On The Town (1949)

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A Grand Day Out

On The Town is a unique beast of movie musical as MGM never followed up on it in one of the most noteworthy uses of location filming in a Hollywood movie up until that point. On the Town captures New York City circa 1949 in beautiful Technicolor as three sailors on leave spend 24 hours tearing up the town. When three men on board a ship without female interaction have leave, then dames become the ultimate aim. On the Town is also another example of Old Hollywood’s idealisation of the navy, particularly in musicals. Did movies like this effect recruitment? They sure make the navy look fun and even explicitly state it during the On the Town number, “Travel! Adventure! See the world!”. Likewise MGM musicals really aren’t given the credit of just how funny they are, especially those penned by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. “It’s 9:30 already. The day’s gone and we haven’t seen a thing yet.” – Just right after that montage of you exploring the entire city?

Many shots in On the Town, particularly in the opening montage have an un-staged feel to them which give an insight into the world at the time, full of regular people getting on with their lives. The sets here are more on the realistic side and less artificial compared to other MGM musicals, allowing for the transitions between locations and sets to go by largely unnoticed.

Vera Ellen couldn’t be more girl next door, very pure and innocent (as reflected in the number Main Street). Ann Miller and Betty Garret on the other are the opposite to this, which gives the movie characters of both the innocent and then the sex crazed variety. Betty Garret’s nymphomaniac tendencies are on full display as soon as we meet her character of Hidly Esterhazy; she really wants to get Sinatra back up to her place, really badly.

Ann Miller however plays by far my favourite character is the film as the most unlikely of scientists, Claire Huddesen; a sex goddess with the personality of a weird girl – ah the best kinds of contradictions. In her own words she states she was running around with too much of all kinds of young men and just couldn’t settle down. Her guardian suggested that she take up anthropology and make a scientific study of man thus becoming more objective and getting them out of her system and being able to control herself; I love this character! Yet this has caused her to have a thing for prehistoric males over modern men. I can relate to being attracted to those alive decades ago but Ann Miller takes this further to hundreds of thousands of years.

Prehistoric Man is one of the odder musical numbers in the film history both in terms of lyrical content/themes as well as the number itself. As the caveman dancing, bongo bashing, Ann Miller being pulled along the floor by the hair madness proceeds, you have to ask yourself “what the hell am I watching?”. The soundtrack of On the Town is one of the finest in the MGM library; you know a musical soundtrack succeeds when you’re humming multiple tunes from it for a week after watching. The only track which falls flat for me is You’re Awful; with the absence any hook it’s not awful but mediocre.

The first ballet sequence in On the Town which introduces Vera Ellen’s Miss Turnstiles has a similar concept to Leslie Caron’s introductory sequence in An American In Paris; full of contradictory statements to describe her character. The two ballet’s in On the Town are much more humble that what would come in the MGM musicals over the next few years, nor do they have the eye popping colour and appear more washed out. The A Day In New York ballet for example is bound to only two modest sets but these still serve as nice warm up for the magnificence of what was to come.

Anchors Aweigh (1945)

Join the Navy!

Anchors Aweigh is the first film of the Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly trilogy, tapping into classic Hollywood musicals odd fascination with sailors. It wouldn’t be the last time Kelly or Sinatra would play a sailor and what an underrated comedic duo they are. Gene Kelly is loveably egocentric, constantly lying about his exploits with dames and rubbing the fact that he got leave in his comrades’ faces so much that he sings a musical number about it; the interactions he shares with Sinatra are priceless. Reportedly Kelly was known in real life for being a control freak and getting his own way, so I wonder how much of his personality is reflective in his performance. Frank Sinatra is largely the opposite of Kelly, girl shy and completely gawky, a stark contrast to what he later became; he sure toughened up over time.

Anchors Aweigh can around the beginning of new era of film musicals, at a time when the genre became almost exclusively one filmed in colour and when the distinctive style of the MGM musical took off, separating them from the likes of the Astaire & Rodgers musicals of the past. Unlike Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly was off the people, usually playing commoners on screen. Fred Astaire did play a sailor in Follow the Fleet but no doubt Gene Kelly suits it better.

Perhaps the film’s best highlight is Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry of Tom & Jerry fame. It might not be as technically advanced or as smoothly animated as later live action/animation hybrids but it’s one of the most awe inspiring. They animators even make note to include Jerry’s reflection in the floor. The studio originally wanted Disney to allow them use of Mickey Mouse for the number, which seems very hard to believe. The inclusion of some very Disney looking animated creatures, including two which look suspiciously like Bambi and Thumper, suggests the studio was serious about including Mickey.

The other unique aspect of Anchors Aweigh is the documentary like look at MGM studios in 1945 during one portion in the film. A peak at the dream factory itself, with people in costume, props everywhere and what look like studio workers in suits going about their business. It’s unabashed self promotion but hey, it’s one entertaining commercial. This use of on location filming including the scenes as the Hollywood Bowl show shades of what was come several years later in On the Town. I do wish they though could have shown some more of 1945 Hollywood but the sets present in Anchors Aweigh are something to marvel at. Even with the odd background which is clearly two painted backdrops placed side by side with a dividing line clearly visible, the sets create a cartoon like Technicolor world that you wish real life could look like; just look at that set of the Spanish part of town; such artificial beauty.

The only downside to Anchors Aweigh which prevents it from being a greater film is the run time and much of this is largely due to the amount of which is spent in the house of Kathryn Grayson’s character; I really started to get sick of the sight of it, especially since the movie takes place in Hollywood and there are places so much more interesting they could be. The characters keep returning to the house several times throughout the movie, which wouldn’t be such a problem if it wasn’t for the large chunk of time that was spent there when they first arrived at it; by far the most  frustrating aspect of the film. Thankfully the good outweighs the bad and the good isn’t just good, it’s amazingly good. There’s really no dud musical number present, they’re all so very, very beautiful.