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Posts Tagged ‘Jules Munshon’

Retentive masochists who’ve been hanging around this blog for a number of years may recall that a while back I looked at a number of famous musicals, mainly ones that I really liked: Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver!, and so on. I have to say that I did tend to find myself in a sixties and early seventies sweet spot, mostly containing films which used the soothing and appealing nature of the non-diegetic musical as a way of addressing challenging real-world issues such as racism and political extremism. On the other hand, I didn’t really care much for Guys and Dolls, which is really just a whimsical romantic comedy.

Perhaps there is a place for the musical purely as a piece of escapist entertainment, though. On a whim I sat down and watched On the Town the other night – I’d sort-of watched it before (this is code for ‘had it on TV in the background while I did something else’) and clearly it made some sort of impression on me. This is a film that was originally released at the back end of 1949, based on a stage show from a few years earlier (with many of composer Leonard Bernstein’s songs cut and replaced by new ones, which caused a few ructions). The film is directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (his first time in this particular role).

This is one of those films which is really a love letter to New York City: it’s not just that practically the whole thing is set there, some of it is even filmed there, which I would suggest is a lot less common. It opens at 6am at the docks, with excited sailors on leave spilling off their ship, much to the amusement of the passing workers. Amongst their number are the trio we will follow: Gabe (Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra), and Ozzie (Jules Munshin). The three of them have never been to the Big Apple before, and have only twenty-four hours to avail themselves of its various distractions.

A somewhat improbable whistle-stop tour of various sites ensue, as the trio belt out ‘New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town’ – a sentiment I would certainly agree with myself, although my Significant Other might be a bit less generous in her praise. However, the three guys just rattling around tourist sites wouldn’t be much of a movie, and so we get to an inciting incident: while travelling on the metro, Gabe spies the poster of ‘Miss Turnstiles’ (Vera-Ellen), a promotion which he assumes is a big deal but means nothing to most Manhattanites. Needless to say he is instantly smitten and resolves to find her so he can take her out dancing that night. This being a musical, however, he and the others actually bump into her having her photo taken, but she gets away before he can ask her out (her real name is Ivy Green).

With the help of a passing lady cab driver, Hildy (Betty Garrett), the sailors set off in pursuit of Ivy, based on the personal bio on her poster. Hildy seems rather taken with Chip, hence her willingness to help out. They end up visiting a museum, where Ozzie is bagged by a passing anthropologist (Ann Miller) allured by his resemblance to a prehistoric man and a dinosaur skeleton falls down, before they decide to split up and help Gabe find Ivy again (some of them take rather idiosyncratic approaches to this task). Is Gabe going to be stuck without a date on his one and only night in New York?

As I say, there’s a time and a place for dealing with serious themes in a musical entertainment, but New York City in 1949 is clearly not it: the Second World War is not long over, America is bursting with confidence and energy, and anything is possible if you put your mind to it. This is one of those quite rare movies without a single really unsympathetic character in it: certainly people have their problems, but these are just issues of circumstance and misunderstanding – when it really comes down to it, everyone turns out to be decent and sympathetic. Films like this have the knack of completely bypassing the shell of cynicism I habitually operate within: I find it very hard to be genuinely critical of them.

Not that there is much here to be critical of, anyway. Perhaps the least positive thing I can say is that it comes close to breaching my usual guideline that a great musical should have (mostly) great songs. You can perhaps detect the difference between the small number of original Bernstein songs that have survived and the new ones added from other composers (Bernstein’s seem to be more ambitious musically); most of them are certainly agreeable to listen to, but I don’t think you really go home whistling selections from the film. Instead, I would suggest this is an example of a musical where the dancing is probably more distinguished than the vocal work – Ann Miller’s performance of ‘Prehistoric Man’ gets better and better as it goes on, mainly because it turns into a dance number: she’s a good singer, but a sensational mover. The same is also true of Gene Kelly, of course, and you remember the footwork from a number like ‘Main Street’ more than the vocal.

Just as charming as the musical numbers is the general tenor of the piece, which I suspect may have been slightly daring back in the 1940s. You might expect a story about three sailors looking for fun in New York City to get fairly raucous and suggestive (cue jokes about the fleet being in, and so on), but the film very sweetly flips this on its head: the three guys are all basically hicks, and very innocently so. Gabe is the only one who actually chases a girl, but does so entirely honourably (this being Gene Kelly, you completely buy into it) – the other two sailors are basically picked up by women who are, to put it mildly, romantically pro-active (Garrett and Sinatra perform ‘Come Up to My Place’, which she sings to him, and she’s not looking to show him her stamp collection).

Despite the fact the film is basically about young (or fairly young: Kelly was 37, Sinatra 35, and so on) people looking to hook up on a night out, On the Town retains that sweetness, innocence and optimism I was talking about earlier. It’s not about anything more serious than being excited and hopeful in one of the world’s great cities. You can possibly dig deeper for a more substantial subtext, but I doubt you’ll get anywhere with it. A great piece of escapist entertainment.

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