On the Town

(Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, USA, 1949)


Two sailors, Gabey (Gene Kelly) and Chip (Frank Sinatra), in the company of cab driver Brunhilde (Betty Garrett), burst into an art school’s life-modelling session. They gasp at the sight of a naked woman, glimpsed from the back. The model turns: she is merely wearing a backless dress. Then our trio re-pushes the swinging doors they entered through: revealed are a third sailor, Ozzie (Jules Munshin), and his anthropologist girlfriend Claire (Ann Miller), furtively kissing.

The lightly subversive fun of On the Town is contained in this elaborate gag. It is basically about a hunt for casual sex: three sailors, on twenty fours hours leave, want to get laid. Of course, on the surface, the film attempts to disavow this base impulse – there is, after all, Gabey’s love for the sweet, innocent ‘Miss Turnstiles’, Ivy (Vera-Ellen) – but the proof is everywhere: in cultural references (surrealist art, and a museum devoted to ‘homo erectus’), double entendres (Brunhilde: "He wanted to see the sights, and I showed him plenty"), and above all in the high energy of the song-and-dance numbers, into which all eroticism is artfully sublimated – although there’s nothing particularly hidden in Miller’s bravura performance of "Prehistoric Man"!

On the Town hangs many, varied delights on its simple but driving lifetime-in-a-day premise; co-directors Kelly and Stanley Donen are still some years away from their ideal of the dramatically integrated musical. Once the sailors split up, the film becomes especially busy, ranging from low burlesque ("You Can Count On Me") to high ballet (in a dreamy replay of the plot), via the Sinatra-Garret duet "Come Up to My Place", a highlight of Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy score. Proceedings jump merrily in and out of reverie sequences (like Gabey’s zany imagining of Ivy as the gal for all seasons), making room to incorporate all manner of digressions and gags.

The left-wing aspect of Kelly’s life and career is often overlooked. On the Town has, lurking under its surface alongside that sex drive, a political aspiration: this ‘city symphony’ (taking advantage of some terrific location photography) is truly an ode to joys and woes of ordinary workers, cramming life experiences into the cracks of a punishing, imposed schedule.

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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