Film Flick: On the Town

Monday, July 20, 2015

"What can happen to you in one day?" asked a dockworker of a trio of sailors with a 24 hour pass in New York ("New York, New York- Its a Wonderful Town!"). In their minds? Anything! And it turns out, that's not far from what the day really holds as they see the sights, have adventures and maybe- just maybe- find love in the City that Never Sleeps.

This 1949 film, On the Town , is a fascinating look at creative evolution as a story changes and grows from medium to medium. A new ballet classic, Fancy Free,  with a score by Leonard Bernstein about three sailors on leave is critically acclaimed in 1944, and that same year, work to turn it into a Broadway play is undertaken, with Betty Green and Adolph Green writing the book (both ultimately costar as one of sailors and his gal). Amazingly, all three of these creatives were only in their twenties, and the smash hit it made on Broadway, as one of the first musicals that used song and dance to further the plot rather than stop the show, would be just the one of all their many professional accomplishments. As successful plays were wont to do at the time, it caught the eye of Hollywood. The head of MGM was reluctant to buy the rights though, citing that it was "smutty, " an opinion possibly formed due to the fact that it was an interracial cast and had interracial couples on stage! However, Metro Golden Mayer did ultimately purchase the rights, and the film was produced under the Arthur Freed Unit.

As it did when going from ballet to Broadway, On the Town underwent some major transformations went it became a film. Sadly, most of the music was replaced after being deemed too "operatic," though the now-iconic song "New York, New York" and handful of others were kept. This caused Bernstein to wash his hands of it, though Comden and Green rewrote the book for the film (making several plot changes which may or may not upset fans of the musical) and the duo would go on to work multiple times with the Freed Unit, including for Singin' in the Rain.

The film brought together Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Mushin as the three sailor out On the Town. Kelly, along with Stanley Donen, would also direct. Though both agreed it was hard to share the job, they would pair again together to direct Singin' in the Rain too! Vera Ellen (she of the incredibly slender waist!) would match Kelly in both tap and ballet shoes as his romantic partner for the film.  Ann Shirley and comedian Betty Garrett rounded out the cast as the other ladies- an anthropologist interested in "Modern Man" and a romantically aggressive cab driver.

Sailors Gabey, Chip and Ozzie are small town boys ready for a day of big city adventure- seeing the sites and picking up dates. Which they do, largely thanks to Betty Garrett's character Hildy taking a shine to Frank Sinatra's Chip. She plays tour guide and fails to take in her cab on time. But when Gabey falls for a girl in a poster on the subway, they all set out to find "Miss Turnstiles for June." They run into another girl (Ann Shirley)- and a dinosaur- in a museum, and while they rate a big Navy E with the lady, the museum staff is not so pleased.  The trouble they cause keeps mounting, even as it seemed Gabey's getting closer to True Love- but with only twenty-four hours to be On the Town, can things resolve happily for Our Boys in the Navy?

One of the reasons the story translated so successfully to film was that it was partially filmed in New York- the first musical to go on location . Ann Shirley later credited her own pleas with Studio Head  Mayer, arguing that it should be filmed on location because she "had never seen New York." In retrospect though, it seems impossible to have done it any other way. The sailors dance along many of the most famous sites, giving it a sense of realism that probably appealed to an audience filled with many who had just gotten back from active duty only some years previous. Even today though, in a time when several sky scrapers top the once-towering Empire State,  its timeless appeal is largely due to the films obvious love of New York. With Gene Kelley and Frank Sinatra as your guides, you too will love being On the Town. 


  1. Fantastic post! It's such a cute movie! Plus I mean, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in the same movie?? It doesn't get any better ;))

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  2. Interesting history behind this musical! It's such a fun movie. Favorite line: "I REALLY like bearskin!"

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    1. Haha! I found the anthropologist character so strange, really. Anne Sheridan makes her less... cartoonish and yet still very funny :)

  3. This was so interesting to read! I really want to watch more classic films, and the way you write about the history of them is so mesmerizing. You've got a real skill for review writing--it's not dry at all!

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  4. I love Gene Kelly!!! I have got to check this one out... I love all your suggestions for movies and books!

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  5. The history behind the movie is fascinating! Such a great musical :)

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