Getting Involved Is So, So Involving: On The Town (1949)

I have already watched High Society as part of this month of musical, wherein a variety of stars coalesced together to make an enjoyable, but somewhat less than realized musical.  In contrast, is On the Town, a film that included a considerable amount of people working both in front of and behind the camera who were still establishing themselves in the entertainment business.  This establishment, however, does not equate to underwhelming delivery on any of their parts, indeed, Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra put on career defining work, all the the swell of Leonard Bernstein compositions.  This alone would make for a noted and wholly engaging piece of film, but add Stanley Donen to the mix and it becomes a thing of sheer beauty.  The version of this film that I was able to catch up with was a digitized version of the VHS copy, which meant a bit of blurriness and weird fading in and out throughout, but like my copy of Pather Panchali which suffers from the same issues, this still worked beautifully.  The swagger that is seemingly inherent within Frank Sinatra's music pushes some of the numbers to new heights and an extended ballet sequence affords Gene Kelly a chance to shine, moving madly through the space as though it were foolish to even confine his dynamism.  It would be one thing to just sing the praises of the visual elements of the film, which are extensive and noted, but it also manages to also be an incredibly funny film, one that plays into the absurdity of heteronormative ideals in the musical, while also knowingly ascribing to them to avoid any confusion.  It is perfectly post-World War II in its composition using the narrative of a few Navy guys on leave to push for a stranger in a strange place narrative that also refers back to the down on their luck girl in the big city that made for a narrative in nearly every Busby Berkeley musical of a decade earlier.  I could sit here and pick apart every single thing that works about On the Town, but it would ruin some of the surprise, or worse would contradict the perfect simplicity of the film, using basic cinematic language to lovingly move through a stylized and sensational version of New York City.

On the Town works in a cyclical narrative focusing on the arrival of a group of Navy men on leave.  The Navy guys include the somewhat brutish but well-meaning Ozzie (Jules Munshin), the curly haired and dashing Chip (Frank Sinatra) who wants nothing more than to explore the city his father has spoken so fondly about.  Finally, there is Gabey (Gene Kelley) the everyman sailor who is simply along for the ride.  When it is Gabey who encounters Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen) a local model and ballerina who Gabey assumes to be famous as a result of her being on the billboards of Subway trains.  Gabey is smitten with Ivy, but she flees the scene to return to her rather desolate life as a student/exploited worker for the maniacal Madame Dilyovska (Florence Bates).  Recruiting his pals, Gabey, Chip and Ozzie take it upon themselves to search all of New York City for the model.  Along the way the each member meets their romantic parter, Ozzie coming to be a point of desire and fascination for museum curator Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller) who compares him to a primitive male on display in the museum.  While, Ozzie is initially confused by such an assertion, he also enjoys the advances of the attractive Claire.  Chip meets up with the local cab driver Brunhilde "Hildy" Esterhazy (Betty Garrett) whose wild-mouth and assertive nature lead him to enjoy her company in a roundabout way, only spurred further by her near textbook memory of all the spaces in New York, thus making his tourism more well-executed and updated.  Yet, Gabey is still struggling to find Ivy a quest that is greatly shortened by a happenstance encounter.  Ivy explains that she is also quite attracted to Gabey, but her point of employment proves rather problematic since it involves burlesque dancing for the Madame Dilyovska who uses the cost of her ballet lessons over the young Ivy.  Agreeing to meet on the top of the Empire State Building things become complicated when Ivy must return to her work, the determined Gabey seeks her out, nonetheless, all the while the group must run around the city police force that have taken a stand against their various accidents and inducing of trouble.  The groups concerted effort does allow for the two to unite, in the process discovering that they might have been far closer together than they ever imagined.

This film, as I noted borrows from the Busby Berkeley narrative of woman in the big city, who is struggling in her place of employment, while also hoping that they can snag a man for their point of escape.  Furthermore, given that it involves a group of Navy men navigating New York City it also takes on a layer of the homosocial bond, their own engagement with the girls becoming a point of this shared desire.  What becomes fascinating though is that both group are played at odds to one another in a very heteronormative manner, the girls looking at the men as a bit ruff and tumble, particularly since they are Navy men, although in non-diegetic sense both Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly exert more feminine identities at this point in their careers.  In contrast the men see the woman as things "to be saved" although it is rather clear that both Hildy and Claire possess jobs that are financially independent and of which they are quite proud.  Indeed, Hildy even makes a note of her distinct difference to the other male cabbies in New York.  It is a film that carefully crafts the two gendered and genre spaces together, at times making a clear distinction between the two.  There is a particular dance and musical number with the men praising the life of the Navy that allows them to constantly philander about never needing to settle down.  In yet another knowing moment the choreography has the women look at the camera asserting their own knowledge of this reality, while also seeming to suggest that they can end these wily ways by a mere flashing of their eyes.  The narrative pushes to have these unions be somewhat unconventional, pairing the oafish Ozzie with the intellectual Claire and the travelled Hildy with the somewhat sheltered Chip.  It would seem like it is a suggestion that all women are capable of finding a man, without expecting them to be a fabrication of themselves, again terribly heteronormative, but understandably so for the era.  I would seem this is the case, but it would negate the unfortunate experiences of Lucy Schmeeler (Alice Pearce) a comedic point of contrast to the "beauty" of the other women.  None of the men even acknowledge her as a sexually attractive individual.  Even though Gabey asserts that she will eventually find her partner, his conviction seems particularly uninspired.

Key Scene:  Frank Sinatra singing "You're Awful" is just about the most delightful song I have heard in quite awhile.

The DVD for this is cheap enough to suggest buying, but renting might not be a bad approach as it is admittedly not the lavish musical some might initially apply to a Stanley Donen work.

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