Thursday, May 28, 2009

Reeling Backward: "On the Town"

I have to say I was rather disappointed with "On the Town." It's one of the Golden Age musicals I hadn't seen before, and the image of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin strutting through New York in their white sailor uniforms, singing and dancing, is one of the most enduring cinematic icons.

But for me, musicals rise and fall with the strength of the music, and to my ear the songs in "On the Town" just aren't particularly memorable.

Other than the opening number of "New York, New York," there isn't a tune that you would walk out of the theater humming. Compare that to the other great Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen musical, "Singin' in the Rain" -- the title track, "Make 'Em Laugh," "All I Do Is Dream of You," "Beautiful Girl," "You Are My Lucky Star," "Moses," "Good Morning" and many others stick with you for days afterward.

With a little research, I learn that co-directors Kelly and Donen scrapped most of the Leonard Bernstein songs from the 1944 Broadway hit for their 1949 film version, replacing them with other songs written by Roger Edens. This was a fatally mistaken decision.

It's still an engaging and entertaining romp. The film's saving grace is the wonderful cast, the bright colors and Big Apple scenes. I especially liked the strong female cast, who are forceful counterpoints to the three sailors, and fairly progressive images of decisive, independent women for 1949.

Betty Garrett plays Hildy, a cab driver who chauffeurs the boys around town and takes an immediate shine to Chip (Sinatra), who seems to be more interested in visiting tourist traps than wooing girls. But Hildy is persistent, pressing him to "Come Up to My Place" (one of the few other songs that made the translation from stage to screen).

Ann Miller plays Claire, a glamorous egghead who's sworn off men in favor of study time at the museum. She falls for Ozzie (Munshin) because of his resemblance to a model of prehistoric man.

Vera-Ellen plays Ivy Smith, a song-and-dance girl whose picture is plastered all over the New York subway as June's "Miss Turnstiles." The naive Gabey (Kelly) mistakenly thinks she's a big celebrity, instead of a working girl struggling to make ends meet. He pursues her all over the city in search of his romantic ideal.

As weak as I feel the songs are, the performers are all accomplished vocalists. But what really stands out is the dancing. Kelly, of course, was perhaps the greatest movie dancer of his era, or any. So different from the Fred Astaire make-it-look-effortless mode, Kelly's dancing was athletic and daring, combining classic vaudeville tap with modern dance, even ballet moves.

The other actors keep up the best they can, but the dancing really takes off during Gabey's dream sequence where he imagines he and his two Navy buddies performing on Broadway with their girls, except the other two couples are replaced by professional dancers. Kelly does things that defy gravity and several other laws of physics.

I still liked "On the Town," but in my book it doesn't belong on the exclusive roster of all-time great musicals. They should've kept the Bernstein numbers.

3 stars out of four

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