Thursday, January 2, 2020

Gene Kelly and Company Engage in Delightful Musical Tomfoolery in On the Town

People who view movies through the lens of searching for "plot holes" or characters exclusively acting within logical frameworks would probably be driven batty by On the Town, a 1949 Gene Kelly musical that also saw Kelly stepping into the director's chair for the first time. You see, On the Town, like most old-school musicals, isn't dictated by logic, the behavior of characters isn't motivated by logic. Everything about the characters, and the movie itself for that matter, is influenced by what could make the most exciting musical numbers. Song and dance are the name of the game for On the Town and why wouldn't you have that be the primary motivators when your movie stars Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra?

Kelly and Sinatra star alongside Jules Munshin as Gabey, Chip and Ozzie, respectively, the trio of Navy sailors who serve as the lead characters of On the Town. This trio are on leave for a whole day and want to spend their 24 hours of freedom in New York City looking over every landmark possible. Well, at least that's the initial plan and one Chip and his trustworthy out-of-date guidebook wouldn't mind sticking to. But Ozzie and especially Gabey are on the look-out for girls, with Gabey's heart being especially fixated on a lady he spies on a poster named Mrs. Turnstiles. Convinced this must be some famous NYC gal, lovestruck Gabey now coerces his chums to spend their day off searching the Big Apple for this woman who's actually named Ivy Smith (Vera Ellen).

Smith and Gabey do eventually run into each other in real life and end up having sparks fly between each other. Unbeknownst to this Navy sailor, though, is the fact that Ivy Smith isn't nearly as famous as he thinks. Now Ivy Smith and Gabey's much more knowledgable friends have to keep up the facade of Mrs. Turnstiles being somebody famous and glamorous as the night wears on. This romantic-comedy hinges heavily on a case of mixed-up identity, but as said earlier, it's even more reliant on musical numbers. On the Town is based on a famous Leonard Bernstein Broadway musical, so you better believe there's a whole collection of distinctive tunes to be found here.

On the Town's songs, brought to life through a Leonard Bernstein score and lyrics written by an assortment of individuals, including the films two screenwriters, Adolph Green and Betty Comden, are heavy on witty wordplay, particularly in Frank Sinatra-centric musical numbers You're Awful and Come Up to My Place. The former song is an especially delightful creation and comes across like an amusing precursor to the Hairspray number You're Timeless to Me. Both ditties are all about two people expressing their romantic fondness for each other through humorously insulting phrases and comparisons. Bernstein giving the song such a straightforward romantic orchestral accompaniment makes the wry lyrics all the more comedic.

Because this is a Gene Kelly movie, sometimes the musical numbers eschew lyrics altogether for extended digressions into dancing accompanied only by orchestral music. Kelly's gift for being gifted on his feet are certainly on display here while the intricately-executed dance choreography of musical numbers like On the Town is similarly impressive. Kelly and Stanley Donen's sterling work as directors here ensures that the musical numbers are as zippy and delightful as they should be. While many modern movie musicals opts for clumsy directing & editing that undercuts any potentially impressive dance choreography. Meanwhile, On the Town is an example of how solid thoughtfully-realized direction can enhance the fun of showstopping musical numbers.

Such numbers come at such a frequent pace that, when paired with the similarly delightful performances, On the Town proves to be a consistently enjoyable experience. Only an abrupt conclusion to a subplot involving cops that have been chasing our leads throughout the whole movie is distractingly undercooked, though that's partially because such a subplot feels superfluous at this point in the film. I don't really need a resolution to Gabey and friends being on the lam, that story element has already served its purpose in the movie. Let's move onto the more pressing matter of Gabey and Smith getting a romantic reunion rather than pausing things for a clumsy subplot wrap-up.
Such an unsatisfying resolution is the rare exception rather than the rule for the exceedingly fun musical On the Town. And to think, the likes of An American In Paris and especially Singin' in the Rain would prove that a movie as charming as On the Town wasn't even the best work Gene Kelly would do as a filmmaker...

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