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.
In Soviet Russia, Stockings Wear You!
I’m rather disappointed with the latter era MGM musicals. High Society, Les Girls, Gigi; as one of the numbers in Gigi sums it up: “It’s a bore!” Silk Stockings is one of the better ones, not perfect but it shows this now increasingly outdated style of musical could still be glorious, despite their lack economic viability from the rise of television. Whereas High Society came off to me as an unneeded remake of The Philadelphia Story, Silk Stockings manages to hold its own and not come off as a cheap remake Ninotchka, which was released prior to the cold war in 1939 (and not doing much good for American-Soviet relations). Silk Stockings was made right during the cold war and towards the end of the McCarthy years. It’s interesting seeing the story of love overcoming ideology retold from the cold war perspective in this critique of communism just like Ninotchka before it favours the gayety and decadence of the west to the rigid and gray world of the Soviet Union. While Silk Stockings may be moving denouncing communism it does paint a positive picture of Russian arts. The movie however is self-aware its propaganda, with the film being made within the film described as “The iron curtain dissolved by music” and Astaire gleefully proclaiming the film within a film as “what propaganda!”
The influence of the director Rouben Mamoulian is one of the aspects which helps elevate Silk Stockings. Mamoulian was one of the most innovative directors of the 1930’s, whose credits include the ground-breaking musicals Applause and Love Me Tonight. Although this was 1957 and his final film, he was an innovator of the genre and his handsome direction is apparent throughout the film. The musical numbers take full advantage of the cinemascope frame, such as the number ‘We Can’t Go Back to Russia’ which features multiple people dancing at once in a long, unbroken shot. While Fred Astaire is dancing, Peter Lorre might be doing something amusing in the background. The dancing on display in the film is not Astaire’s most accomplished but is entertaining none the less. Mamoulian never worked with Ninotchka director Ernst Lubitsch, although Love Me Tonight did feature Lubitsch elements, as well as regular Lubitsch stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. Elements of the famous Lubitsch Touch are present throughout Silk Stockings; for example, when the Soviet commissar has just finished his first encounter with Ninotchka and is surprised to discover she is a woman, his secretary then bursts into the room to tell him this very fact, very much a Lubitsch inspired gag.
Cyd Charisse succeeds in holding her own, not merely doing an imitation of Greta Garbo; showing that she was an underrated actress as well as a great dancer. Plus it simply a pleasure seeing Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse reunited again after The Band Wagon. Astaire could have conceivably played Melvyn Douglas’ role back in 1939 (I often wish the man could have done more non-musical comedic roles) so his casting does work; plus I’ve always championed Astaire’s for his unsung comic abilities. The casting of Peter Lorre as one of the three operatives is brilliant decision, while Janis Page is also very entertaining as the uncultured actress Peggy Dayton.
The film’s selection of songs written by Cole Porter are very good. ‘Stereophonic Sound’ is a satire on the habits of movie goers more concerned with a film’s technical aspects over the content of the film itself, while Cyd Charrise’s solo dance number captures the decadence of capitalism in the form of dance. The ‘Ritz Roll n’ Rock’ reflects changing musical landscape from jazz to rock n’roll and appropriately so as this marked Astaire’s retirement from musicals, in the final number of the film dressed in his trademark top hat, white tie and tails; what a send-off! Although my favourite number in the film is Astaire and Charisse dancing on a film set in ‘All You Dance’, simply beautiful. The big flaw I have with Silk Stockings however is the length; at the two hours the movie is too long and some trimming could have gone a long way. With thirty minutes chopped out, Silk Stockings could go from a good movie to a great one.