#219. On the Town (1949)

Sinatra was so starry-eyed and hard-working and ambitious as a young performer that by the time his career as a musician (such as it’s chronicled in The Voice, the first of James Kaplan’s two-part biography) pushes him into Hollywood, the transition feels seamless. He had some issues down the line that might suggest he wasn’t a natural in front of the camera, like his notorious inability to give more than two or three takes, and of course he had a monstrous temper that put him at odds with more than one colleague and, later in life (after he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in From Here to Eternity, jumpstarting his career when it was on the brink of dying), Sinatra could be a diva on set. Similar but different to the petulant I’ll-work-when-I-wanna diva he could sometimes be as a young man. But he could also be a friendly mentor, an earnest supporter, a dedicated collaborator. He really wasn’t such a brute as lotsa stories would suggest. Held himself to a high standard and wanted everybody around him to do the same thing; to be comfortable, but focused; and as he got older, once he finalized his torturous seven-year split from Ava Gardner and got more serious about his work, we see a different man altogether.

But here, in the late ’40s, Frank was still…fresh. Kinda difficult. Disappearing from set whenever he wanted and not returning when he was needed. Petulant shit.

Now, I’d only ever heard of On the Town in the pages of that Sinatra biography, and thus, since I appear to believe that the world exists only within the parameters of what I’ve read, I’d figured the movie was a Sinatra vehicle, and watched the first half thinking, Cool beans, he’s finally on the scene. And he’s not hogging the stage. How magnanimous. Didn’t realize until the third act that this other guy, Gene Kelly, is apparently the star of the thing.

That’s Kelly there in the back, lefthand side.

The movie’s about three sailors who get a 24-hour furlough in New York City and whose first goal, naturally, is to find women to spend it with. And they each find one. Gene Kelly’s pursuit is the heart of the story, though, cuz he finds himself smitten right away with a woman they see on a poster in a subway. Her name’s Ivy Smith (Vera Ellen). She’s been crowned Miss Turnstiles. Kelly’s set on finding her before the day’s up. Set on falling in love.

And so his buddies, played by Sinatra and a third guy (Jules Munshin), are I guess keen to abdicate their own itches in order to help Kelly scratch his own, zipping through the streets of NYC in a yellow cab — which itself is being piloted by the libidinous young Hildy Esterhazy (Betty Garrett) who, like the rest of em, sports a gorgeous singing voice and plays her role in a charming middleground between the histrionics of a stage and the subtler facial flutters of a screen performance (the movies’ based on a Broadway musical, incidentally, and I think adds here some music by Leonard Bernstein — on whom I’ll have to do a sustained bitta research at some point). Horny, talking with constant innuendos, optimistic in a postwar ’50s American way, she’s the movie’s most endearing character by a longshot. Seems to be having a blast.

The women steal the whole show. While Garrett command our focus with humor, a distinct kinda charisma, both Vera Ellen (in the role of a dedicated dancer) and Ann Miller (who plays a bespectacled anthropologist, and hooks up with Ozzie, the most nondescript of the three men) are insane athletes. Their dancing isn’t the airy stuff from Busby Berkley musicals (42nd Street and Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933), where the movement is more about synchronicity and precision and coordination and grace. Lynn and Miller are kicking, leaping, vaulting over things, throwing punches and spinning — good God, the spinning alone is mind-boggling. The female performances in On the Town are the most sterling displays of athleticism to’ve appeared on the List so far, with the sole exception of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia — which is a four hour spectacle of Olympians competing.

But so the movie is totally charming, I love it and might actually buy a copy, but it’s got this thing at the end, a fucking headache I’ve gotta deal with in every Gene Kelly picture to come: a laboriously long scene of ballet. Two solitary figures traipsing around on a vast and unfurnished stage, bathed in shifting lights. Here, too, there’s great talent on display, both in front of the camera and behind it. The set’s gorgeous. Everything is admirable and kinda dazzling.

I just don’t like ballet — which, if the Project has taught me anything, is really just a sign that I don’t understand it (I went on a whole spiel in the Adam’s Rib piece about how, having thought for so many years that I hated romantic comedies, the thing that finally proved me wrong was watching a bunch of good ones). So rather than sit here giving Gene Kelly a hard time for mastering his craft and sharing it, I should be putting my mind toward tryna figure why it’s so worthwhile.

But for now, I’ll gripe: the movie’s a delight, but the last bit’s a bore.

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