On the Town is a light confection of a musical movie, without much plot or significant conflict. (Not really much of a surprise if you realize that it’s adapted from a musical that was itself adapted from a Jerome Robbins ballet; much of the music was ditched for the theatrical adaptation.) Three sailors take shore leave in New York City, looking for landmarks, fun, and girls, not necessarily in that order. They find all three, and then, in the early morning, head back to their ship as a new trio of sailors head out to take on the town.
Gene Kelly fought to have scenes shot in the city itself, not on sound stages back in Hollywood, and the producers used those hard-won nine days to their best advantage, especially in the bravura opening sequence, where Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin get off their ship and begin to explore the city. They sing, they dance, they look for “Miss Turnstiles,” a beautiful girl who Kelly notices—–and falls for—–when he sees her face on a subway flier. “Miss Turnstiles” is eventually found, lost, and found again, Sinatra falls for a man-hungry taxi driver, and Munshin finds a beautiful scientist who finds his ‘Prehistoric’ looks just what she’s been looking for. But there’s not much plot; On the Town occupies most of its 98-minute runtime with singing, dancing, and good-natured shenanigans, and the biggest conflict is if Kelly will forgive Vera-Ellen when she discovers she’s really just a burlesque dancer…who hails from his own hometown.
One of the distinct pleasures of On the Town is its relatively low stakes and low-key ending. When the three leads get back to their ship, they might stay in touch with the lovely ladies they spent the night with, but it’s not guaranteed. There are no big fights, no engagements or weddings, just a half-dozen adults having a grand old time. Another is the relative maturity of the characters and conflicts. All the women have jobs and there’s no fussing about any potential scandal from their spending the night hanging out with a bunch of eligible bachelors or what the neighbors might think. It’s only Vera-Ellen’s “’coochie dancing”’ that gives anyone pause, and it still all turns out fine.
Like any musical, everyone will have their own favorite number, and mine is Ann Miller’s showstopper “Prehistoric Man.” Miller explains her taste for the simpler things (well, for simpler men) while Kelly, Munshin, Sinatra and Betty Garrett (that horny taxi driver) back her up. As the title might suggest, it’s dated as hell, but it’s hard to top Miller’s energetic, not-quite-self-mocking performance, and she’s absolutely electric in a bright green-black plaid number designed to show off her dance moves. Not bad for a movie with multiple dance numbers featuring Gene Kelly!
On the Town has no grand statements to make about humanity or love, and it doesn’t need to. What it has is charm, charismatic leads, and an ending that will leave you with a smile on your face. Sometimes that’s exactly what a viewer needs.