Stage To Screen: On the Town

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Pinterest

“New York, New York, it’s a {insert adjective here} town…”

Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s story of three sailors on leave in New York City is probably one of the most famous musicals of the World War Two period. It was both satire and commentary, as it came from a time when relationships and hookups were running on overdrive, with the unknown looming large over the proceedings. Only the show is so much fun any possible doom is put on hold in favor of the present.

For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, this is it in a nutshell: Three sailors on a one-day shore leave in New York City want to pick up dates and sightsee. And…they get what they want. Ozzie meets Claire, who’s trying to tame her randy tendencies by making a scientific study of men. She thinks Ozzie looks like the perfect specimen of Pythocanthrapus Erectus.

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Playbill

Chip totes his grandpa’s 1906 guidebook around and talks about Floradora Girls and the Hippodrome while cab driver Hildy tries to interest him in a certain other pastime. Hilde takes Chip up to her apartment, where she and Chip start getting physical, only to have Hildy’s roommate, Lucy break in on them.

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Playbill

Meanwhile, Gabey sees a poster of Ivy, who’s Miss Turnstiles for the month of June and he makes up his mind to find her. Chip thinks it’s a long shot, but it’s clearly Gabe’s lucky day, because he meets Ivy at Carnegie Hall, where she’s taking singing and dance lessons from the highbrow, low talent Madame Dilly. Gabe wastes no time in asking Ivy out, but what he doesn’t know is that Ivy can’t meet him because she is a cooch dancer at Coney Island.

The play is circular, finishing just as it begins with Gabe, Ozzie, and Chip ending their leave. They stand mournfully on the deck of their ship while new sailors pour off to go have their own adventures in the panorama that is New York City.

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Classic FM

On the Town sprang from Bernstein’s 1944 ballet, Fancy Free, which was performed by the American Ballet Theatre on April 18, 1944. Its set designer, Oliver Smith, suggested turning it into a musical, an idea which Berstein jumped at. His friends, Comden and Green wrote the book and lyrics, with Jerome Robbins producing and choreographing. Opening on December 28, 1944, it was another huge smash, running for four-hundred sixty-two performances and closing on February 2, 1946.

As per usual for Hollywood, their scouts circled the neighborhood once they smelled a hot property. In the case of On the Town, MGM bought the rights even before the musical premiered. Gene Kelly was at the helm, and he was out to prove he could produce and direct as well as do his usual song and dance.

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MGM bought the property, but then they shelved it. For four years. In the meantime, Kelly made Anchors Aweigh with Frank Sinatra and enlisted in the Navy.

Once production started, there were, of course, major changes made. First of all, the story was set after the war instead of in the midst of it as in the play. There’s still a sense of the three sailors operating on borrowed time, except that combat duty is now off the table. It makes the whole thing a lot less melancholy and more like a tribute to returning servicemen.

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IMDb

One tweak felt keenly by some was that half of the Bernstein score was jettisoned in favor of new songs by Roger Edens, with Comden and Green lending their talents by writing the screenplay and lyrics. Bernstein was insulted, but there was nothing he could do. The common reasoning for the songs being cut is that Broadway music was considered too highbrow for typical movie audiences, which is kind of silly. In the case of On the Town, though, there may have been some altruism involved as well.

Part of that came in the form of the Hays Office mandating the lyrics of the songs be toned down. “Helluva town” in “New York, New York” was changed to “wonderful town,” any mention of libido was axed, and Claire singing about beating on tom-toms was frowned on. In spite of these dictums, the film has scads of double entendres, both sung and spoken, so what these characters were doing was still crystal clear.

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Sono Osato, who created the role of Ivy on Broadway. (Playbill)

Character-wise, the biggest change was the presence of Ivy Smith, or lack of, rather. In the musical, she’s onstage very little–after Gabe asks her out, she basically disappears until the end. In between, Gabe strolls around New York singing the blues. For the movie, Ivy and Gabe meet at the top of the Empire State Building, then the six principles go on a quick round of club-hopping before Ivy sneaks off to Coney Island. Since Ivy’s character was much more fleshed out, the songs had to reflect that.

When planning On the Town, Gene Kelly thought big. Since New York is another character in the story, he lobbied to actually film there. MGM was resistant because location shooting wasn’t really done back then, especially for musicals, but Kelly held out and Freed backed him up. Mayer agreed on the condition that the New York shoot only last nine days.

vlcsnap-2019-11-04-11h29m09s014Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen had to be stealthy. Since Frank Sinatra was cast as Chip, extreme measures were taken to conceal him from excited fans. Instead of renting limos, the cast and crew used Yellow Cabs. Not only that, but when Sinatra, Kelly and Jules Munshin, who played Ozzie, would go from place to place, Sinatra would hide on the floor of the cab with Kelly on top of him and Munshin’s head in the window. They would get to the location, jump out, film, and then jump back in the cab and zoom away. Even so, a huge crowd can be seen watching the trio at the end of the “New York, New York” number, which was shot in Rockefeller Center.

There were other complications. Like the stage version, the film had a subplot of the New York Police Department looking for Ozzie, who accidentally destroys a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton at the Natural History Museum. Ergo, the last half of the movie is Gabe not only trying to find Ivy, but Ozzie running from the cops. Props had to build a dinosaur skeleton that could be easily knocked over and put back together for the necessary retakes, and a model of the Empire State Building was needed for various purposes.

vlcsnap-2019-11-04-11h32m41s951The latter was constructed on Stage 30 in Esther Williams’ swimming pool, and was tall enough that Munshin could convincingly hang off of it by way of a hiding place. Problem was, he was so afraid of heights that even going up in an elevator scared him. Additionally, the Empire set fostered another, probably unintended goof: When Chip throws his guidebook over the side, it can be heard hitting the floor.

Kelly and Donen put in eighteen-hour days working on the film, and it showed. The production is vigorous, colorful, and a lot of fun, plus it introduced a Kelly trademark–the mini-ballet. On the Town has two of them: the “Miss Turnstiles” ballet, in which our three heroes are speculating about Ivy, and the “Day In New York” ballet, which was a recap of the story up to when Gabe misses Ivy. Donen complained because he thought it slowed down the story, but the two ballets are fitting because they returned On the Town to its roots.

vlcsnap-2019-11-04-12h07m04s268The film was a smash hit with both the public and the critics, earning MGM just under five million dollars in profit, or about $48M in today’s money. It also cemented Gene Kelly as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood.

It wears extremely well, too. The stage version has been revived several times over the years, and the film is considered one of the best of the studio era. The sailors-on-shore-leave idea is simple and it’s been done, but few have done it as well as On the Town.

Another Origins post is on the way, and it also happens to be Navy-themed, whaddayaknow. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you tomorrow.


The Broadway soundtrack of On the Town is available on CD and to stream from Amazon Music. The film is available on Blu-ray and DVD.


Yudkoff, Alvin. Gene Kelly: A Life Of Dance and Dreams. New York: Back Stage Books, 1999.

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