Directors: Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Picture Corp.; Technicolor, 35mm; running time: 98 minutes. Released 1949. Filmed in MGM studios and some location shots in New York City.
Producer: Arthur Freed; screenplay: Adolph Green and Betty Comden, from the musical play by Comden and Green based on an idea by Jerome Robbins; photographer: Harold Rossen; editor: Ralph E. Winters; art directors: Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith; music director: Lennie Hayton; songs: Roger Edens, Adolph Green, and Betty Comden; additional original music: Leonard Bernstein; orchestrations: Conrad Salinger; vocal arrangements: Saul Chaplin; costume designer: Helen Rose; choreography: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen.
Cast: Gene Kelly ( Gabey ); Frank Sinatra ( Chip ); Betty Garrett ( Brunhilde Esterhazy ); Ann Miller ( Claire Huddesen ); Jules Munshin ( Ozzie ); Vera-Ellen ( Ivy Smith ).
Award: Oscar for Music-Scoring of a Musical Picture, 1949.
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On the Town may not be the greatest Hollywood musical ever produced; Singin' in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, The Band Wagon , and several others would all garner consideration with Singin' in the Rain probably receiving the most attention. But On the Town , so unconventional for its time, is separate from the rest for several very special reasons, Most significantly, the film was partially shot outdoors; it instigated the use of increased on-location shooting for films of that genre. On the Town is one of the few features in which the talents of two filmmakers are so happily blended; Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, the co-directors, later went on to make Singin' in the Rain , and It's Always Fair Weather. The songs and dances—modern, as well as ballet and tap—were not necessarily by and of themselves, but were related to character development and assisted in moving along the story.
On the Town was a ground-breaking property in the theater. It was initially presented as Fancy Free , a modernistic ballet with music by Leonard Bernstein and choreography by James Robbins, in which a trio of sailors dance their experiences while on shore leave. From this, Betty Comden and Adolph Green fashioned a musical comedy storyline, adding a book and lyrics. The resulting Broadway musical, which opened three days after Christmas, 1944, successfully united story, song, music, comedy and dance. In this respect, it is a theatrical first.
Both Kelly and Donen made their directorial debuts with the film version, released five years later with several songs eliminated and six new ones added. Kelly pressured MGM into allowing him to film in New York, though some of the musical and dance numbers were shot on sets. Donen allegedly worked mainly with the non-dance material. Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin, cast as the carefree sailors who partake in various romantic escapades while on 24-hour passes, cavort outdoors on Wall Street, near Grant's Tomb and the Statue of Liberty, in Rockefeller Center, the RCA Building, Central Park and, most memorably, while singing the praises of the city—"New York, New York, it's a wonderful town"—in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The action never halts for an elaborate production number. Characterizations are established not only by dialogue and performance but in terms of song and dance: "Prehistoric Man," set in the Museum of Natural History and tap-danced by anthropology student Ann Miller, displays her character's aggressiveness in pursuing Munshin; in "Come Up to My Place," shy Sinatra finally succumbs to the charms of taxi driver Betty Garrett. These two women are certainly no standard, passive heroines, and are unusually liberated for their day by the manner in which they relate to, and compete with, men.
Most of those involved in the production had worked together previously in Take Me Out to the Ball Game . Ball Game' s credits include, in similar and different capacities from On the Town , Kelly, Sinatra, Munshin, Donen, Comden, Green, Cedric Gibbons, Roger Edens and Arthur Freed (who produced most of Kelly's musicals from For Me and My Gal , 1942, through It's Always Fair Weather , 1955, and allowed him creative freedom here). From Anchors Away (also featuring Kelly and Sinatra in the navy) to Words and Music (in which Kelly and Vera-Ellen are superb in the "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" dance sequence), various combinations of On the Town' s talent collaborated on other films. Yet, excluding Singin' in the Rain , none is as delightful or memorable. Without question, these two are the key musicals of their period rather than the then more highly regarded An American in Paris , which won the Best Picture Academy Award.
On the Town is an energetic, effervescent combination of reality and fantasy. West Side Story , Funny Girl , and so many other subsequent musicals owe their very existence to the creativity and vision of Gene Kelly and company.