On the Town Movie Review
Starting with the beyond-iconic framing number "New York, New York," which blasts out with unalloyed gusto just as the film's three sailors come tumbling off their boat with a mere 24 hours' shore leave to take in all the sights and sounds of New York, the film is an unapologetically muscular toe-tapper of a show. This is most clearly due to Adolph Green and Betty Comden's script and songs that come piling out in quick succession, practically elbowing each other out of the way with the help of Leonard Bernstein's score. The intended effect is to convey the feel of a bustling American city during all its phases (from the quiet, just waking-up opener "I Feel Like I'm Not Out of Bed Yet" to the nightlife epic "On the Town"), and it's nearly perfectly conveyed.
The story behind On the Town is tissue-paper-thin, even for a musical. The trio of sailors are a bright-eyed, small-town bunch who want to see it all and do it all before they're due back on the boat the next morning. As Gabie, Gene Kelly (who co-directed with his Singin' in the Rain collaborator Stanley Donen) plays the smooth but somehow still sincere operator to Sinatra's stick-in-the-mud Chip, who can barely put down his guidebook long enough to ogle a skirt. Sadly sandwiched between the two is Jules Munshin as Ozzie, trying to grab some screen time from the megastar leads by mugging it up like the Catskills vaudevillian that he was. After a manic sightseeing blitz that has them covering essentially the entire city during the first "New York, New York," Ozzie and Gabie get down to the serious business of hunting dames. Gabie becomes particularly obsessed with Ivy (Vera-Allen), who he sees posing for a "Miss Turnstiles" poster, assuming that she must be a local celebrity. Once he finds Ivy, she doesn't point out that she's just a working dancer as that would ruin his puppy-eyed affection and also put the kibosh on the gorgeous ballets she then dances with him.
For his part, Chip does his best to stick to sightseeing, but female cabbie Brunhilde (Betty Garrett) takes a shine to him and won't take his cold shoulder for an answer. Like the anthropology student who gets paired up with Ozzie, Brunhilde is the embodiment of a confident postwar urban woman. However, the film's extraordinarily modern treatment of its female protagonists' sexuality is still something to behold, with Brunhilde practically clubbing Chip over the head and dragging him off to her apartment. (It goes without saying that the women are also clearly quite a bit brainier than their clueless male counterparts.)
On the Town is also forward-thinking in its look, which marries a number of cartoonish but still graceful big dance numbers with numerous scenes shot on location in Manhattan (one of the first musicals ever to do so), providing at least a glimpse of street life reality rarely seen in the studio musical. It's a film aware enough of its own geography that when the sailors disembark in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the following sequence makes sure to show them crossing the Brooklyn Bridge before getting down to some Manhattan sightseeing. While the film's sarcastic humor is also well-tuned to the city, it marries that ironic sensibility to a solidly romantic clutch of music that still comes off as fresh as the day it was minted.
The DVD re-released by Warner Home Video as part of its Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly collection is a pretty basic package, with not much in the way of extras. While the picture quality is perfectly serviceable, some may be disappointed by the fullscreen presentation, though apparently this was done to more properly reflect the film's original aspect ratio.