We all know New York, New York’s a helluva wonderful town. We’re reminded of it over and over again, and some reminders come through the great works of visual artists; Gordon Willis’ lush black and white cinematography in Manhattan, for instance, encompasses a vast beauty that Woody Allen cannot put into words. Or it’s a photo of construction workers lunching on a steel beam as though they weren’t hundreds of feet above Rockefeller Plaza. Then there’s Alfred Eisenstaedt snapping a sailor planting a wet one on a random nurse in the middle of Times Square, just moments before victory is declared on V-J Day.
Though the city continues to evolve, these images endure for the impulsive, unpredictable, daunting energy that continues to buzz in these parts—factors may make us citydwellers cynical, but we cannot deny its wonders, especially for those experiencing it for the first time. There’s fewer ways to package that buzz than through a musical, and thus, one of the best interpretations is Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s 1949 Technicolor bonanza On The Town, which screens in Brooklyn this weekend.
Part of BAM’s ongoing series “That’s Entertainment!: MGM Musicals Part I,” On The Town remains an anomaly among the various star-studded frolics and Busby Berkeley dreams on tap. While featuring studio regulars Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin entangled in separate screwball romances, the film prominently boasts a bigger star: New York City as itself.
Thanks in part to Gene Kelly's insistence, the production was brought to the streets of New York. Decades-old news items are said to "indicate that nine days of filming took place at many locations in New York City, including the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Wall Street, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park and Fifth Avenue." And some claim that "the location shooting marked the first time a major studio dispatched a company to film musical numbers in public areas of New York City."
Still, all in all only about 7 minutes of the final cut were taken from these on location shoots—according to Lou Lumenick, "The genuine location footage abruptly stops around the movie’s five-minute mark. Hidden cameras were used to shoot in some of the other locations, but it was apparently too difficult for then-teen-idol Sinatra to perform in the middle of the real Times Square without causing a riot. So this sequence is played out on a Culver City soundstage with a fake-looking newsstand and subway entrance." And this wasn't the only shot that brought NYC to a backlot—but the real stuff (as fleeting as it is) is the real stuff.
The curtain rising with the sun on a hazy dawn, Donen and Kelly lead us immediately ashore, our first notes coming from a foreman pining for his bed. His singing/yawning is immediately met by yet another iconic image of New York brawn: a frenzied fleet of sailors running ashore as though escaping fire. But we focus on our three stars, knowing their precious 24 hours leave is barely enough time to cover the town, along with some other unspoken desires designated by only wolfish howling.
They then go crazy, Broadway-style, completing a full weekend’s worth of sightseeing—City Hall, Empire State Building, Chinatown, Lady Liberty, to name a few—within the few minutes of “New York, New York.” And yes, those are the real locations on display. Hollywood may be the Dream Factory, but even endless means couldn’t replicate a city so full of natural backlots. Any artifice would be mockery, and would make the trio’s awe completely invalid. Though later, grittier films like On the Waterfront would portray these shores as damned dead-end traps for a blue-collar ethic, Donen and Kelly are commendable for using that authenticity for romantic notions.
Yet, it’s not just a love story between tourists and their landmarks. On the Town wastes no time establishing our heroes’ carnal desires, a trifecta of young sexual appetites stifled by months at sea - “gotta make a date, or seven or eight, in just one day!” For Gabey (Gene Kelly), his pinings peak first, spotting a poster for “Miss Turnstiles” aka Ivy (Vera-Ellen) on the subway—whereupon they find that any long response to directions is too long—thus declaring it his mission to find her within the short time he has left. Which, considering she’s right at the next stop, proves to be not terribly difficult. But a chase ensues, aided by fast-talking cabbie Hildy (Betty Garrett), who doesn’t hesitate to reveal her lustings for Chip (a super-skinny Frank Sinatra, decades before he’d croon his own tribute to New York), even persistently suggesting he come up to her place through song (really, the song is called “Come Up To My Place”), despite his protest.
For the perceived “wholesome innocence” of post-war America, On The Town seems downright raunchy in its frankness about the city’s apparent horniness. That continues as Ozzie (Jules Munshin), inside the Museum of Anthropological History, crosses the sights of anthropologist Claire (Ann Miller), who declares him the very neanderthal specimen she’s been looking for. Unfortunately, this leads into a musical number featuring some very dated and problematic depictions of Amazonian and Native American tribespeople—be ready for some uncomfortable silence from fellow audience members, especially as the city proves itself to still be culturally insensitive—but the message here is very clear: as innovations soar, as occupations and gender roles vary and progress over time, our animalistic urges towards each other persist.
Sexual energy may thrive, but it’s never without barriers. One thing that hasn’t changed: if you’re ready to neck (and whatever else is your kink) with your customer crush, better really make sure your roommate’s elsewhere, or at least not irritating and phlegmy. That problem finds Hildy and Chip in the form of under-the-weather Lucy (Alice Pearce), who can’t quite seem to take a hint. Once that gets sorted, Gabey’s more earnest hunt for Ivy continues. He imagined her once before in a vivid fantasy dance sequence featuring her being both sporty and high-society—because “get you a girl that can do both” knows no timeline—and now sees her at a studio in Carnegie Hall, where she’s afraid to admit she’s rehearsing for a burlesque show on Coney Island rather than for higher-ups. The side career taking emphasis, or outright lying about what you do, is something many of us have experienced.
The Gabey-Ivy moments, along with the pursuit of the sailors for zipping around town and defacing museum property, contributes to the film’s saggiest moments, held up mostly by some sharply funny takes on routine parts of city life. Whether it’s hopping from one club to another and seeing the exact same dancers and routines, or getting an overpriced beer that’s halfway full with glass, or losing the cops by going where nobody will find you (Brooklyn!), On The Town beams brightest when not lost in its own cliches or staginess. Still, those big interpretive dance numbers from Kelly and company make you demand better physicality from today’s stars.
When done correctly, all the world’s a soundstage. On the Town, which effortlessly seams stage to street, helped perpetuate Hollywood’s luster while also making it more tactile. These people could be you. This could be your twenty-four hours of manic adventure and feverish trysts! You could cover many of the same beats, for after seventy years, how much onscreen here has really changed? Okay, lots, but The Bronx is still up, Battery’s still down, we still ride in a hole in the ground, etc. Things change fast in the course of a day or several years, and though this may be a very outdated guidebook, On The Town nevertheless reminds New Yorkers, new and old, to enjoy these sights and sounds while they’re still here.