Friday, March 24, 2017

On the Town (1949)

On the Town was the first directorial collaboration between Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen and although it’s not quite as admired as Singin’ in the Rain it is regarded as one of the major postwar American musicals. Does it live up to its rather exalted reputation? In my view the answer is no, not quite, but it has its moments.

The plot is dead simple. Three sailors, Gabey (Gene Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin), have a 24-hour leave pass in New York City. They intend to have lots of fun, and fun will of course involve women.

Gabey falls hopelessly in love with a girl he sees on a poster in the subway. Brash lady cab driver Hildy falls for Chip while Ozzie hooks up with glamorous anthropologist Claire (Ann Miller).

The subway poster girl Ivy Smith who is this month’s Miss Turnstiles, this being some kind of promotion for the subway system. Being a small town boy who at this point in his life has never been to New York (or any big city) Gabey gets the idea into his head that Miss Turnstiles is some kind of huge celebrity. He thinks that she probably spends her time mixing with all the high society types. In fact Ivy Smith is an impoverished dance student who earns a precarious living as a cooch dancer at Coney Island. And far from being a sophisticated New Yorker she’s a small town girl from Meadowdale, Indiana (which just happens to be Gabey’s own home town).

Gabey only meets Ivy for a few brief moments, then loses her and he spends the rest of the day trying to find her again. 

My first problem with this movie is that generally speaking I really don’t like Gene Kelly. I admit he’s much less annoying than usual in this film and in fact to my surprise I found him to be actually fairly likeable. I do have a few issues with a couple of the cast members. Betty Garrett gives it her all as the sex-crazed cab driver but I quickly discovered that a little bit of Betty Garrett goes a long long way. Jules Munshin as Ozzie is exceptionally irritating. 

On the other hand Frank Sinatra is terrific as the rather shy Chip, bringing a real warmth and charm to the character. Ann Miller is of course fabulous.

This movie has the kind of feel that I always associate with Gene Kelly. It tries desperately hard to be clever. The dance sequences are certainly technically impressive. At times it’s more clever than enjoyable. Towards the end we get the kind of slightly pretentious ballet sequence that always appealed to Gene Kelly. 

The highlights are definitely the dances involving Ann Miller.

The music, by Leonard Bernstein and Roger Edens, is noisy and energetic but mostly rather forgettable.

The movie’s biggest strength is that the romance between Gabey and Ivy is quite touching.  It’s also pleasing that while they’re both small town innocents at large in the big city both characters are treated with respect. Gabey’s belief that Ivy must be a big celebrity betrays his naïvete, and Ivy’s desperate attempts to convince him that she really does move in the most exalted social circles are somewhat childish, but in both cases it’s made clear that this sort of innocence is not necessarily such a terrible thing.

In fact overall it’s a good-natured film about people who are essentially pretty decent. Even when Chip gets set up on a blind date with Hildy’s painfully plain buck-toothed flatmate he’s too nice a guy not to treat her respectfully.

On the Town is a bit of a mixed bag. Its main faults are that it tries too hard and the music is not great but the characters are sympathetic and appealing, it has some very amusing moments and it has both energy and some surprising charm. The delightful performances by Frank Sinatra and Ann Miller are major pluses. Recommended.

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