why. It’s sort of like going on a date where you enjoy yourself, but can’t see yourself romantically with the person or introducing them to your family.

Now, don’t stop here thinking “Jessica hates ‘On the Town.’ I’m done.” I do not hate this movie musical. It isn’t one of my top 10 favorite musicals as I feel it should be, since so many people adore this film.

But let me start with some positives that I love about “On the Town.”
• “New York, New York” is one of the most entertaining numbers of this era of MGM musicals.
• The scenes filmed on location in New York City are beautiful travelogues.
• Film in bright, vibrant Technicolor
• The dance numbers between Vera-Ellen and Gene Kelly

Betty Garrett, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen and Gene Kelly in “On the Town” (1949)

Usually, a star-studded ensemble cast like this one would also be on the list, but for some reason, I think that’s partially my issue with this film.

Vera-Ellen and Gene Kelly have great chemistry and their dance numbers are fantastic. I love the “Miss Turnstiles” dream sequence as he wonders what she is like. I wonder if I would like this film more if it was Kelly, Ellen and then his two sailor buddies are much more supporting actors? I know this musical was adapted from the stage, but sometimes characters don’t always translate as well on the screen or are cut down significantly.

With the supporting characters, some of the comedic scenes with the actors are a little over-the-top for me. For example, “The Prehistoric Man” number. Sure we get to see Ann Miller’s fast tapping feet, but otherwise, this number downright annoys me. I think it’s the worst number in the film.

For poor Betty Garrett, “On the Town” was essentially her third time in a row playing the same man-hungry character. In 1948, she chased after Sinatra in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and this same year she was chasing Red Skelton in “Neptune’s Daughter” (1949). Garrett is adorable and funny, but I have to wonder if she got tired of playing the same character for MGM in her early days under contract.

But on top of everything, I recognize the historic importance of “On the Town.” For one, it was the first directorial project of the late, great director and choreographer Stanley Donen.

It was also the first movie musical shot on location off of a sound stage, which took alot of fighting on Donen’s part. Because of this, New York is just as much a character of the film as the stars.

Due to the cost, Donen was met with resistance from MGM with shooting on location. He was unhappy that the Coney Island scene was on a soundstage and felt like that it looked phony, according to the book “Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen” and his Moves by Stephen M. Silverman.

In a couple of years, I will revisit “On the Town” again. I’ll marvel at the Helen Rose gowns, Harold Rosson’s cinematography and the dance numbers Gene Kelly created. I’ll enjoy it, but kick myself that I haven’t yet found the spark. But maybe it’s okay if I don’t – after all, we don’t have to love all the same movies.

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1 thought on “Musical Monday: On the Town (1949)

  1. Wow! Color me shocked that you’re not an “On The Town” fan! It’s in my Top Ten movies of all time and in my Top Three MGM movies. There’s nothing in this movie that I don’t like. Okay, so “The Prehistoric Man” isn’t a classic but all golden-era musical tended to have one number that didn’t shine like the others. As for Betty playing a man-hungry gal for the third time, I didn’t realize that but that’s what most actors did – they played the same type over and over. Alice Pearce pretty much built her whole screen career on playing variations on the Lucy Schmeeler character. But you’re right – if we all liked the same thing all the time, what a dull world we’d live in!

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