Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Film Review: On the Town

"On the Town" *** (out of ****)

After writing about the rather disappointing, at least in my opinion, "For Me and My Gal" (1942) I thought I better review a better movie musical and quick. And I thought I better restore Gene Kelly's name fast too. I didn't want to leave readers with the impression Kelly didn't appear in good musicals. Here is one of his best and while it doesn't quite reach the cultural status "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) or "An American In Paris" (1951) have, "On the Town" (1949) is still a very well known and fondly remembered musical.

At least "On the Town" gives us some memorable dancing, a pleasant score, done by the great Leonard Bernstein, and good singing. The film is a lot of fun to watch. Maybe a little too slight, but still pleasant enough to have fun watching it. It is a celebration of New York as much as anything (pay attention to the "New York, New York" number). And can be seen as a valentine to the city in much the same way a Woody Allen film is, who made his own musical once, which I might reviewed this month.

The basic idea of the film is to follow three sailors; Gabey (Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) who are on a 24 hour leave. They have never been to New York and want to catch some of the sights and if they are lucky, maybe pick up a girl, all before they have to return.

Of the three of them is it Chip who is the most naive about women. Can you believe that? Sinatra, naive? Chip isn't really looking for a date. He just wants to soak in as much culture as he can and see all the famous sights. Meanwhile Ozzie and Gabey exclusively want to hunt down some ladies. A Gabey, who is suppose to be a ladies man (all of Kelly's characters had to have very definite masculine traits) wants to meet, what he feels is, a typical New York glamour girl. One of those girls you see in fashion magazines. And he thinks he has found one when he sees a picture of Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen) on the subway. Every month a new girl is selected as "Miss Turnstiles" and this month Ivy has won the contest. But in Gabey's mind she is a famous celebrity and he must meet her. As luck would have it, as soon as he gets off the train he bumps into her as she is posing for a photo-op. Gabey wants to ask her out.

Of course Ivy isn't a celebrity but is trying to break through. She is a dancer from the same small town Gabey is but, wants to feel important so she never tells Gabey the truth since she feels she will never see him again after tonight anyway.

But the two have a hard time meeting again and Gabey spends half of the time looking for her. As the three buddies search New York other ladies enter their life. The first if a cab driver, Brunhilde Esterhazy (Betty Garrett, the name is actually Hungarian, though nothing is made of it). She has her eyes on Chip. But Chip is shy, young and awkward and isn't interested. But that doesn't stop her. Now she will drives the boys around, as long as Chip sits in the front seat (!) and take them to find Ivy. When at a museum they meet another lady, Claire (Ann Miller). She has a weakness for men and has been doing a scientific study on primitive man, whom she thinks Ozzie resembles. On for the rest of the film they all split up trying to find Ivy.

There really isn't much more to the film. I won't reveal if Gabey finds Ivy, though if you've ever seen a movie before, you can probably guess. This isn't a mystery, it's a musical.

"On the Town" has a great cast filled with famous singers and dancers. A lot of my younger readers probably won't know who these people are, but, trust me, they were all famous. Younger movie fans, primarily interested in today's movies might recognize Ann Miller for her role in David Lynch's "Mulholland Dr." (2001). Though they probably didn't pay attention to her because they didn't know who she was. She was one of the great tap dancers of her time. Watch her in the Cole Porter musical "Kiss Me Kate" (1953) and check her solo "Too Darn Hot". You'll also want to see her in Irving Berlin's "Easter Parade" (1948) where she has another sizzling solo to the tune "Shaking the Blues Away". Here see engages in a rather suggestive song about her affection for primitive man.

Vera-Ellen is one of my favorite actresses. She may be a bit better known to viewers mostly because she appeared in the holiday classic "White Christmas" (1954). She's the one in love with Danny Kaye. They made a few films together, watch "Wonder Man" (1945), her first film. She too was a great dancer as well. She had that girl next door appeal but there was no way to deny her beauty. She was in a couple of films with Fred Astaire; "The Belle of New York" (1952) and "Three Little Words" (1950).

I really don't think I need to explain who Frank Sinatra is, but, what I will tell you is what his persona was at the time. During the 1940s, when he started to appear in movies, Sinatra was portrayed as the skinny, cute shy kid. He didn't go after the ladies because he was too scared of them. A complete contrast to his Vegas persona in the 1950s and 60s. In these days a lot of jokes were made about how skinny he was. Prior to this film he and Kelly had appeared in two other films; "Anchors Aweigh" (1945) and "Take Me Out to The Ball Game" (1949). "On the Town" completes their trilogy.

Of course Sinatra was known as a singer, but, he could act. Sometimes he gave some very good performances. My favorite with him is "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962). He won the Oscar for his performance in "From Here to Eternity" (1953), proving to be a comeback for him. Yes, even Sinatra had fallen out of the public's taste at one time. He was nominated once more for his work in Otto Preminger's "Man with the Golden Arm" (1955). In it he plays a drug addict. It is a very good film and he is very good in it. Many cite it as his finest performance. Though he lost that year to Ernst Borgnine in the extremely popular and light-hearted "Marty" (1955).

Jules Munchin was a comic in the catskills but did appear in a few musicals. He was in "Take Me Out to The Ball Game" as well.

I already talked about Kelly in my review "For Me and My Gal" so I won't repeat it here but check him out in the "A Day in New York" ballet sequence. It recaps the entire story in a couple of minutes. Bernstein, who also wrote "West Side Story" (1961) was a master at bringing ballet to American audiences. "West Side Story" is about as close as you are going to get to an original American ballet. Here we see shades of it already. In fact "On the Town" was based on an idea by Jerome Robbins who did the choreography for "West Side Story".

The film was written by the song writing team Adolph Green and Betty Comden. They wrote "The Band Wagon" (1953), "The Barkleys of Broadway" (1949), the last of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals, and probably their most popular script, "Singin' in the Rain". Which was directed by the same person here, Stanley Donen, and co-directed by Kelly.

For its good natured fun and entertaining singing and dancing I would recommend "On the Town". It is not as charming as say "Singin' in the Rain" or "Top Hat" (1935) but is worth watching.