Wednesday, January 31, 2018

On the Town (MGM, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008, 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I did make it to Being Alive and ran the movie On the Town for a fairly good audience — five people — after which I headed home and waited for Charles to call (he’d turned off his answering machine and so I couldn’t leave him a message). The film holds up pretty well — Charles later mentioned he remembered it particularly for the risqué lyrics of the songs (“Come Up to My Place,” one of the few Leonard Bernstein songs retained from the original stage play — most of the songs in the movie were written by all-purpose composer Roger Edens with words by the show’s original lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green — and “Prehistoric Man,” a pretty obvious ripoff of Cole Porter’s “Find Me a Primitive Man,” in particular) — and though the opening “city at dawn” sequence is pretty blatantly reminiscent of Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight, it gains a lot of energy by being shot on actual New York locations (directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen wanted to shoot the whole film in New York, but the studio vetoed that idea). — 3/23/96


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. (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.) — 8/18/08


After the State of the Union I kept on MS-NBC for about an hour and then I put on Turner Classic Movies for most of the 1949 MGM musical On the Town, an “upper” I needed after all the gloom-’n’-doom coming from President Trump. It’s a movie I hadn’t seen in a while and I remember it being on a previous TCM screening in which they did a day-long tribute to Gene Kelly and ran it right after An American in Paris, which was like seeing a beautiful oil painting and then looking at the pencil sketches for it. Charles and I missed the famous opening sequence of On the Town, shot to one of the few songs from Leonard Bernstein’s original stage musical actually retained from the score — MGM underwrote the stage production in exchange for the movie rights, then when Louis B. Mayer saw the show in 1944 he declared it hopelessly uncommercial, put the project on the back burner for five years, and when it finally got filmed Mayer and producer Arthur Freed threw out most of the Bernstein songs and replaced them with new ones by Roger Edens (Judy Garland’s musical godfather) with the original lyric writers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green — and the only major part of the film actually shot in New York City. (I had wondered whether TCM had scheduled this as part of the celebrations this year of the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, but they hadn’t; it was part of a series of films set wholly or partly in New York City.) 

Most of the anecdotes around On the Town center around the filming of this opening sequence with the three stars — Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and comic-relief actor Jules Munshin — shown singing and dancing around real-life New York City locales. Though Sinatra’s original popularity was on the wane by 1949, he was still enough of a babe magnet to bobby-soxers that they literally had to keep him under wraps — they wrapped him in a carpet and drove him on the floor of a car to get him to the various locations so he wouldn’t be mobbed and disrupt filming — and Jules Munshin was terrified of heights, which made the shot of the three of them atop Rockefeller Center particularly excruciating for him and the crew. (They tried tying a rope around him to catch him if he fell, but that just made him more nervous and it looked artificial on screen.) There’s a later scene in which Munshin is shown dangling over the Empire State Building, but that — like the whole rest of the movie after those spectacular opening minutes — was filmed back at the MGM studio in Culver City with a mockup of the Empire State Building’s roof that was only a few feet off the studio floor. 

The genesis of On the Town is well known; in 1944 Bernstein and Jerome Robbins collaborated on a Ballet Theatre dance piece called Fancy Free, in which three sailors get off a ship on a one-day shore leave in New York City, meet and hook up with three young women, then lose them again and have to high-tail it back to their ship. Bernstein then worked with Comden and Green as both book and lyric writers to turn the ballet into a stage musical — though Bernstein used almost none of the Fancy Free music in the score to On the Town — and it premiered later in 1944 and was a stage success. The film as it stands, a joint directorial effort of Kelly and Stanley Donen, suffers from the omission of Bernstein’s songs — the only ones they kept were the famous opening, “New York, New York” (though because of the Production Code they had to bowdlerize the lyric from “New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town” to “it’s a wonderful town” — ironically Wonderful Town was the title of Bernstein’s next stage musical, an adaptation of My Sister Eileen), a duet between Sinatra and Betty Garrett called “Come Up to My Place” (a surprisingly frank sexual invitation for a Code-era movie — indeed On the Town features a lot of Code-bending, including some weirdly homoerotic by-play between Kelly and Munshin and a final scene in which the three sailors don drag to evade the police on a chase through Coney Island[1]) and instrumental music for two ballet sequences featuring Vera-Ellen, who plays an aspiring ballet dancer studying with an imperious teacher (Florence Bates, pretty obviously channeling Maria Ouspenskaya in Dance, Girl, Dance) and supporting herself as a cooch dancer in a “Middle-Eastern” concession at Coney Island. 

One of the ballets, “A Day in New York,” drew on the Fancy Free music as well as a Bernstein song called “Ain’t Got No Tears Left” that was deleted from the stage show during out-of-town tryouts and is a forerunner of the classic Kelly ballets from An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain and shows once again that, despite the openly propagandist agenda of Singin’ in the Rain to present silent films as inferior to talkies, many of Kelly’s most powerful screen moments are wordless; had he been born 20 years earlier one could readily imagine him becoming as great a star in the silent era as he actually became in both musicals and dramatic roles in sound films. The Roger Edens songs are clever and tuneful (and benefit from the wordplay of Comden and Green) but aren’t at the level of Bernstein, and Sinatra — who hadn’t want to make yet another singing-sailor movie with Kelly five years after Anchors Aweigh — was particularly disappointed that he didn’t get to sing “Lonely Town,” the haunting ballad from the original stage score of On the Town. He’d been promised the song when he signed for the film (the last under his multi-year contract with MGM, though after his comeback in the early 1950’s he’d work there again as a free-lancer) and he got as far as making a pre-recording of it, but then directors Kelly and Donen decided not to film Sinatra singing “Lonely Town.” Instead he got a charming but trivial Edens-penned duet with Garrett, “You’re Awful,” and a few lines here and there in other people’s numbers. On the Town holds up as a genuinely charming musical in its own merits — and the Kelly “Day in New York” ballet sequence is really special — though it would have been better with more of Bernstein’s songs, and of course the irony wasn’t lost on me that just after President Trump’s State of the Union we were watching a film that at least began as the work of a Bisexual Left-winger and charter member of Richard Nixon’s “enemies’ list”! — 1/31/18

[1] — It’s also surprising that when Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller) tells woman cab driver Brunnhilde “Hildy” Esterhazy (Betty Garrett) that her interest in sailor Ozzie (Jules Munshin) is strictly scientific — she’s an anthropologist and is struck by his resemblance to a statue of prehistoric man at the New York Anthropological Museum — and she insists she only wants to study Ozzie, not to date him, Hildy fires back, “Dr. Kinsey, I presume?” Four years later the Production Code Administration forced MGM to delete Cole Porter’s reference to Kinsey in the lyric to “Too Darn Hot” from Kiss Me, Kate.