On the Town
On the Town. All right, I'm excited, I've been in NYC during Fleet Week so I know what kind of debauchery goes on. Do your worst, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Sailor #3.
Alas, my hopes for raunchy sailor exploits in the Big Apple are swiftly destroyed by the prudish censorship in the first song, changing “helluva town” to “wonderful town”. Oy vey. It looks like this film may be a slightly less hedonistic version of what I had imagined when I read the synopsis of three sailors who go out looking for girls while on shore leave.
On the Town is a 1949 musical comedy based on the enormously popular stage musical of the same name. Despite the star power, it doesn't quite work on film, partially because of the aforementioned censorship, but also because of a small but significant change from the musical: it doesn't take place during the war.
When you watch this movie, it's sort of bizarre how desperate the three women are for men. It's like, on the one hand, yes, it does star Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, so I get why they're into it. And it's nice to see women in a movie this early really take charge of their own sexuality. But at the same time, given that they're just these three honestly pretty dopey sailors, it's sort of strange how hard the women throw themselves at them. They have pretty much zero chill.
But in the stage musical, there's a very good reason for that. All the men are away at war, and it becomes a sort of gleeful commentary on the state of all the single women left behind in New York, that they're so hard up they'll go for anyone. Which is a huge layer of the story completely abandoned, leaving this version feeling especially lightweight and superficial, even for a musical.
So the plot's not exactly novel and other than New York, New York, the songs aren't as memorable as one might expect from this era of movie musicals, but you know what I am thoroughly enjoying? The women. You've got a scientist and a taxi driver, both sexually confident and working in fields traditionally dominated by men. In this story, the female taxi driver, rather than being pursued by one of the sailors, is the one doing the chasing. And our scientist? Well, she knows what she likes , and she isn't afraid to go after it. Plus, she can wear the hell out of this dress.
Seriously, props to the scientist. Her entire career is based around the concept of, “Gee, I'm really horny. Maybe if I dedicate my life to studying men I'll eventually get bored and stop being attracted to them.” Because that's how things work. That's how the Cookie Monster devoted his life to the study of cookies and came to the conclusion that they are, in fact, a “sometimes” food. And I love that she only refers to her sailor as "Specimen" which is just the greatest thing ever, she's just awesome ok?
But look, no matter how high this scientist is on the totem pole, I'm like 400% sure that these kind of shenanigans would get you kicked out of the Museum of Natural History.
So basically what's going on is that Gabey sees a picture of a hot girl on the subway, falls instantly in love with her, and decides to spend his one day of shore leave tracking her down in one of the most populous cities in the world. And in the mother of all coincidences, he actually finds her. And she likes him, despite the fact he's just the most boring, uncharming character that Gene Kelly has ever played. Seriously, the boy should be looking for a horseshoe somewhere because she is beautiful and he is the least engaging person in the entire film.
The gaggle of six friends spend the night on the town, but Turnstiles has to get to her gig out on Coney Island, so she Cinderella's out of there. Poor Gabey is stuck without a date. Enter Lucy Schmeeler.
Aside from reprising her role of Lucy Schmeeler, roommate and professional cockblock, from Broadway, Alice Pearce was also famous for playing Gladys Kravitz, Samantha and Darren's nosy neighbor on Bewitched. You know, this lady:
Anyway, she pretty much steals the show. But while she's clearly awesome, nothing can compare to the charms of the (honestly pretty bland) Miss. Turnstiles, so they're back to tracking her down again.
But first, the plot needs to come to a complete and utter standstill so that that Gene Kelly can do an extended dance sequence summarizing the film. And call me a ballet grinch if you want, but I have always hated this. It's absolutely never necessary, and it's rarely done well.
Like, guys, I'm watching the movie. I don't need you to interrupt the film to do an interpretive dance version of the movie that I'm already in the middle of watching. I can maybe allow it when the entire cast is comprised of talented dancers, but come on, no one is buying that Jules Munshin and Frank Sinatra are doing that ballet routine. Who are you trying to kid?
So yeah, they find Miss Turnstiles while trying to hide from the fuzz, who are understandably a little cheesed about all the havoc they've been wreaking around the city. Everyone makes up and is happy, although the boys still have to leave for the Navy in the morning and let's face it, their chances of returning back to NYC (let alone of honoring their commitment to the girls) are not stellar. So...yay?
Things I Like: The LAYDIES. They pretty much steal the movie from everyone. Gene Kelly is orders of magnitude less charming than normal, and Frank Sinatra is fine but doesn't have a lot to do here. None of them have a chance against the bright shining light of these awesome women. Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, and Vera-Ellen, take a bow.
Things I Didn't Like: Sorry, but this is still bothering me. So they're not allowed to refer to New York City as a “helluva” town, but they are allowed to proudly proclaim their plans to “get high as kites tonight”? Please do not be inconsistent; I find it infuriating.
So that's On the Town. Not the greatest movie musical I've ever seen, but far from the worst. I consider it a middle of the road film that suffers from the lack of a particularly memorable soundtrack, and while I don't think I would include it in my personal list of top movies, I do have to admit that it was enjoyable to watch. (Which is not always the case with some of the films on this list.)