On the Town at the Glasgow Film Festival

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series Glasgow Film Festival.

Thursday, 23 February, 11:00 – On the Town (1949)

I could barely contain my excitement as I bounded up the stairs of the GFT this morning. After Singin’ in the Rain, this is the Gene Kelly film I have watched more than any other. In fact, in the days of Betamax video, I taped it one Easter and watched it until the tape wore out, literally. On the Town is the second greatest thing Gene Kelly ever did and it is, without question, the greatest musical of the 1940s. The opening credits alone are enough to induce palpitations, not only a searing sextet of principles but also Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Jerome Robbins, and Leonard Bernstein. To some people the peripheral names on the creative team barely warrant much attention, at all — I’ve even read virtual reviews of An American in Paris that don’t mention George Gershwin — but the depth of talent that swirled around Gene allowed his own genius to flourish and, I think, nowhere is that more evident than here.

You can keep your aerial shots of the Alps and singing nuns (the favourite musical opening of all time by popular consent apparently) because I’ll take the cinematic sweep of the New York skyline and a singing shipyard worker every single time. In fact, I’d go as far to say that the sound of Bern Hoffman’s booming baritone elicits more excitement than the premiere of a silent movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. There is a deft economy of language at work in the opening exchange between the three sailors and the shipyard worker: barely twenty words spoken, but we discover that this is their first time in New York, how long they’ve got to stay and how they intend to spend their time. Comden and Green breathed rarefied air. Not a single second is wasted, neither by screenwriters, nor co-directors.

Gene and and his co-director, Stanley Donen, are concerned with one thing in On the Town: forward propulsion. The film ebbs and flows with movement — the deserted dockyard suddenly swarming with sailors, the frantic sightseeing tour, the subway up town, the trips in Hildy’s taxi, the dinosaur collapse, the elevator in the Empire State Building, the ‘On the Town’ number, the car chase (maybe the only car chase in musicals?), and the final pursuit in Coney Island. Even the time updates that flash across the screen enhance the sense of motion. It’s just an exhilarating ride from beginning to end. One last word about the opening: it features the greatest song written about New York. Ever.

Another Comden and Green script, another decent Gene performance. He really does rise to the occasion here as he’s genuinely sweet in the courtship scene with Vera-Ellen, downright hilarious in the scenes with Alice Pearce and the two sailors, Simpkins and Kovarsky, and rather touching in the scene with Frank immediately after the ballet sequence. I still think that Gabey needs a slap, mind you. “You don’t want to waste your time looking for one girl, Gabe,” advises a sage Jules Munshin, but, unfortunately, yes, he does… and yours too.

A twenty-four hour pass in New York? Wow! Sounds like just about the most fun you’re going to have, doesn’t it? Not for Kelly’s gloomy Gabey, who’d rather attach the kind of Shakespearean gravitas and emotional devastation to the occasion that would have Ingmar Bergman popping anti-depressants. Thankfully, Chip and Ozzy, Frank and Jules, respectively, are on hand to lighten the mood whenever they’re on screen. The chemistry between the three of them in Take Me Out to the Ball Game fizzled nicely, but here it nearly burns a hole in the screen, and when they eventually hook up with Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett and Ann Miller, it bathes Manhattan in an incandescent light. None of the vitality is lost when Alice Pearce replaces Vera-Ellen in the party and ‘You Can Count on Me’ is my favourite ensemble number, a genuine delight with warmth, humour and joy clearly visible between all concerned.

Gene once said that the ‘Dancing in the Dark’ number from The Band Wagon (1953) was the greatest courtship number ever captured on film. I’m not going to disagree with him, but I think with ‘Main Street,’ he has one that is, at least, the equal of it. It is his most affecting and touching number with a female partner. The initial steps are simple and gentle during the ‘walk’ along Main Street, but this allows the number to segue seamlessly into the dance. It is a thing of exquisite beauty and proof, if further proof were needed, that Vera-Ellen was Gene’s greatest dance partner — she is adorable throughout.

‘A Day in New York’ polarises opinion; some feel that a serious ballet in such a lighthearted musical all but kills it, while others are entranced by its hypnotic spell. I tend to lean towards the latter. It certainly slows the film down, but don’t forget that it’s supposed to represent what’s going on inside Gabey’s head and just be thankful that it’s not an accurate representation; that would surely involve the Grim Reaper shimmying with Beelzebub in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Bernstein’s music, the masterly control of Gene’s movements and the erotic pas de deux on the ballet barre renders any complaints about narrative and momentum utterly meaningless.

If Gene’s highbrow balletic pretensions aren’t your thing, then you can derive the pleasure you seek in every other number in On the Town, the remaining of which are: Vera-Ellen’s ‘Miss Turnstiles Ballet’ (Gene certainly knew how to showcase his partners); Ann Miller doing what Ann Miller does in ‘Prehistoric Man’; and Frank and Betty Garrett’s ‘Come Up to My Place’ and ‘You’re Awful,’ one hilarious, the other quite moving in a quirky kind of way. The lyrics of all these songs are a joy and I have to go back to Comden and Green, again. I don’t know how many of New York’s cultural attractions are named in ‘Come Up to My Place,’ but it must be close to twenty. There are also pop-culture references with Goodbye, Mr Chips and The Lost Weekend, an in-joke with the reference to Ava Gardner, Sinatra’s off-screen wife at the time, and even the author of a sexual study gets a mention — Dr Kinsey. The script is sprinkled liberally with all kinds of peppy dialogue from the gossiping women on the subway to the two dancers Gene passes in the Academy of Performing Arts — how about this for an exchange:

First girl: “Are you auditioning for Grab Your Spats?”
Second girl (in broad Noo Yawk accent): “No, I’m only interested in classical ballet.”

They predate Stephanie, Saturday Night Fever’s upwardly mobile snob, by nearly 30 years. Also, I have no idea what Grab Your Spats is, but I want to see it. I wouldn’t mind seeing Comden and Green themselves in the original Broadway Show… that must have been quite something.

The final scene maintains the underlying theme of momentum, a new batch of sailors flood the shipyard and the story continues. The film ends, but life goes on. That Gene and Stanley created something of such magnificence with almost no basis for comparison is remarkable, that they amassed the location footage they did in so little time is miraculous. Final word today goes, not to Pat, but to Gene himself, who believed that On the Town was his greatest contribution to the innovation of musicals. He also said that Summer Stock was “a piece of crap.” The man knew his musicals.

About 

I am a 40-something-year-old Scotsman with an obsessive nostalgia for the past, particularly the films of Hollywood's Golden Age and American music from the '40s to the '60s. My appreciation and love for Gene and the field in which he worked is something I hope to instill in future generations -- I'm currently studying towards becoming a teacher and firmly believe it is a role in which I can flourish, once I overcome a small, but stubborn, obstacle: a pathological hatred of teenagers.

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