Friday, December 15, 2017

On the Town (1949)

USA, 98 minutes
Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Writers: Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Jerome Robbins
Photography: Harold Rosson
Music: Leonard Bernstein, Roger Edens, Conrad Salinger
Editor: Ralph E. Winters
Cast: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Alice Pearce, Florence Bates, Tom Dugan, Judy Holliday

With my ongoing Movie of the Year project now drifting into the '40s (and the '30s, and yes eventually even into the '20s), I'm finding myself with more catch-up to do—hence the longer periods between write-ups—and also some interesting and even surprising shifts in taste. A lot of movies were made everywhere then, especially in Hollywood, where these are the glory years. Yet except for a designated golden few from each year they are generally harder to track down and see. Netflix—whose DVD service has begun to fail in recent years anyway, and now appears to be shifting into attrition mode as subscribers shrink to minuscule numbers (they've never had anything like the DVD archive on streaming)—simply won't serve any longer as a single primary source. And YouTube may yet emerge as a reliable online repository. I've also developed other new sources such as Amazon Video and Warner Archive.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the last year has been a newfound taste for musicals—and film noir, and woman's pictures, and pirate movies, and others. But the biggest change is musicals. I haven't seen that many because in times past I couldn't turn away from them fast enough on TV and it was rare when anyone could talk me into looking at one all the way through. Of course, everyone knows Singin' in the Rain by now, currently the #12 greatest movie of all time according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? and safely one of the designated goldens for 1952. Maybe they also know On the Town (and even Take Me Out to the Ball Game, also from 1949). But they're new to me and I still can't resist the absurd comical heights they reach with their calculated fits of joy and tap dancing, these flights of pure physical pleasure. When people talk about the difference between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire as the former being more athletic, the latter more suave, that's true enough. But that difference is also more directly a function of emotional engagement. While Fred Astaire stays busy brushing lint from his tux, making dry witty remarks, and chuckling uneasily, Gene Kelly made a career out of wearing his stupid old American heart on his sleeve.

On the Town, directed by the same team behind Singin' in the Rain (Kelly and Stanley Donen), is a lot like Take Me Out to the Ball Game (directed by Busby Berkeley)—Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Betty Garrett are all in both—but On the Town is better partly because Kelly's love story is better. Yet the story is never the point in musicals. The real reasons On the Town is better than Ball Game (and not as good as Singin') are matters of songs and dance routines. In On the Town, Gabey (Kelly), Chip (Sinatra), and Ozzie (Jules Manshin) are Navy swabbies on 24-hour leave in New York City. They come running off the boat at 6 a.m. and spend much of the morning in a quick montage, seeing sights and chanting and hoofing to "New York, New York, it's a wonderful town. The Bronx is up and the Battery's down. The people ride in a hole in the ground."

As the day goes by they meet girls of their (and our) dreams. First up is Hildy (Garrett), a lady cab driver with the hots for Chip. Then my favorite, Ann Miller as Claire, who digs Ozzie's caveman vibe. She's a scientist actually, an anthropologist, but that's out the window for the day, as she belts her numbers with a kind of Ethel Merman brass. Finally, for Gabey, there's Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen), "Miss Turnstiles." The Gabey and Ivy story follows the usual playbook for romantic comedies—find girl, lose girl, get girl. There's even a fifth wheel, Hildy's roommate Lucy (Alice Pearce), whose character of all of them strays most into sad dated areas, where ugly girls become old maids and everyone feels sorry for them but no one wants anything to do with them. One of the highlights of On the Town is a kind of momentary revenge for Lucy (and Pearce) in my favorite number here, "Count on Me" (by Roger Edens, Adolph Green, and Betty Comden).

In its corny musical way (with cowbell), it is an almost perfectly transcendent four minutes so let me narrate it a little as I unpack it myself (see it here). Full of cringing false high spirits and groaner puns ("as the adding machine once said, you can count on me," "as the dough told the pastry cook, I am all you need"), practically everyone except Kelly gets turns at the verses. On the choruses and bridge they circle and prance around Gabey—the reason for this interlude is they're trying to cheer him up. "You can count on me," they sing to him. "I'll stick to you son, you can cling to me, you can milk me dry." Then, on a cow joke, it all suddenly erupts into yodeling. The song and dancing are reaching an inspired fever pitch. At this impossible height is where Lucy steps in to reclaim her dignity by utterly smashing it. Kelly plays it just right, a little hammy, and Lucy is at least temporarily made whole.

Later, in the deep of the night, when Gabey is thrown into the despair of the lose-girl phase, of course Gene Kelly is going to inject a long showy balletic performance for the quality. Even here, however, the six or seven characters that populate On the Town are constant and that's one of the best parts of it. This cast is a bunch of troupers, and whatever narrative situation you throw at them they're going to find a way to turn it into singing and dancing. And when they do, it's going to make you giddy silly happy. It's about as far as I'm willing to go in terms of talking about movie magic.

Top 10 of 1949
1. The Third Man
2. Late Spring
3. On the Town
4. The Reckless Moment
5. Kind Hearts and Coronets
6. White Heat
7. Adam's Rib
8. Pinky
9. The Heiress
10. The Fountainhead

1 comment:

  1. Movie magic being something more tangible in movies full of dancing sounds plausible. Now I want to binge on classic musicals; "somewhere over the rainbow"! Meanwhile, I'll puzzle over why musicals (like Hamilton, for instance) don't work so well as pop songs? Or why, w/ the vibrant history of movie musicals, MTV and music videos have always seemed like such a stunted useless form?