The TiVo picked up On the Town the other night; I've probably seen it half a dozen times, but that didn't prevent me from sitting down in front of it again, with a plate of spaghetti, this evening. Three sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York, seeing sights and picking up dames--as a plot, it's wafer-thin, but what a giddy primary-colored love letter to the city it is. They used to show free movies, Friday and Saturday nights at Sarah Lawrence, and I remember that one year, On the Town was part of their "welcome to New York!" film series in September. (Probably they paired it with more nuanced portraits, like Fame. Or Taxi Driver.) I remember that during Ann Miller's big "Prehistoric Man" number, the young feminists in the audience became quite ruffled when Jules Munshin dragged her across the set by the hair. Oh, olden times! You so crazy!
But really. Cave-man antics aside, those are pretty well-mannered sailors. It's been a while since I've seen it, and I was surprised this time by how aggressive the ladies are, for 1949. Betty Garrett as Hildy, practically molesting poor scrawny little Frank Sinatra in that cab! That she drives, I hasten to point out, even though one of the other characters notes with perplexity, "the war's over!" Ann Miller's character, Claire, alludes to some sort of "guardian" she's supposed to have while conducting her anthropological studies in the big city; at any rate, she successfully evades said chaperone enough to get Jules Munshin in a headlock, and liplock, pretty quickly. I know this movie is hardly social commentary...and yet it hovers on some shimmery border between Rosie-the-Riveter days and the booming 50s with their accompanying rigid social strata--the stuff that I'm watching fall apart in Mad Men, set a decade later. Innnnteresting.
And that is some pretty heavy cultural significance that I'm attempting to hang on an MGM musical, so I'll knock it off and just talk about why I love it. The beautiful location shots for that first number--real, old, gorgeous, filthy New York. The traffic-light colors that run throughout the women's costuming. The little in-jokes: when Gene Kelly's Gabey shrugs off the passing girl that the others are ogling, Ozzie (Munshin) demands, "Who ya got waiting for ya in New York, Ava Gardner?" (And Frank does not even blink. I didn't get that one, when I was twelve.) Or, one of the first lines of dialogue, when they're all straight off the boat: "We nevah been heah befoah," Sinatra's character Joiseys, and perhaps they should have given that particular line to someone else? Because his delivery is somewhat unconvincing.
And ohhh, Gene Kelly. I am still hot for Gene Kelly. I went through a big classic-musicals phase, when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and sure, Fred Astaire's effortless gliding around was lovely. But Gene Kelly made me feel...funny. His dancing was not effortless: you could see him working at it, see that this was a man in very deliberate control of his body, of his physical and athletic ability. It...promised something, something I recognized before I understood it. Hot damn, Gene Kelly. His IMDB bio has this quote, among others: "I work bigger. Fred's style is more intimate. I'm very jealous of that when I see him on the small screen. Fred looks so great on TV. I'd love to put on a white tie and tails and look as thin as him and glide as smoothly. But I'm built like a blocking tackle." Um...yyyeah. And whew. What was I saying? Anyway. The fact that he was handsome--and ripped--aside, nobody did moony-eyed smittenness better than Gene Kelly. He'd float after a girl, two inches off the ground, clicking his heels together, and it was completely believable.
The movie just looks like fun, period. Why wouldn't it be fun, to be tearing around Manhattan with a hot sailor for one day, going to museums and nightclubs and doing datey things? Plus eventually evading the police and having a few Coney Island hoochie-coochie-show shenanigans thrown in for good measure? I am slightly older (to my horror) than all the participants in On the Town, I think; I'm sitting here now in a ratty United Way t-shirt and gym shorts, and I don't know that I could stay up for 24 hours, even on a date, even if you paid me. (For Mr. Kelly, maybe.) But it sure looks like fun.
I graduated from college May 22, 1992--incidentally, the day of Johnny Carson's last show, and the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend. My mom and I stayed on in New York City for the holiday, and when we got to our shabby-genteel, Let's Go-recommended midtown hotel, we learned that Memorial Day coincides with Fleet Week in NYC. The place was teeming with sailors, boyish in their caps and bellbottoms, everywhere we looked, crowding the lobby. It was as if we'd been dropped onto a soundstage. I was 22; I'd been up for a week straight, pretty much, either packing or partying; I was probably in no shape to have a 24-hour dream date. It didn't matter anyway: my mother introduced herself to one of the sailors in the phone-booth-sized elevator on our way up, and said, innocently enough, "My father was a Navy man!" And I am telling you, we did not lift a suitcase or open a door for ourselves for the rest of that entire weekend. (Most of which, I confess, I slept through.) Those boys were gentlemen, to a one. It might have gone differently, if I had been alone. And if any of them had looked like Gene Kelly. Oh well.