Review: On The Town (1949): MGM’s New York Musical

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There is an immediate understanding that goes with the opening image of a construction worker arriving at the docks, still sleepy, as the world wakes up with him. And he does something that while still theatrical has roots in a very human urge, to bring in the new day with song.

If we look at the MGM catalog many of them have themes based around stage productions, film, or the arts. In their own way, such topics make completely logical sense as they make it much easier to transition into song and dance that feels pertinent to the performers in front of us. And yet when you think about it, at least for me, some of the most sublime of these old numbers are never connected with the big opulent stage productions being put on with giant routines.

Certainly, they are impressive for their scope and the intricacies of their execution, but where is the real magic? It’s Gene Kelly dancing in the rain because he’s in love and he’s got to articulate it. It’s Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling overcome with joy of his own in Royal Wedding (coincidentally directed by Stanley Donen). And so when three sailors burst into view, scampering off their ship gleefully, with a whole day to gallivant around New York City, those emotions come across as incredibly genuine.

Gabey (Gene Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra), and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) break into a chorus of “New York, New York” no doubt heard all across town. Their subsequent adventure, tailored by the dynamic duo of Adolph Green and Betty Comden, truly is the quintessential, streamlined MGM musical.

It was plucked from the stage play dream team of choreographer Jerome Robbins and eminent composer Leonard Bernstein. The film itself was directed by Kelly and Donen who would maintain a fruitful yet increasingly bitter partnership together until It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). It’s nearly impossible to assume where one man’s influence began and the other’s ended. All we have are the results that speak for themselves.

Maybe I’m simply a sucker for ambling films like this where the prospects seem endless. Because, after an initial clip show and a decent amount of on-location footage, taking them all over, the boys finally settle on the fact that they need to find some girls while they’re in the big city.

Kelly is especially girl crazy when he spies, “Miss Turnstiles” (Vera-Ellen), plastered all over the Subway on posters, only to run across her moments later, getting her picture taken nearby. She’s quick to head off to her next engagement, and yet he’s immediately smitten and intent on reuniting with this beautiful, cultured girl who seems way out of his league.

Meanwhile, Sinatra is the one intent on seeing the sights. Much like Take Me Out to The Ball Game, he feels miscast in the naive role as their lady cabbie (Betty Garrett) chases after him, all but chauffeuring them around town free of charge as long as she’s compensated in male companionship. Poor Chip finds himself forced into the front seat constantly subjected to the lady’s amorous assaults. He’s a goner.

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As the search for the local celebrity continues, Ozzie runs into Claire (Ann Miller), a woman conducting research at the Museum of Anthropological History, ceaselessly fascinated with prehistoric man,which Ozzie seems to be a perfect descendant of. It seems like everyone else is striking it rich as Gabey searches hopefully. And in its most movie-like moment, he’s rewarded for his tireless casing of the city. Sure enough, he wanders in on her as she balances on her head as nice you please.

It turns out that Ivy Smith is more of a girl-next-door than a big-name socialite and yet when Gabey finally tracks her down, she leads him on, playing the part to impress him. They solidify their chemistry with the winsome “Main Street,” personifying a universal portrait of small-town American, pretty girls, and light-hearted, good-natured romance. Later, their swiveling and maneurving on a ballet barre somehow manages to be seamless while further instilling their relationship.

Like all fated New York romances, a rendezvous for the top of the Empire State Building is planned. It’s a party! It also provides the backdrop for the deceptively romantic “You’re Awful,” allowing Sinatra to break out of his film persona for just one moment to croon as only he can croon. Betty Garrett proves she’s far more than a cab-driving clown, with tenderness to give as well.

Now everyone is together. You have the three sailors and their three All-American gals, each wonderfully color coordinated in bright Technicolor-worthy dresses and we finally feel as if things are complete.

The sense of camaraderie by this point is undeniable, and along with the New York setting, On The Town is bolstered by such a sentiment. Not only does it mean that we have a plethora of quality performers, but there’s a sense that they’re all in on this big beautiful extravaganza together, and they all have something to bring to the party. It makes for a delightful showing.

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“You Can Count on Me,” says as much even as Gabey’s Cinderella rushes off without an explanation and his friends find it necessary to cheer him up.

“A Day in New York — A Comedy in Three Acts” seems a rather strange aside, and yet here you see an instance where Kelly (and Donen) gets to exercise a specific vision, aided by dancer/choreographers Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne. Because this whole film is an ensemble piece and still, even this single scene shows glimpses of some of Kelly’s more inventive numbers ,which would come to fruition in the near-future. Again, deciphering the dividing line between Kelly, Donen, and the involvement of others is nearly impossible. But why bother with quibbling at this point? The results speak for themselves.

When the storyline wraps up and the three sailors have to bid adieu to their girls, the bittersweet melancholy of saying goodbye is unavoidable as is the continuity of life. Even on the way out, a new group of sailors is already bursting forth to see New York — the same crane operator observing their eagerness with a smile. The daily cycle begins again. What a city it is! Such a wonderful town. In fact, “Ol’ Blues Eyes” would sing about it again one day.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Gene Kelly

As the site takes a look at some of Classic Hollywood’s most prominent musicals, it seemed like an auspicious occasion to focus on some of the most well-regarded performers of the era.

For our latest beginner’s guide, we look at Gene Kelly, the man who combined his muscular athleticism with graceful hoofing to transform the movie musical like never before. He would become the greatest hoofer since Fred Astaire and then ultimately enter movie immortality alongside his idol. Here are some of his greatest films well-worth checking out.

On The Town (1949)

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While Gene Kelly isn’t quite calling the shots, he’s front and center in this MGM extravaganza alongside the likes of Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, and Ann Miller, just to name a few. Regardless, it’s an exuberant offering showcasing much of the magic and music that made the studio’s musicals so popular.

An American in Paris (1951)

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Paired with the glorious mise en scene of Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly tapped his affections for France and showcased the waifish talents of Leslie Caron to envision one of the finest achievements of his career. Between the music of the Gershwins and his top-class dancing, he makes the dreamy final third of An American in Paris into pure cinema.

Singin in The Rain (1952)

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If there was ever a benchmark for what the Hollywood movie musical could be, it’s encapsulated by Singin’ in the Rain. It boasts so much quality from Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor to commentary on the silent era to sterling direction by Stanley Donen. All you need is Kelly’s tour de force in the rain to understand what makes this movie transcendent. It’s emotion personified.

Always Fair Weather (1955)

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This one is a bit of an oddity reflecting signs of the changing film landscape. Yet Gene Kelly still shows his prowess with a particularly thrilling dance on roller skates. Likewise, the story blends a post-war commentary with a satire of modern media which proves surprisingly lucid. Regardless, it was the beginning of the end of the musical’s golden years.

Worth Watching

For Me and My Gal, Cover Girl, Anchors Aweigh, The Three Musketeers, Take Me Out To The Ballgame, Summer Stock, Brigadoon, Les Girls, Inherit The Wind, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and more.

Kiss Me Kate (1953): A Musical and Meta Entertainment

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The film version of Kiss Me Kate, helmed by MGM’s perennial musical director George Sidney, is a translation of Cole Porter’s rousing Broadway success. We must play a game of two degrees of separation because the stage smash was itself a comical backstage adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of The Shrew. I cannot necessarily attest to where one begins and the other ends, between stage, film, and original play, since my own knowledge is shoddy at best. So I will contain my thoughts to the story at hand.

At its core are the strained relations of a formerly married couple composed of two prima donna stage performers: the devilishly handsome, barrel-chested baritone Fred Graham (Howard Keel) and his equally strong-willed, alluring, and talented ex Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson). In all regards, a match made it heaven. They undoubtedly deserve each other.

The undisputed peppiness of Ann Miller, as she bursts in on them and Cole Porter (Ron Randell), is an immediate jovial assault on their relationship as she flaunts her attributes in “Too Darn Hot” and gets a little lovey-dovey with the self-absorbed leading man. I’m not sure if any audience member is shocked when she’s seen playfully prancing about with her other boyfriend (the always impressive Tommy Rall) in  “Why Can’t You Behave?”

To needlessly mix metaphors, the production is nearly sunk before it gets off the ground. And yet a mixture of persuasion, jealousy, and the quality of the material coaxes Grayson’s character into the fragile reunion. Wunderbar!

Lilli’s rendition of “I Hate Men” proves a blatantly pointed number where on stage sentiments are mirrored in her life; she doesn’t mince words raging through the set, flinging props to her obvious satisfaction.

In fact, she’s far more suited for the flaming red wig she wears on stage than her actual modest cut. The 3-D qualities come to bear thanks to the tossing of beer steins and flower bouquets. It’s one of visual cues to suggest this very purposeful sense of the off-stage and on-stage lives merging and colliding with one another.

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We have the backroom interludes and then the continuous sequences of the performance photographed straight on until little discrepancies come into play to make everything run afoul.

Breaks in characters. Personal vendettas playing out on stage with each minor slap and smack in the stage directions supplied with ample fury from years of pent-up rage. Deviations in the actual production also come to pass. Namely, a cringe-worthy spanking as the midway curtain drops.

It’s in the intermittent period where Kate utters that immortal Shakespearian retort, “Thou Jerk.” In fact, there’s great fun to be had with this conscious collision of Old English prose and the contemporary vernacular. The number “Brush Up On Your Shakespeare” suggests as much.

Keenan Wynn and James Whitemore are brought on to thoroughly liven up the second act as a pair of neighborly enforcers sent to visit Fred in his dressing room. They go so far as becoming a part of the production as it continues to go off script and off-the-rails. Because Kate is intent on running off with her rich boyfriend Tex (a Ralph Bellamy-type), and Graham connives to keep her around, pulling the heavies into his plan.

It feels strikingly like a His Girl Friday (1940) deal as we see our leads gravitating toward others while never finding it within themselves to completely forsake their former spouses, in spite of the mutual distaste. It’s indisputable, but it also suggest the fire still kindling between them.

Hermes Pan adds to his illustrious body of work while Bob Fosse’s choreography is almost a blip on the radar. Even then,  it’s strangely singular and expressive, charting his course toward The Pajama Game and many, many more projects to come.

Meanwhile, Ann Miller’s dancing reminds us that she’s the purest performer on taps within this picture and when given free-range, she follows up her first routine with continued verve. She does feel all over the place, but that can mostly be attributed to her character. In fact, one could affirm that she rightfully earns some of the most memorable screen time based on the uninhibited vivacity she showcases.

In its waning moments, it looks like the fictional production has finally met its inevitable end: a crash-and-burn finale, as the understudy has to rush on to take the place of the departing Catherine. In an off-the-cuff moment, playing opposite his future father-in-law’s question of where his daughter might possibly be,  Fred mutters, “Right now she should be flying over Newark.”

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Thus, Kiss Me Kate, at its most inventive, is hyper-aware of its meta qualities; this story-within-a-story tracing the line between the artificial and the reality projected up on the screen that is itself a fabrication of light and images. It reaches out further than most films of this type because its original release in 3-D, while admittedly a gimmick to snag the TV generation, also accentuates this razor-thin dividing line between the cinematic space and the space that the viewer occupies.

However, ultimately the production though laced with humor and vengeful lovers, quality choreography, and flamboyant set design and costuming, comes off strangely hollow in its landing. Because the ending feels false and inherently wrong.

Here is a man who is conceited and has no sense of self-sacrifice or concern for others, as farcical as he might be. Again, we could argue that Kiss Me Kate is solely entertainment, only occupying cinematic space. And yet we brushed up against everything thus far. How are we to make distinctions? In the real world, even in the 1950s and especially now, there is no excuse for Graham.

Surely, like any person, he deserves a second chance and the grace that comes from a person willing to forgive. However, one might question the way in which Lilli flies back to him. There seems to be no regard for his past indiscretions just as there’s no conversation to be had about the flings they’ve both been having on the sides. Because Kate is herself a bit of an entitled snob. And there you have this falseness most fully realized.

Life is a lot more complicated than film reality. Kiss Me Kate cannot quite pull it off because it inserts the uncluttered, picture-perfect Hollywood framing on the storyline.

Ironically, it’s actually the performance that gets continually disrupted while so-called real-life falls into place nearly seamlessly. So in the end, it matters whether you care about making a distinction between the stage and what happens backstage in the purported reality.

Because at least we can all agree that none of it is actually before us in the flesh where real lives are at stake. We can keep it at an arm’s length and laugh along with it without allowing it to influence our perceptions of this world.

Taken as such, Kiss Me Kate is a coruscating delight bursting forth, rather agreeably, with comedy and song. It can be absorbed merely as diverting Technicolor entertainment for sure. However, when we allow it to reach out and influence our worldview in other ways that’s where we might falter.

3.5/5 Stars

Easter Parade (1948): Judy & Fred Together At Last

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There’s a slight disclaimer that must go with Easter Parade. It has very little to do with Resurrection Sunday. More so, it’s a premium excuse for a lavish musical. At least in this regard, it thoroughly accommodates its audience.

The show starts off gloriously, not with dialogue, but with song, reminiscent of the great operettas of old or the future works of Jacques Demy where the film is buoyed by a range of voices imitating the joyous chorus of life. Here we have the seemingly ageless Fred Astaire strutting down the street greeting folks, doing some window shopping, picking out a hat as models file by and everyone chimes in with “Happy Easter!”

What becomes immediately apparent, even as we are thrust right into song, is the immaculately colored world, bright and cheery, personifying the holiday festivities and simultaneously satiating audiences who come to expect such glorious decadence from Technicolor movie musicals of the age. It rarely disappoints in terms of pure opulent set design.

When Astaire spies a bunny in a toy store window, it inspires his finest number in the picture, a worthy precursor in fact to his shoeshine number in The Band Wagon (1953). Because what sets it apart is how alive, lithe, and playful it is. Gene Kelly was imbued with this ability too, but you have to witness it to completely understand the magic when environment and inspiration coalesce.

They could animate the world around them by taking lifeless objects and turning them into tools to personify emotion. Like all the preeminent performers, they take the tirelessly rehearsed and make it feel like the epitome of the organic, in a way that suggests we are discovering something precisely at the same moment they are. We are part of the magic born out of the moment.

Astaire banging on drums and xylophones. Twirling sticks and tossing toys like, well, a kid in a toy store. The story hasn’t even started yet, and he’s already made Easter Parade into something special. It’s when you’re reminded that these lavish musicals were at their best when they momentarily lost their plotlines through acts of artistry and inspiration that still managed to somehow advance the narrative.

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At some point, the exposition must arrive and with it a plot. It comes in the form of Don’s ravishing and vain dance partner. Nadine (Ann Miller) is intent on striking out on her own and commanding a larger audience. In fact, she’s already made up her mind and signed a contract with Ziegfeld, leaving Don to start from scratch with a new partner. Regardless, there’s no denying the chemistry they had together. Astaire and Miller absolutely light it up in “It Only Happens When I Dance With You.”

However, now feeling betrayed and saddled with a bit of a Pygmalion complex, he convinces himself that he can turn any second-rate performer into his costar, and he just happens to pick Hannah Brown (Judy Garland). The unassuming starlet splits her time as a waitress at a local bar while struggling to differentiate her left foot from her right. She looks like a hopeless case. Not so!

Fresh off his quality success in MGMs Good News (1947) from the year prior, Peter Lawford is inserted in the storyline as the close friend of Don and Nadine, caught in the middle of their personal and professional squabble. When he meets Hannah in the rain, it only makes things more complicated. One could wager that the handsome and youthful Lawford is partially miscast, but he has a good-natured charm that makes us disregard any of that. We like him as much as we’re supposed to.

From their initial encounter, the Astaire and Garland relationship is front and center, evolving into the film’s most important dynamic. So far the movie is coming through on its promises. Again, we’re not all that interested in their acting per se, unless I’m just speaking for myself.

What actually strikes my curiosity is seeing them perform in tandem because they were consummate professionals who knew the Hollywood circuit like the back of their hand by now. Astaire, though still looking so spry, had years already logged with Ginger Rogers and others, not to mention stints on Vaudeville and the stage. Garland of course, though still quite young, had, since adolescence, been trained up and groomed in the ways of Hollywood. The shining examples early on, of course, being The Wizard of Oz and then her onscreen partnership with Mickey Rooney.

“Couple of Swells” endears itself as a delightfully corny number with our stars ruefully ditching the fine attire for artful dodger, tramp-like garb. Buying into their affectionate relationship by this point is no difficult task. They’ve made us believe in it.

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In truth, Garland had never met Astaire before their teaming though she had purportedly wanted to work with him for many years because he was the tops — the best of the best.

The rest of the production’s background is tumultuous, and the actual details sketchy at best. Scriptwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were initially called upon only to have their draft touched up by Sidney Shelton. Vicente Minnelli was removed as director at the behest of Garland’s psychiatrist, deeming it better for her to work without her husband.

We might also call it an odd chance of serendipity as Gene Kelly (Garland’s co-star in many MGM musicals) was also slated for this project until he broke his ankle playing volleyball (right before production commenced).

Who was coaxed out of retirement to take on the role instead? Only the best: Fred Astaire. And Astaire would retire numerous other times thereafter, but you just cannot keep a man who was born to dance like he was away from the floor. Thank goodness he would come back for numerous more efforts. His successes in the 50s are too innumerable to count.

Simply put, he makes every movie he’s in worth watching for the mere chance that you will glimpse something spectacular. Paired with Garland, a world-class performer in her own right, there’s no missing, even if both have more iconic pictures. That’s probably more a testament to their iconic careers than the merits of Easter Parade. Because it all but delivers on everything you come to expect from the two names written above the title.  There’s a good chance you’ll be left with a broad smile on your face.

4/5 Stars

Stage Door (1937)

Stage_Door_(1937)Watching Stage Door illustrates one of the pleasures of film because it’s an unassuming classic that very easily could be overshadowed by other films. Its main stars are Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn, who both have numerous films more well known than this one.

However, this story about a boarding house for aspiring stage actresses is a light piece of sassy fun while still finding moments for poignancy. Rogers is a cynical dancer named Jean, and she is not too pleased to be getting a new roommate. The last one moved elsewhere after constant fighting. But the new girl, Terry Randall (Hepburn), is different. She is from a well to do family, but she is pursuing a career in acting so that she might stretch herself.

The other girls look on with an air of contempt thanks to her fine clothes and pristine manners. She doesn’t fit the mold of many of the other struggling actresses looking for their big break. Many spend their evenings trying to grab hold of a sugar daddy such as famed theatrical producer Anthony Powell (Adolph Menjou). Several of the girls have their eyes on him as they try and land a role in his next big production.

Kay Hamilton is the most well-liked girl in the house and arguably one of the most gifted performers. She opened the year before in a production that won her rave reviews, however, a year later she has yet to get another break, and she is running out of funds. Powell’s show is her last big chance. Thus, when Powell cancels her audition last minute for a trivial reason, Kay faints and an irate Terry bursts into his office to confront him. He is initially turned off, but then he chooses her for the lead role of the upcoming Enchanted April.

Although the girls were beginning to warm to Terry, Jean has trouble forgiving her as tragedy strikes. In fact, Terry almost refuses to go on stage altogether, and yet she goes out and gives an emotional performance that is hailed by critics. In the end, Terry and Jean are reconciled which is far more important than any type of fanfare.

In many ways, Gregory La Cava’s Stage Door feels similar to The Women (1939). Both films have casts with women in the primary roles and the stories are at times volatile, with so much drama and many zinging comebacks. Some of this was courtesy of the supporting cast which included such legendary comediennes as Lucille Ball and Eve Arden. Ann Miller is even present, but at its core Stage Door is Ginger and Katharine’s film. Pardon my curiosity, but did Fred and Spencer ever do a film like this?

4/5 Stars