Three years and two days before I was born, On the Town opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Crowds of 10,000 waited in lines 7 blocks long over the holidays. The film was a smash, becoming the 11th highest grossing film of 1950, on par with All About Eve and The Flame and the Arrow. I know such things because I’ve always been one for whom context has significance and meaning. It’s so ingrained in me that I can’t grasp how others to whom there’s no such driving curiosity can get by without it. Yes, we all have our quirks and obsessions.
This was my 6th viewing of On the Town, the first in 20 years! How is that possible, 20 years? I had first seen it in 1972, at then later at MOMA. One thing I’ve discovered in watching favorite films over time is how they ebb and flow in my appreciation and affection. I’ve had many instances when a beloved favorite suddenly feels flat and I think, well that’s that, only to find several years, or decades, later I’ll come upon it again and rediscover all its previous glory, or at least remember why I loved it once so much. Mood is an important factor in how a film goes down with me, and fortunately where musicals are concerned it’s much easier for me to get into the mood than to, say, watch something like The Hurt Locker (which I hated) or The Pianist (which I loved, but am not rushing to view again). Oftentimes I think I know a film too well and am impatient to wade thru all its longueurs only to find new patience for its pace and rhthym. Not that I’m wildly fickle mind you. There are films that will never rouse me, and films that will always enchant.
MGM had actually purchased On the Town prior to its Broadway production, but studio executives later regretted it—they hated the show. Only after Arthur Freed caught the enthusiasm of Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen did development proceed, but even Freed had qualms about the show, both the book and Leonard Bernstein’s score in particular—which was considered too highbrow and avant garde for the late '40s. Now of course that seems a tragic mistake, and if On the Town survived the usual bowdlerization of a Bway hit by Hlwd, it is mostly thanks to Comden & Green, who were given the chance to rework their original material. With some reluctance, I’m sure, they also agreed to write lyrics to new songs by Roger Edens. Now of course that seems tantamount to replacing Van Gogh with Leroy Neiman, but it clearly demonstrates Hlwd’s regard for Bway’s artistry at this point in time. That some of Bernstein survives, and much of it orchestral and symphonic, shows that this policy was changing. But in 1949, much as it had been for the previous twenty years even gold-standard composers saw their Bway scores slashed in films of their shows, often inexplicably replaced by truly, deeply, madly mediocre songs by second-rate tunesmiths.
Case in point: It’s hard to see how “You Can Count on Me” is any kind of improvement upon, or even a necessary replacement for “You Got Me”—a song deemed worthy of inclusion in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway some 40 years later. Sure, the number is one of the highlights of the film (the six leads, with Alice Pearce clowning it up in Vera Ellen’s place, are clearly having a ball), but the song is such a copy of Bernstein’s original in tone, tempo and lyric that it really begs the question of why rewrite it? Fun as it may have been, “Carried Away” wasn’t quite suited to Ann Miller’s talents so I’ve less issue with “Prehistoric Man,” probably the best of Edens new tunes. The song (which sounds like a Betty Hutton number) recalls both Cole Porter’s “Give Me a Primitive Man” and the museum scene in Bringing Up Baby and gives Ann some dazzling moments (that green dress with the plaid lining!) But I can’t say I’m much keen for “Main Street,” “You’re Awful,” or the newly composed title song—a number as musically pedestrian as it is joyously staged. “That’s All There Is Folks” a throwaway of a nightclub finale designed to show the sameness of all niterie routines, is a bit shocking in its depiction of Dixieland (re: Negro), Latin and Shanghai chorus lines (I’m not certain but the joke may even extend to using the same chorus girls with different makeup in all three spots.) It’s interesting that “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet,” was deemed suitable material (albeit in abridged version) but “Lucky to Be Me” and the divine ballad “Lonely Town” (which Sinatra himself later recorded in a most haunting arrangement) were thrown out. A strong case could also be made for using “I Can Cook Too” but I just don’t see Betty Garrett knocking that one out of the park. But the most criminal excision surely was “Some Other Time,” one of the grandest wrap-up numbers ever written (and shockingly underused—it could as easily have been Carol (“I’m so glad we had this time together…”) Burnett’s closing (”Where did the time all go to?…”) A knockout of a song, so tuneful and accessible, hardly what you would call “avant garde.” In fact the film wraps up so abruptly after the rushed sequence in Coney Island, you can just feel the hunger for a song—this very song, in fact—to mellow the pace and put a rosy finish on the long days ride. Ah, well.
Visually the film is surprisingly spare. You know it’s not Minnelli. The NY location shots may have looked breathtaking in 1949, but sadly now they look routine, and much grainier than the studio scenes. A few shots are stunning: a verse of “NYNY” down in Rockefeller Plaza looks especially minty. The Hlwd sets look sleek and inexpensive, in particular whenever the ballet sneaks in—it seems they always go abstract whenever there’s serious dance. There’s a nice diorama on the soundstage Empire State summit, but the 34th Street pavement looks awfully fake. Still the color is bright and it’s great fun to see the look of post-war New York. My favorite shot: riding in a taxi down Broadway going past the Broadway Theatre with High Button Shoes on the marquee. Now that’s time traveling. Am I the only one who wishes he could clap his hands and go back in time, and stroll thru Times Square circa 1949? On Dec 9 when On the Town premiered at Radio City Musical Hall, a new Bway musical opened that evening at the Ziegfeld, that would soon find itself on the screen: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes--not, however, with the same blonde who became a Bway star that night: Carol Channing. But the hottest ticket in town was still going on at the Majestic with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza lolling in the South Pacific.
As the first of the great '40s Bway canon to be brought to the screen, On the Town didn’t change Hlwd’s practice of stripping down the original score and supplementing new tunes by other scribes. But there was a certain respect given to Bernstein’s “high-brow” score in its symphonic sections and Comden & Green were able to maintain the original spirit and tone with their retooled script—which in truth was no big advance on the usual Hlwd frivolity. Still On the Town heralded one important distinction that would change the way Hlwd made musicals in years to come; location, location, location. Here in fact, there was very limited location in the final product, and most of it postcard views. And boy do some of those skyline shots look polluted! “New York, New York” is such a clarion call they could hardly replace it, tho Hlwd deemed “…it’s a helluva town” profane, and so instead: “…it’s a wonderful town.” Do you think Bernstein/Comden & Green were smiling when they came to naming their next Bway musical? And doesn’t the Grand Illusion Girdle Factory (where Bea Benederet in a quick cameo says she works) presage The Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Factory, Judy Holliday’s alma mater in Bells Are Ringing? C&G were fun with names too, like the nasally-challenged Lucy Schmeeler, who in a moment of madness asks Chip to call her “a streetcar named impulsive.” And do you think back in 1949 this could have been the first joke to mistake dinosaur for Dinah Shore?
Was there ever anyone cuter in a sailor’s outfit than Gene Kelly? Hollywood’s recasting of Broadway musicals will be a major factor in the success and failure of the genre and a large part of this conversation, no doubt. All too often the studios erred in judgment on this, but there are happily many good choices and On the Town does OK by me. Sure Jules Munshin isn’t inspired casting, but weren’t Chip and Ozzie always pretty colorless anyway? Vera Ellen, though lovely, was a stunningly wooden actress with a chipmunk smile and an annoying habit of incessantly averting her eyes in coy sideways glances—so much so that it’s quite a shock whenever she looks at someone directly--you’re practically thrown that she suddenly becomes human. She’s more spontaneous and alive in this film than most of her others (she only made 13), but as the balletic Miss Turnstiles she gives as good as required. Nancy Walker had made a strong comic impression in three films at MGM before making Hildy the show’s breakout performance on Bway, but no doubt she wasn’t deemed an attractive enough partner for Sinatra—tho in truth she would have been perfect. In fact, the swain of Ava Gardner balked at Betty Garrett as well, but surrendered to her professionalism and fun as filming began. (Both Garrett & Munshin were beckoned by MGM after headlining a 1946 revue on Bway called Call Me Mister.) A sort of poor man’s Celeste Holm, Garrett didn’t exactly ride the success of On the Town to future film work—her contract with MGM was over and she made only one other film, the ill-advised alternate-My Sister Eileen musical at Columbia, in which she stepped into Rosalind Russell’s shoes with predictably underwhelming impression. I’m surprised they gave her “Come Up to My Place,” a real character-driven song that you’d have thought would be cut before many of the other more accessible tunes. Still it is somewhat abridged, and has some puzzling new lyrics: whereas on Bway Chip sang of seeing Tobacco Road—an old chestnut in its own right—here he dips back further in time asking for Floradora, for Chrissakes! From 1900. Makes you wonder who MGM thought their audience was. The sole carryover from Bway was nasal-voiced chicken-faced comic Alice Pearce, who here cemented her comic “charms” for a long career ahead. Ann Miller, already a film veteran at 26, made the most of her best screen opportunity yet. But the film belongs to Kelly and Sinatra—the once and future Pal Joey’s, and both in their musical prime. Sinatra is still boyish at 34 but this is his last success before his washout and famed comeback in From Here to Eternity. And so it remains that Gene Kelly (and Stanley Donen, as co-director) stood most to gain from On the Town. The two would quickly move on to their greatest collaborations and most iconic films, but On the Town has lost none of its luster in comparison to those masterworks