Sunday, May 31, 2015

Musical Watch: On the Town (1949)

I've seen On the Town (1949) before, but it was years ago and I couldn't begin to guess the context other than that it was probably on cable and I had an evening to kill.

This one is years after the heyday of the Busby Berkeley spectaculars (42nd Street was 1933) and tilts much more toward what was coming in by 1952 with Singing in the Rain or even Oklahoma! (1955).  But the bright lights of New York itself are still the attraction as in so many of those musicals of the 1930's, and as a former Broadway show - produced at the tail-end of the second World War, the original show sits at a curious precipice between eras.  And, of course, they must have rewritten plenty of the show to accommodate the fact WWII was actually over by the time the movie went into production.

The plot:  three sailors disembark at Navy Yard in New York, New York for a 24 hour shore leave.  They intend to see the sites, maybe get some dates with some girls, etc... when Gabey (Gene Kelley) falls for the girl in a poster for "Miss Turnstiles", a dubious honorific bestowed upon girls looking for publicity for their career as a performer in NYC and a bit of shoddy publicity for the NY transit system.  And, of course, he meets Miss Turnstiles (Vera-Ellen) quite by accident, convincing his pals Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) to help in pursuit after they lose track of her.

They meet an amorous cab driver (Betty Garrett) and a tap-dancing anthropologist (Ann Miller), and hi-jinks ensue.

There's less plot here than there may be in many other musicals, and it's entirely intended as good-natured, escapist fun - not atypical of the era, but this thing is more or less the kind of showcase musical you saw a bit more in pre-WWII musicals than you'd see in coming years, but without all the enormous set pieces with dozens of girls and dudes in spats.

Many bits are dated or wouldn't get made today - at least in the way they were portrayed here - and that's okay.  Movies can be a fascinating window into the social norms of prior eras.  As a note, I saw the movie in a theater absolutely packed with people, and not only did people not talk, nobody freaked out during the one scene that would maybe make you grit your teeth a bit as the cast dances around in the costumes of other lands suggesting they're basically cavemen.  And you have to feel a bit for the actress asked to play "the homely roommate" forced on Gene Kelly.

The cast is a bit of interesting.  As much as any movie I can think of, the movie is an ensemble piece, with no one character really taking the spotlight that much more than anyone else.  It's tough not to be amazed by Gene Kelly, and this movie is no exception.  A bit like the solo fantasy sequence with Cyd Charisse in Singing in the Rain, here Kelly clearly enjoys the chance to show off what he and Vera-Ellen can do, when perhaps some of his numbers with Sinatra aren't the most complicated thing.  But Sinatra and Betty Garrett get their solo number, just as Ann Miller gets to show off her skills as one of the best tap dancers in Hollywood in the aforementioned caveman number.

And I'd be lying if I said a big part of why I wanted to see this one on the big screen was the chance to catch Ann Miller in her prime in a showcase sequence.  We shall always salute Ms. Miller.

If Ann Miller is into dudes who look like cavemen, I have a shot!

But, I'll be honest as well about the fact that I have no clue who either Jules Munshin or Betty Garrett are.  IMDB tells me HUAC and McCarthy had something to do with Garrett's disappearance from motion pictures, but she was on Laverne & Shirley for a number of years.  Huh.  Jules Munshin seems to have mostly done stagework for his career, so this movie was one of very few he appeared in.

Anyway, maybe not the world's best musical, but it did give us the all-American image of three sailors singing "New York, New York!" in a montage around the city that you know even if you don't know it.


Marc Leslie Kagan said...

The reason why Betty Garrett had trouble with the House Unamerican Activities was not because she was a Communist sympathizer it was her marriage to Larry Parks who got blacklisted and if you were married to someone who was blacklisted you automatically got blacklisted. Just ask Gale Sondergaard she was a character actress who in 1936 received the first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress that was her film debut. She was married to Herbert Biberman who was one of the Hollywood Ten. So here you have two cases where two actresses were blacklisted and their careers were halted for a number years just because they loved the wrong person according to the United States Government.

The League said...

Marc - thanks for chiming in! Sorry it took me a few days to see it in the queue. Really appreciate you providing more info on this!