During the 1940's, producer, Arthur Freed embarked upon an ambitious slate of Broadway to Hollywood musical acquisitions. While Hollywood generally did very well with its own home grown product – particularly where musicals were concerned, Freed also endeavored to bring the very best from the Great White Way to the big screen: Babes in Arms, For Me and My Gal, Cabin in the Sky and Best Foot Forward among his ambitious contributions to expand the artistry of the Hollywood musical in new directions. It was a heady time at MGM; the dream factory churning out entertainment with a capital ‘E’, thanks, in part to Freed’s zeal for big and glossy mind candy; also, L.B. Mayer’s affinity for cultivating great personalities in his ever-expanding roster of musical stars. If one could sustain more than two musical notes in succession and illustrate the ability to master a basic time step, Mayer afforded that aspiring hopeful every luxury to professionally train as a singer and dancer. The results of his company’s expert tutelage can be seen in stars like Lana Turner, Esther Williams and Peter Lawford. Certainly, none was in the same league as, say, a Judy Garland, Jane Powell or Howard Keel. But very often, each appeared as competent ‘second string’ in A-list musicals made throughout the mid to late 1940’s.
In retrospect, the Freed Unit at MGM provided Hollywood with its only legitimate ‘stock company’ of musical performers; Mayer offering his go-getting producer a steady stream of impossible to top creative talent both in front of and behind the camera. Other studios, most notably 2oth Century-Fox. tried to compete. But only MGM had the immense resources to consistently yield peerless quality. The MGM studio orchestra, as example, under the baton of Johnny Green, and later, André Previn, could rival any symphony orchestra with ease. Musical arrangers did not come any finer than Roger Edens or Kay Thompson. Freed’s repertory company would remain the best in the business throughout the 1940’s; the proof – the musicals made from 1939-59. Occasionally, however, Freed set his sights a tad too high – or, perhaps, he simply lost focus – buying up Broadway hits, only to toss out virtually most of their plots and a good deal of their scores.
Herein, it bears mentioning what works on the stage is rarely as effective on film. Musical stagecraft often inserts numbers and/or scenes as transitional pieces meant to bide time and keep the audience amused while a small army of decorators and prop men hurriedly scramble to redress the main stage area behind the curtain for the next act. Narratively, a musical on the stage has two distinct acts, usually interrupted by an intermission. Generally, film functions with a three act partition, or rather – arc – without the benefit of a split down the middle to punctuate the action. Freed, of course, understood these basic conventions. He also trusted his entourage of artists to fulfill his criteria for a newly proposed project on his ‘to do’ roster. Interestingly, On the Town (1949) should not have been one of them. After encouraging L.B. Mayer on a blind commitment to buy the stage show sight unseen for $250,000 – even before a bar of music had been written by Leonard Bernstein – Freed, along with Mayer and a small troop of MGM exec’s went to see On the Town in New York and were summarily unimpressed. Bernstein’s score was too recherché for movie audiences.
Indeed, On the Town could not have come to the studio’s attention at a more inopportune time. Following the war, L.B. Mayer had naturally assumed a return to form and hike in audience attendance. Alas, the war had hardened the public’s appetite for grittier human dramas, making Metro’s lighter-than-air confections even less palpable and more out of touch with prevailing tastes. Loewe’s Incorporated President, Nicholas Schenck encouraged Mayer to find ‘a new Thalberg’ – a V.P. who could balance Mayer’s gemütlich charm with more contemporary stories to satisfy movie patrons and keep MGM in the black – made at roughly one third of the already sky-rocketing costs necessary to produce big and glossy musical extravaganzas. Mayer would have preferred Schenk keep to the business of counting his pennies and leave the daily creative management of MGM’s west coast assets in his competent hands. But Mayer’s thirst for running MGM as his undisputed kingdom had run its course. During the old Irving G. Thalberg regime, part of Mayer’s verve had derived from his daily conflicts with Thalberg. Deprived of a nemesis, even one as ingenious as Thalberg, left Mayer contented to let the studio gradually slump into a level of self-governing obedience, while he pursued other passions on the side like horse-racing and socialite, Lorena Danker.
Enter Dore Schary – arguably, the right man for the wrong studio. Schary was well aware of two criteria upon his appointment as Vice President in Charge of Production: first, his own passion for gritty B-budget noir thrillers with nondescript actors in the leads severely clashed with the studio’s ensconced top-heavy star system, dedicated to superficial glamor and peerless production values, and second; a good many of Metro’s top exec’s and creatives alike regarded his liberalism as akin to being a communist sympathizer. On his first day’s arrival, Mayer gave Schary a singular piece of advice – actually, more of a command: steer clear of Arthur Freed’s musical unit. To his credit, Schary gracious complied. He would continue to allow Freed to make his extravaganzas throughout the 1950’s, even after Mayer was ousted from power by Schenk, leaving Schary’s autocratic rule unchallenged.
Meanwhile, On the Town was green lit for production; hardly a simple translation from stage to screen, but principally given Freed’s own aversion to the Leonard Bernstein score. Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s early elation, as Broadway’s On the Town had been their baby, would turn to gloomy consternation after Freed explained how only a handful of Bernstein’s original songs would make it into the movie. In fact, only four survived, eventually supplemented by seven new songs written by Comden/Green and Roger Edens. Even more disheartening for Comden and Green; Freed wanted the entire premise revised. From the outset, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin were slated as the male leads, despite Sinatra’s apprehensions to do another picture in sailor’s garb. Sinatra’s disdain of Metro’s concocted persona for him, as the scrawny ‘less than’ always cringing in the shadow of Kelly’s more athletically robust masculinity, had irked ever since their pairing in Anchors Aweigh (1945). On Broadway, the three sailors on shore leave in Manhattan adopted a sort of ‘babes in the wood’ leitmotif; pure innocents thrust into a cosmopolitan metropolis. However, with Kelly as the film’s star, the entire structure of the story had to be reconceived.
While Kelly and his behind-the-scenes collaborator, Stanley Donen began putting Sinatra and Munshin through the paces of a rigorous dance rehearsal, Freed concentrated on securing the necessary civic permits to shoot a portion of On the Town in Manhattan. Mayer was not a fan of location work. After all, what was there that his brilliant artisans in the property department could not recreate entirely from scratch on a sound stage: The Statue of Liberty for one; Rockefeller Plaza for another. Very reluctantly, Mayer acquiesced to send a second unit to photograph process plates; also granting Freed a very limited release of Donen and Kelly to stage the movie’s opening showstopper, ‘New York, New York’ at various locations in Manhattan. The logistics in pulling off this montage proved something of a minor nightmare, with the playback of Kelly, Munshin and Sinatra blaring over loud speakers; the sight of two major film stars and a small army of behind-the-camera crew cluttering up the streets with their technical accoutrements, attracting scores of onlookers wherever they shot. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, Freed encountered his own brouhaha with the censors. They objected to New York being referred to as ‘a helluva town’; also to a line in the song ‘Prehistoric Man’, Ann Miller’s sultry anthropologist claiming, ‘lots of guys are ‘hot’ for me’…’beating on their tom-toms’. Mmm, yes. Their tom-tom’s indeed!
In hindsight, the plot to On the Town is not particularly inspired; the sailors on shore leave scenario fattened by an obvious homage – nee rip off – of Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938); the collapse of a fossilized tyrannosaurus rex, presumably on display inside the Museum of Natural History. In Hawks’ movie, the madcap Susan (played by Katherine Hepburn) inadvertently discombobulates our hero (Cary Grant) by dismembering this petrified beast in one fell swoop. In On the Town a similar disaster ensues after the removal of a supporting ‘bone’ topples the giant. The movie’s plot is essentially a girl hunt initiated by Gabey (Gene Kelly) after catching a glimpse of Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen) on a poster hanging in the New York subway. She is June’s Miss Turnstiles. Unaware of the minor celebrity this title holds, Gabey re-envisions Ivy as a rich debutante. In reality, she is little more than an aspiring actress, working as a seedy hooch dancer and indentured to the stern, Mme. Dilyovska (Florence Bates) to pay for her dancing lessons.
Gabey convinces his two ship-to-shore buddies, Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) to partake in his search for Ivy. On the way, they encounter man-crazy cabbie, Brunhilde Esterhazy (Betty Garrett) and stud-hungry anthropologist, Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller). Each, predictably, takes a respective romantic interest in Chip and Ozzie. Now, this quintet goes in search of Ivy; Gabey eventually discovering her in a rehearsal hall, applying her craft with dreams of becoming a big star. The girls agree to keep Ivy’s secret, making a grand fuss over her position as Miss Turnstiles. Now, a sextet – everyone goes clubbing for a night ‘on the town’, culminating in a rooftop rendezvous at the Empire State Building. Ivy must slink off for a late night performance at the carnival, causing Gabey to search for her. Upon discovering the truth, Gabey is unmoved. After all, Ivy is a good girl who actually hails from the same small Midwestern town. More importantly, she also happens to be deeply in love with him. Having broken their ship’s curfew, Gabey, Ozzie and Chip are arrested after a spirited police chase through Greenwich Village, taken back on board their ship at the crack of dawn; Ivy, Claire and Brunhilde waving goodbye to their men who vow to be true to until when next their ship docks in port.
The pièce de résistance in On the Town is the ‘A Day In New York’ ballet; rearranged by Leonard Bernstein, who agreed to work closely with Gene Kelly on re-conceptualizing it for the movie screen. Producer, Saul Chaplin was to add his own ingredient into their creative mix, borrowing on Agnes de Mille’s choreography for Broadway’s Oklahoma!, substituting more accomplished dancers for the principles, except Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen; who were, after all, already in a class apart as dancers themselves. In essence, the ballet is a recap of the film’s plot, done in pantomime, slightly reconstituted through Gabey’s eyes and thought process. ‘A Day in New York’ would set both a standard and a style for impressionist dance on film, later mimicked and expanded upon in Freed’s own An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), also repurposed by de Mille for the film version of Oklahoma! (1955). In retrospect, On the Town’s musical sequences are exemplars of the MGM style, in no small way etched into history by Kelly’s collaborative efforts with Stanley Donen. Upon screening the rough cut assembly of numbers for On the Town, Arthur Freed was over the moon with praise, comparing their work to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, adding “(they) can’t shine your shoes…red, white or blue. Much love from your proud producer.”
Evidently, the public agreed. Two premieres at the Bay Theatre and Loew’s 72nd met with ebullient plaudits and overwhelming critical praise. The line of eager ticket buyers outside Radio City numbered over 10,000. Despite Mayer’s initial premonition it would flop, On the Town eventually went on to gross more than $4 million at the box office – a sizable hit. Mayer, who along with several top executives, had dismissed the stage show as ‘abysmal’, was begrudgingly forced to concede the picture’s success to Arthur Freed, as was rival producer, Joe Pasternak, overheard grumbling as Freed and his entourage passed him in the commissary, “There goes the royal family!”
It is perhaps one of Hollywood’s ironies On the Town does not hold up nearly as well today as some of the other Gene Kelly movies from its vintage. Comden and Green’s screenplay is serviceable, though arguably, the most pedestrian they ever committed to musical comedy. True enough, the best musicals have rarely gone beyond the ‘boy meets girl’ hodge-podge. Yet, On the Town never strains or deviates from this ensconced template. It revels in the mechanical artifice to the point of borderline tedium, preventing the whole show from evolving further. Kelly’s Gabey may not be the naïve fop of the stage hit, but he isn’t the savvy wolf from Anchors Aweigh (1945) or even Thousands Cheer (1943). His congenial able-bodied seaman is soft in the head for a girl he has never met - and won’t, at least for a considerable amount of the film’s runtime; the ‘cute meet’ between Gabey and Ivy further delayed when Esterhazy tries to lull his expectations by introducing Gabey to her homely spinster roommate, Lucy Schmeeler (the dimpled comedian, Alice Pearce).
More dampening to the overall impact and spirit of the movie is the jarring disconnect between the brief portions so obviously shot on location in Manhattan and those more garishly on display in all their plywood backing, recreated at Culver City, mostly on soundstages. MGM’s art department has done a supreme job crafting a credible facsimile of the Empire State’s observation deck, elevated several feet off the ground and surrounded by a 360 degree cyclorama, moodily lit with neon signage and tiny pin pricks of light to simulate the New York skyline. But there is no mistaking any of it for New York itself, particularly since we’ve already seen the real thing from the Bronx to the Battery in the film’s enthusiastic opener. The outdoorsy flavor so emblematically captured during ‘New York, New York’ is pretty much absent from the rest of the picture; the sheer size of Manhattan cleverly camouflaged by Kelly and Donen’s co-directed zeal for tight shots of the sextet as they ebulliently declare they’re ‘going on the town’; strutting past a series of made up ‘storefronts’ on MGM’s backlot ‘New York’ street.
There is no atmosphere to these moments, or rather, none of the Greenwich Village type that ought to have endeared the audience to this particular locale. MGM would continue to keep very tight reins on shooting movies – particularly musicals – inside its studio walls. One can argue the pros and cons of this steadfast and/or shortsighted decision. Intermittently, it had both positive and negative effects; Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) surviving the crisis, despite its claustrophobic confinement to massive soundstages; Brigadoon (also 1954) painfully succumbing to a paralytic artificiality; the very real heather arranged on paper mache hilltops, withering under hot klieg lights and daily having to be replaced. At least in both aforementioned movies, MGM chose to maintain such inauthenticity from start to finish; as Freed would do for his Oscar-winning An American in Paris and Show Boat (both released in 1951). But attempting to mix the concreteness of Manhattan with these more fanciful re-interpretations does not serve On the Town well at all. In hindsight, the picture waffles from moments of verisimilitude into respites of sheer fancy; queerly, without the usual daydream quality of a Metro musical.
I will confess a certain appreciation for the original Broadway cast album in place of the movie’s score. In hindsight, the film version of On the Town lacks sophistication. In spots it retains a bright and breezy air for the fluff stuff. But it leaves virtually all the introspective love ballads on the cutting room floor. This is a mistake; one from which the movie never entirely recovers. Only in hindsight, does the ole Donen/Kelly magic appear to have evaporated; Roger Edens’ claim, that On the Town was a happy experience for all, virtually ignoring Sinatra's reticence on the project – partly, for having to don the sailor suit again, playing the scrawny Kelly-not, relentlessly pursued by Garrett’s ravenous man trap. Also, Sinatra had never much cared for Bernstein’s lyrics. He disliked the film's revamped repertoire even more, perhaps because it provided virtually no solo opportunities for his silken smooth vocalizations to distinguish themselves.
Undeniably, On the Town has merit: the opener, with Kelly, Sinatra and Munshin breezing in and out of a Cook’s Tour of New York’s most easily recognizable cultural and historic landmarks – remains its’ most celebrated and readily revived showstopper. Alas, the rest of the movie never quite matches or surpasses these initial expectations. Instead, we are treated to expertly choreographed ballets - both dream sequences; admirable for their terpsichorean skill, yet somehow lacking the imaginative spark of intangible excitement to make the spirit soar. The comedy is congenial, if occasionally rambunctious. Ann Miller is a delicious vixen and Betty Garrett sporadically reveals her truer calling as a glib comedian. But these gals are more appendages than central to the plot; the entire mobile of activity circling around Ivy’s burgeoning romance with Gabey. Herein, the fault is Vera-Ellen’s to bear; an impossibly perfect dancer, later to find a middle ground that could marginally sustain her limited acting abilities. But in On the Town she miserably fails to make a splash except when her feet are twirling and whirling in unison with Kelly’s. She’s too rigid for comedy, yet not serious enough to play drama, making her both unfunny and yet, not terribly serious; decidedly, a very weak love interest for Kelly’s fawning sailor.
Comden and Green’s oversimplification of the Ivy/Gabey romantic dilemma, resolved merely because Gabey does not care whether Ivy is a famous glamor gal or just the girl next door, is so arbitrary a conclusion, it mitigates the sheer joy of seeing these two people so utterly ‘right’ for one another, rise above these artificially imposed barriers of class distinction to find common law contentment in each other’s arms. What’s here is formulaic and contrived, transgressing against the permissible boundaries of musical artifice. In the final analysis, and despite the fact it broke new ground in terms of shooting on location, On the Town is not one of MGM’s top-tier musicals. It may even rank as the worst Broadway to Hollywood hybrid, given most of what stage audiences saw never made it into the movie. Still, there are worse musicals out there. And no musical with Kelly and Sinatra is ever a complete waste of time. But On the Town is a letdown. It doesn’t shimmer like other Metro musicals. It merely shows off. Technically, it is impressive. Artistically, it remains quite uneven and strangely, unsatisfying.
Warner Home Video delivers the goods on Blu-ray. On the Town has always looked awful on home video. So prepare to be amazed, because Warner has given this catalog title the badly needed upgrade it deserves. Colors are rich and fully saturated. The Technicolor mis-registration that plagued the DVD has been eradicated. A light smattering of grain seems indigenous to its source and contrast levels are bang on. Age-related artifacts that were prevalent on the DVD have been cleaned up. The image is smooth, consistent and satisfying. Honestly, there’s nothing to complain about here.
The audio is still suspect, sounding thinner than expected and, in spots, without any middle tonality to speak of. On the Town has always sounded like this and I am not entirely certain as per the reasons why. But, Warner has done the utmost to preserve and remaster what’s here. You will surely not be disappointed with the results. I know I wasn’t. Finally, Warner has added its usual assortment of short subjects and newsreels, plus a trailer to fatten out the extras. Nice, but we would have preferred an audio commentary and isolated score too. Oh well. Can’t have everything. Bottom line: recommended. *Also featured as part of the Frank Sinatra Collection, available today on Blu-ray.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)