On the Town is the third and final buddy comedy to pair both Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra together on the big screen.
In many ways, this film is a spiritual sequel to the 1945 film, Anchors Aweigh. Both actors are playing U.S. Navy sailors on shore leave in each film. The first film sees them in Hollywood while the latter features New York City. In any event, the 1944 Broadway musical preceded their first collaboration. If you miss today’s TCM Summer Under The Stars broadcast, the film is also available to watch on HBO Max. Take Me Out to the Ball Game has a late night airing but the 1949 film isn’t available on the service but was recently released on Blu-ray through the Warner Archive Collection. Coincidentally, Frank Sinatra’s character ends up with Betty Garrett’s character in both films.
Gabey (Gene Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) are U.S. Navy sailors assigned to the USS Nicholson (DD-442) and have 24 hours of shore leave to spend in New York City. All three have plans to hook up during this brief time period. Chip meets a cab driver, Brunhilde (Betty Garrett). Ozzie falls for an anthropologist Claire (Ann Miller), knocking over a dinosaur skeleton at the museum in the process. Meanwhile, Gabey sets sight for Miss Turnstiles herself, Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen). Their 24 hours of fun provides no shortage of music, adventure, or comedy. A sequence on the top of the Empire State Building sees everyone unite together for the first time before having to hide both Ozzie and Claire from the authorities. In addition to the sights of New York City, we also see sequences at clubs during their late night partying.
Co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen do a solid job at the helm with the film running at a fast pace in its 98-minute run time. This is their feature directorial debut but the first of only three collaborations together. This also includes one of the greatest musicals of all time in Singin’ in the Rain. Kelly also handles choreography duties. To their credit, the musical also features on-location filming in New York. This was the first studio musical to feature on-location filming for musical numbers. Even if many scenes are shot on soundstages or the MGM backlot, it is in the film’s best interest to have some NYC locations on the screen. While the backlot makes for less intrusive filming during the height of Sinatra-mania, NYC makes for authenticity in filmmaking. Thankfully, both filmmakers held their ground and prevailed over Louis B. Mayer.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Only four Leonard Bernstein tunes make their way into the final feature film. Roger Edens, who produces with the legendary Arthur Freed, wrote several new numbers for the musical adaptation. Edens felt that the Bernstein score was too operating for audiences. You cannot blame Leonard Bernstein for boycotting the movie. Musically speaking, the film’s opening number, “New York, New York” is different from the 1977 tune that both Liza Minelli and Frank Sinatra made popular in the late 20th century. Regardless, it’s still a catchy tune in even though the Breen Office forced them to change “helluva” to “wonderful.” Both Edens and Lennie Hayton would take home the Oscar for Best Score–Scoring of a Musical Picture.
AFI honored the film in its Greatest Movie Musicals list, ranking it as the 19th best musical. Additionally, “New York, New York” is recognized as the 41st best song in 2004’s 100 Years…100 Songs. Adolph Green and Betty Comden were honored by the WGA with the award for Best Written Musical in 1950.
On the Town features splendid performances and wonderful music in a spectacular directorial debut for Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen.
DIRECTORS: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
SCREENWRITERS: Adolph Green and Betty Comden
CAST: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen, Florence Bates, Alice Pearce, George Meader
MGM released On the Town in theaters on December 30, 1949. Grade: 4/5
Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Substack.