by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
On the Town started life as a ballet called Fancy Free, composed by Leonard Bernstein for the Ballet Theatre and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. It dealt with three sailors with a one-day pass to visit New York City and their efforts to find female companionship for the 24 hours they have before they have to report back to their ship. The ballet premiered in 1943, and the next year Bernstein, Robbins and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green expanded it into a stage musical called On the Town, with Bernstein songs (oddly, they didn’t tap any of the themes of Fancy Free for the musical — Bernstein wrote all new music with Comden and Green supplying the lyrics), and MGM put up $250,000 for the stage production in exchange for the movie rights. When Louis B. Mayer and his assistants, Eddie Mannix and Sam Katz, saw the show in New York they were put off by it and regretted having had anything to do with it, so the property lay fallow for five years until Freed revived it as a vehicle for Gene Kelly and his two co-stars from Take Me Out to the Ball Game — the period baseball musical he’d done just before — Frank Sinatra and comedian Jules Munshin.
Unfortunately, Freed and the MGM “suits” decided that Bernstein’s music wasn’t commercial, so they threw out all but two of his songs — the famous opening, “New York, New York,” and “Come Up to My Place” — and had Comden and Green write new ones with Roger Edens. Though Edens was an excellent arranger and vocal coach (in both those capacities he’d been instrumental in making Judy Garland a star), he was a mediocre songwriter and the ditties he came up with for the film are either ideas other people did better (when Ann Miller’s character latches on to Munshin because he resembles a statue in an anthropological museum of Pithecanthropus erectus, she sings “Prehistoric Man,” a pretty obvious — and inferior — ripoff of Cole Porter’s “Find Me a Primitive Man”) or simply forgettable (like the title song he wrote for all six principals).
They did, fortunately, tap Bernstein to compose two wordless ballets, one showcasing the various aspects of Vera-Ellen’s “Miss Turnstiles” character and a long one called “A Day in New York” in which Kelly, frustrated in love, dreams his way into a sequence that showcases his dancing skills and his imagination — essentially it’s a paper sketch for the magnificent final ballet of An American in Paris and Turner Classic Movies did his memory no favors by scheduling the two movies in reverse chronological order, since it made On the Town look like an inferior workout on the ideas of An American in Paris and made it harder to appreciate its own unique qualities. The great virtues of this film are its sheer exuberance and the brilliant opening number, which was actually shot on location in New York City, on the famous landmarks referenced in the Comden-Green lyric (which was regrettably bowdlerized because of the Production Code — in the movie New York had to be “a wonderful town” instead of “a hell of a town”). It was the first time anyone had tried to shoot a musical number on New York streets, especially in midday with the usual traffic — dramatic films, including The Lost Weekend, had shot on location in New York but there it was easier to control and “loop” dialogue in post-production if a traffic noise drowned out a line. Hugh Fordin’s biography of Arthur Freed, The World of Entertainment!, summed up the problems:
“There must be a playback machine [to reproduce the pre-recorded song] always in earshot of the director and the performers. This is not much of a problem in stationary shots; but in moving shots, in confined spaces or in long shots, it becomes quite a problem. To hear the record for synchronization, the performer has to be relatively close by, but if the loudspeaker is in earshot it often gets within camera range. In each individual shot the trio [Kelly, Sinatra and Munshin] not only had to synchronize to their pre-recorded voices, but had to walk in strict tempo to the music, even in the instrumental portions of the number.”
They had another, non-technical problem shooting the sequence: though Frank Sinatra was coming down from his early career peak in 1949 and starting on the four-year decline that would only end with his Academy Award-winning performance in From Here to Eternity, he was still enough of a teen idol that whenever he was seen in the street, he would be mobbed — and so the filmmakers had to keep one of their stars literally under wraps, hiding him in the bottom of cars and only letting him out when they were actually ready to shoot. Sinatra had been reluctant to do the movie — he had no desire to make another film as a singing sailor just four years after Anchors Aweigh — and hearing the songs he was assigned, two novelties and one mediocre ballad duet with Betty Garrett, one can readily understand why: there’s nothing here that does justice to his voice. (This is probably why, as Will Friedwald pointed out in his Sinatra bio The Song Is You, Sinatra recorded nothing from the film and only one song from its predecessor, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, which also cast him mostly as a novelty singer.)
The other thing that makes On the Town an unusually interesting musical for the period is the plot, which is essentially three interlocking stories involving each of the sailors and the girl he meets. Gabey (Gene Kelly) sees a poster of Ivy Smith on the subway — she’s been picked as that month’s “Miss Turnstiles,” representative of the city’s subway riders, and Gabey thinks that makes her far more of a celebrity than she really is (she’s working as a cooch dancer on Coney Island but she’s also studying classical ballet with a dragon-lady teacher named Madame Dilyovska, played by Florence Bates much the way Maria Ouspenskaya played a similar role in Dance, Girl, Dance). Chip (Frank Sinatra) gets cruised by the butch female cab driver with the improbable moniker Brünnhilde “Hildy” Esterhazy (Betty Garrett), who literally drags him home with her (they’re the only one of the three couples who get to be alone together long enough that they could conceivably have had sex). Ozzie (Jules Munshin) gets attention from anthropology student Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller) who’s attracted to him as a throwback to primitive man, and they symbolize their attraction by accidentally collapsing the anthropology museum’s dinosaur skeleton (much the way Howard Hawks and his writers, Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde, had symbolized Cary Grant yielding to Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby by similarly collapsing the dinosaur he had been reconstructing for years). This means that in two of the three couples, it’s the woman who’s the sexual aggressor — unusual even in a comedy context in a 1949 film.
Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen directed jointly, their first such credit (they’d do two more, Singin’ in the Rain — a great movie and a major hit — and It’s Always Fair Weather, an almost-as-great movie and a major flop), and they do a marvelous job of keeping the show on the go even though the final chase scene through the MGM backlot looks even more fake than it would have if we hadn’t seen the real locations in the big number at the beginning (directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen wanted to shoot the whole film in New York, but the studio vetoed that idea). Twelve years later, a different film crew would make a movie of Bernstein’s other hit musical, West Side Story, and though at least they’d keep all his songs, they likewise made the dumb decision to shoot the opening number in New York City — in a neighborhood of old tenements that were about to be torn down to make room for Lincoln Center — and the rest on a soundstage, again making the non-location parts look that much more phony by comparison.