Format: VHS (On the Town) and DVD (An American in Paris) from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television.
Sing the refrain with me, folks: I don’t like musicals that much. I have, however, been very good about crossing them off my list. In fact, I think I’ve crossed off all but a few after today. I try very hard to take each one for what it is and I always want to like whatever I watch. Sadly, I have a feeling I’m going to catch some hell for disliking On the Town (I’m looking at you, Siobhan). This is a musical that hits every main point a musical needs to please the fans of the genre. What I mean by that is that it’s more than just the people singing and dancing that make this a most musical of musicals. Its attitude, situation, and wacky hijinks throughout place this firmly into its genre.
Ready for the plot rehash? Three sailors get a 24-hour leave in New York. Two of them find girls to spend the day with immediately while the third creates a fantasy girl for himself, then finds her, then loses her, and spends most of the day trying to get her back. That and a shit-ton of singing and dancing are the whole film.
The three sailors are Gabey (Gene Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra), and Ozzie (Jules Munshin). They hit New York and immediately start looking for female companionship. Gabey sees a picture of a young woman named “Miss Turnstiles” for the current month. This is Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen). Gabe is a little unclear on the concept of a pin-up girl, and believes everything written in her bio. He also believes that her reign as Miss Turnstiles is somehow important and makes her famous and moving in society circles. As it happens, the trio run into Ivy as they leave the train—she’s in the middle of a photo shoot. And, wonder of wonders, Gabe is asked to pose with her. Originally smitten by her, now he’s head-over-heels. But Ivy is forced to leave quickly, so the boys run up the stairs and try for a cab to get them to the next stop.
The cab is driven by Brunhilde “Hildy” Esterhazy (Betty Garrett), who develops an immediate crush on Chip, demanding that she sit in front with him. When they don’t find Ivy at the next stop, Hildy (again, with Chip in the front seat) takes them to the natural history museum, since this is another thing in Ivy’s bio that she says she enjoys. We pick up another girl here. Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller) is studying anthropology and bumps into Ozzie during her studies. By coincidence, Ozzie looks exactly like one of the statues of a prehistoric man, and that’s all Claire needs to swoon. We get another musical number here (more on that later) and the three groups decide to split up and search for Miss Turnstiles for Gabey.
Evidently, Ozzie and Claire aren’t that interesting because we spend no time with them. Instead, we discover that Hildy isn’t mere attracted to Chip but is actively attempting to get herself impregnated by him. Chip wants to see New York, but Hildy is only interested in him seeing the inside of her bedroom. Eventually, they do make it to her place where Hildy kicks out her adenoidal, constantly sneezing roommate Lucy (Alice Pearce) for a little alone time. Meanwhile, Gabey finds Ivy again and asks her out. Ivy, we learn is (and these are her words, not mine) a “cooch dancer” on Coney Island. She hides this from Gabey and makes a date.
Now, On the Town is G-rated, but we can guess there’s been some non-G-rated activity going on. We get a ticker-tape of time in port through the whole film, and it’s notable that we jump about seven hours between the “let’s split into groups” and the reuniting later. Eventually, Gabey and Ivy get a little quality time together, but she is forced to leave to perform her job, leaving Gabe in the lurch. But, of course this is an MGM musical, so everything will work out in the end. Ozzie will be enough of a caveman for his girl, Chip will evidently be able to satisfy Hildy’s constant need for humping, and Gabe will get his Miss Turnstiles after all.
So yeah, it’s a pretty standard musical in terms of what it sets out to do and what it actually does. There’s nothing really important going on here, but it’s not trying to be that film in the first place. On the Town is purely about the entertainment—it’s there to provide some toe-tapping songs, some great dance numbers, and a good time for 100 minutes. It feels like a cop out to say this, but it’s true: if you like musicals, there’s a lot here for you to like. It’s light entertainment done well. The singing is grand (it’s Sinatra! How could it not be?) and the dancing is spectacular (It’s Gene Kelly and Ann Miller! How could it not be?).
So here’s what it comes down to. I get all of that. I accept it completely. I just don’t like it. On the Town is fluff. It’s intentional fluff that hits everything it wants to do, and for that I cannot fault it. I just don’t like this particular brand of fluff. I can’t find a lot of fault with it, or offer criticism to make it better. It simply isn’t the sort of film or story I enjoy that much. I can’t fault the quality of the performances, or the songs, or the dances. They’re as good as you’ll find. They just don’t do anything for me.
I do want to say this, though. A film like On the Town does have a useful function in addition to entertaining the vast number of people who love MGM musicals. They can also serve as a barometer of how people think. The “Modern Man” number in the natural history museum is a good case in point. There are moments in this number, show-stopper that it is (since it lets Ann Miller really tear things up) that could be easily interpreted as racist. Oh, that’s not the intent, but the “caveman” antics also come across as…tribal? I might be stretching here—I’m sure nothing ugly was intended, but I think a modern audience could see things this way.
Anyway, On the Town was obviously not for me. I get why people love it, but I can’t get there myself.
The common thread between On the Town and An American in Paris is the presence of Gene Kelly. I like Gene Kelly a lot. He cures a lot of ills. I’d happily watch him in just about anything. He’s Gene Goddam Kelly. No one ever danced like him. That’s both a damn shame and something wonderful. It means that every Gene Kelly performance (yep, even in On the Town) needs to be treasured for what it is.
An American in Paris is regularly trotted out with a handful of other films around Oscar time every year as a film that didn’t deserve all of its acclaim. It’s considered by many to be one of the least-deserving Best Picture winners in history (down there with Shakespeare in Love, Around the World in 80 Days, and The Greatest Show on Earth) as being another instance of Old Hollywood sticking to its old ways instead of awarding more daring films like A Streetcar Named Desire. Premiere put it on its list of the 20 most overrated films of all time. That’s pretty harsh criticism for a film that, while light and perhaps sappily romantic, contains a crapload of Gene Kelly dancing his ass off. In retrospect, that’s what On the Town could’ve used more of. I digress.
Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) is an American ex-G.I. and expatriate living and painting in Paris. He’s happy there despite being dirt poor and not selling many of his paintings. He lives in a building with another American named Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), an equally out-of-work pianist and songwriter. What Adam has going for him is a connection. He knows singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary). Henri is walking on air because he’s fall in love with a girl named Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron).
Meanwhile, Jerry attracts the attention of Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a wealthy American who spends a lot of her time in Paris. She decides that Jerry needs some backing to get his paintings seen by the right people, and in her world, the fact that Jerry looks like Gene Kelly is a definite plus. She takes him under her wing, but Jerry meets Lise and is immediately smitten with her. Lise is less taken with him initially, but eventually she succumbs to the broad shoulders and charm. The rest of the film is taken up with this love quadrangle. Jerry is uninterested in Milo but wants her backing, Lise feels indebted to Henri for saving her during the war, and young and tender love blossoms.
Okay, so it’s sappy. The sell here isn’t the story at all, but the dancing. In fact, with the exception of what Oscar Levant does, it’s all about the dancing and the marvelous Gershwin score, and the dancing is pretty damn spectacular. An American in Paris is never going to change your worldview or teach you anything about yourself, but it’s a true Golden Age of Hollywood spectacle from start to finish.
I wonder why I buy this one more than I buy On the Town, and I’m not really sure. It’s a lot sweeter for one thing. The principle characters don’t immediately leap into each others’ arms for another. The romance takes its time to develop instead of appearing full-blown; it unfolds slowly rather than beginning with passionate necking and invitations up to the bedroom. I appreciate this aspect of the film more than I thought I would. Sure, it plays a little provincial in the modern world, but that’s a part of the charm here. We’re allowed to go through the stages of the building infatuation, the longing of the chase and the reward of the two finally coming together is that much sweeter because of it. Delayed gratification not only makes the film, it makes getting to the end that much more worthwhile.
The weakest part of An American in Paris is also its greatest selling point—the ending ballet. It’s a beautiful number and gorgeously choreographed, but it’s also incredibly long. There’s not a word spoken for the last 20 minutes of the film because they just can’t stop dancing around Paris in Gene Kelly’s mind. I’ll hand this to On the Town, in fact: its closing ballet is much shorter and doesn’t run to the end of the film as it does here. Musicals often ended with this sort of massive number (or three, as in Footlight Parade), but it’s a convention that doesn’t really transfer to the modern age as well. I get why it’s here, but it really shows its age by being so long and so prominent. That said, I think it’s a safe bet that the ballet, done against a shifting backdrop painted in the styles of a number of French painters, is what finally got this film awarded its Best Picture nomination and Oscar.
This is another one to watch with the story filter off. Don’t pay attention to much of what is being said here or the whisper-thin plot. Watch it because Gene Kelly was unique as a performer. Watch it because we’re lucky enough to have what he did on record so that it could be enjoyed today. Watch it because Gershwin’s music is so good it hurts, especially when it’s interpreted this well.
Is A Streetcar Named Desire a better film? Sure. But Brando is no Gene Kelly and never could be. An American in Paris isn’t Singin’ in the Rain, either, but few films are.
Why to watch On the Town: Everything you’d want in a musical.
Why not to watch: Quite possibly everything you don’t want in a movie.
Why to watch An American in Paris: Because you should watch Gene Kelly whenever you can (except maybe Xanadu), especially when directed by Vincente Minnelli.
Why not to watch: The ballet at the end doesn’t fit and goes on too long.