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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  • Jennifer

    Entertaining review. I definitely could sense your enthusiasm and excitement for this film. It’s certainly one that I put right up near the top for its energy and its sense of fun. You can really feel how everything had deflated by the time they had gotten around to making its sequel, IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER – a film I enjoy almost equally but for different reasons.

    I gather that the postwar period of the 1940s was an incredibly happy time for America in general, and that sunny optimism is evident in nearly every frame of this film. I also seem to recall Betty Garrett saying that she had so much fun starring in this one that she couldn’t wait to go to work every day. This too is obvious.

    I like your comment on the film’s sense of movement. There are really no dull moments, save the title number, which I’ve never been a fan of. And the ballet in this one is superb. You mention the way the time goes crawling across the screen every so often. This must have seemed so modern and avant garde to audiences of the day. I’ve always loved the way Gene’s choreography in the ballet works plays on this idea; when he spreads himself wide and raises his arm in the air his hand seems to be reaching out to grab at the time popping up on the screen. But this purely filmic representation of time wasn’t really there in his physical space, so in that sense the film plays with the idea of breaking the fourth wall.

    The one thing I will say that this film lacks is a Kelly solo. There simply isn’t one, and naturally if he could have put out something as wonderful as some of his other solos we’re really missing something. On the other hand, the fact that it is missing a solo might just make it his most “generous” and least selfish film, and as many of us know he was sometimes accused of being the opposite. This off-screen camaraderie underlines its on screen presence throughout. As you point out in your mention of other moments, this camaraderie is genuinely affecting at times. One highlight for me is when Hildy and Claire give the doorman at one of the clubs a big tip so that he’ll make a big fuss over Miss Turnstiles and Gabey.

    “Main Street” is one of my favorite musical moments in the Kelly canon because it is both a boy-girl number and a buddy number, and in that sense reminiscent of some of Fred and Ginger’s work. It’s sheer innocence and lighthearted romance and is possibly the only time Gene didn’t turn on the sex when dancing with a girl.

    I would have loved to have been in the audience to hear the response to Alice Pearce. I can only assume she got the biggest yuks of the day. I think she must be one of cinema’s first nerds – lovable but clueless.

    • Marc

      You know, I’ve never even thought about the lack of a Gene solo here, but you’re absolutely right. That I’ve never missed it speaks volumes about the quality of this film. Perhaps he felt that the narrative didn’t offer up any instances for Gabey that would have supported a solo number? The only moment he could have introduced it was after bidding Lucy goodnight, but I’d rather have that wonderful ballet. I don’t think On the Town suffers from the lack of a Gene solo; simply by virtue of his particular ethos the musical as a whole was more important than any individual flair – by the same token, he could have created one of his greatest ever solo numbers, but if the rest of the musical was seriously below par that moment of brilliance would have been unable to drag it out of the mire… Wish I was able to cite an example of this…

      I like the comment about breaking the fourth wall, the kind of illusion that could only have been achieved, in that period, with cinema; this would certainly have appealed to Gene and Stanley.

      Love that scene with the doorman, especially his initially bewildered response: “Miss Turnstiles? What is that?”

      • Jennifer

        In all honesty, the ballet serves as a solo, I guess. He dances by himself for a while in there and it’s definitely a Kelly kind of thing. But it’s not a true solo in that it’s not something like “Singin’ in the Rain” or “I Like Myself” – moments that advance the plot and the character development and serve as a shimmering three minute oasis of joy. But it’s okay.

  • Le

    This was lovely and witty as always. I also love the Main Street number and think that the open is fabulous and inovative. I just missed Pat 🙂
    Well done!
    Le

    • Marc

      Thank you.

      Yes, Pat didn’t appear that day and I, too, missed him immensely. I should have mentioned his absence in the review, particularly given how popular he’s become!

      • Le

        Oh, Pat sure missed one of the best atractions!