Saturday, August 25, 2018

"On the Town," in Celebration of Leonard Bernstein's Centenary

August 25th marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of American composer/conductor/pianist Leonard Bernstein. In celebration, movie houses around the country are showcasing films scored by the legendary maestro.  My local theater, the Smith Rafael Film Center (aka/the Rafael), put together a three-film tribute to Bernstein, with On the Town (1949), On the Waterfront (1954) and West Side Story (1961) screening on separate Sundays in August.

On August 12, I had the happy experience of finally seeing On the Town on the big screen. Afterward I asked myself, “Why is it that every time I see a film on a theater screen after having seen it more than once at home I feel like I’ve just seen it for the first time?” But that’s a subject for another blog post…

On the Town was based on a hit Broadway musical of the same name that opened at the Adelphi Theatre in late December 1944 and ran for 462 performances. The music was all Bernstein’s with lyrics by his friends, the incomparable Betty Comden and Adolph Green. But before that there was Fancy Free, a ballet by Jerome Robbins set to Bernstein’s music. Fancy Free debuted, performed by the Ballet Theatre (precursor to the American Ballet Theatre), at the Metropolitan Opera House in April 1944. It was Robbins who felt the ballet had Broadway musical potential and convinced Bernstein, who brought Comden and Green on board. Once George Abbot was attached to direct, the Robbins-choreographed project quickly moved forward, with some of its financing provided by MGM in exchange for the movie rights.

Fancy Free followed the story of three sailors out for drinks in a New York bar who spend the night vying with each other for the favor of young ladies they encounter over the course of the evening. When it was fashioned into a musical comedy, the plot was transformed into a tale of three sailors seeing sights and looking for girls during their 24-hour shore leave in New York City. This remained the film’s storyline.

Arthur Freed, Judy Garland and Roger Edens, 1930s
But there were changes as On the Town made its way to the screen. One of the biggest differences, aside from a revamped cast, was that only a few Bernstein/Comden and Green songs were kept in the movie. The rest of the original tunes from the Broadway musical were dropped and replaced with songs penned by the film’s associate producer, Roger Edens, a member of MGM’s “Freed Unit,” Arthur Freed’s fabled musical production team. Bernstein, Comden and Green were among those credited under the music department and Comden and Green got the film's writing credit, but when Oscar time rolled around and On the Town won for Best Scoring of a Musical, the Oscar went solely to Edens and the film’s musical director, Lennie Hayton. Of course, Edens and Hayton were talented and well-respected in Hollywood, Edens having won an Oscar the year before for Easter Parade (1948), his fifth Oscar nomination. And Hayton had already received two prior Oscar nominations. But still…

Bernstein’s score for the original stage version of On the Town is considered one of his four best, along with his work on Wonderful Town, Candide and West Side Story. “New York, New York” and “Come Up to My Place,” both by Bernstein/Comden and Green, are rollicking showstoppers and, thankfully, these two songs were among those Edens and his cohorts kept in the MGM adaptation.

Frank Sinatra and Betty Garrett knock it out of the park with "Come Up to My Place"

The opening lines of “New York, New York,” the tune that launches On the Town, were famously changed to comply with the then still powerful Hollywood Production Code. The original lyrics, “New York, New York, it’s a helluva town” are more in keeping with the musical’s boisterous mood than the changed lyrics, “New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town.” But this modest adjustment did nothing to diminish the song’s jubilant spirit or the dynamic tone-setting performance delivered by Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin.

The boys (Sinatra, Munshin & Kelly) arrive in the Big Apple con brio and ready for action

On the Town would be the first of three films co-directed by Stanley Donen, only 25 when the movie was made, and Gene Kelly. Donen had made his Broadway debut as a dancer in 1940 at age 16 in Pal Joey, the musical that made Gene Kelly a star; both joined MGM two years later. In On the Town, Kelly carries the male lead as Gabey, a sailor who falls for a photo of the New York subway system’s “Miss Turnstiles” for June, a young lady named Ivy (Vera-Ellen) he is determined to find, meet and romance. 

Frank Sinatra plays takes the second lead as Chip, the more-or-less innocent one in the trio. He just wants to see the sights but gets sidetracked (or ambushed) by a smitten girl-cabbie named Hildy (Betty Garrett). Jules Munshin is Ozzie, who meets anthropologist Claire (Ann Miller) while roaming the Museum of Natural History.

It was apparently Gene Kelly, choreographer as well as co-director on the film, who insisted on location shooting, and so New York City circa 1949 is one of On the Town’s finest supporting players, vibrant with life in glorious Technicolor. Other stand-outs in the featured cast are Florence Bates and Alice Pearce in broad comic roles. 

Garrett, Sinatra, Miller, Munshin, Vera-Ellen and Kelly...on the town!

On the Town is a joy of a Hollywood Golden Age musical. Jam-packed with first-rate singing and dancing, it boasts a generous dollop of romance with a twist of screwball farce toward the end. Kelly and Vera-Ellen are an endearing and well-matched pair, Sinatra and Garrett nearly steal the show, Jules Munshin ably holds up his end as third banana. And Ann Miller – well, she tap-dances up a storm, flashing that 1,000 watt smile and those long and shapely gams of hers. The art direction of Cedric Gibbon and Jack Martin Smith conjures a bright and colorful display case for this energetic 98 minutes of entertainment. And a good amount of the color that dapples the screen comes courtesy of costumer Helen Rose. Comden and Green, who concocted a snappy screenplay from their book for the Broadway musical, would go on to earn a much-deserved WGA Award for Best Written American Musical from the Writers Guild of America.

On the Town opened at Radio City Music Hall on December 8, 1949 and New York Times critic Bosley Crowther greeted it with a rave review, the first of many accolades. The film’s roaring success would have a ripple effect on most of its cast and crew. Kelly and Donen would go on to co-direct Singin’ in the Rain in 1952, and Donen's solo career as a director would flourish. Sinatra’s career would crest, fall, and then shoot into the stratosphere. The Freed Unit would continue to produce popular musicals for MGM well into the 1950s. Comden and Green would become legends, as would Leonard Bernstein, whose greatest success in the arena of popular musicals would come a few years later with West Side Story, a smash on Broadway and then on film, winning 10 Academy Awards.


“Lonely Town” is one of the Bernstein/Comden and Green tunes that was not included in the film version of On the Town. In the stage version, Gabey performs the song in the first act while in a blue mood, before he connects with Ivy. In 1957, Frank Sinatra performed the song on his celebrated LP Where Are You? The song was, as were all songs on that album, arranged by Gordon Jenkins.


  1. A fine tribute to Mr. Bernstein on his birthday! And I agree about watching classics on the big screen. My favorite part of ON THE TOWN is the incomparable Vera-Ellen, who should have been a bigger star. As for Leonard Bernstein, I remember when he won a Grammy in the 1970s and, during his acceptance speech, said he had to get back to watching WEST SIDE STORY was being broadcast on another network.

    1. Isn't it strange, Rick, how viewing a film on the big screen always seems to reveal so much more? I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way. Vera- Ellen was perfect as Ivy in On the Town and she and Gene Kelly made a great pair. Wikipedia reports that Vera-Ellen married a member of THE Rothschild family in 1954 - which probably accounts for her disappearance from the screen.

  2. Just before reading your excellent post, I had watched a live concert version of On The Town on BBC TV, with the John Wilson orchestra. It was wonderful to hear the original stage score.

    1. Thanks, Vienna. I've never seen or heard the original stage version of On the Town, but it's time I did. The two memorable songs from the film are the work of Bernstein/Comden and Green.

  3. Lovely write-up of "On the Town" and it's curious history. Have you ever considered that Hollywood is a strange place? I'm sure you have. Fortunately, they left in Comden and Green's "New York, New York", the shows most memorable song, but "Lonely Town" is probably my favorite for it's insight and soul - probably the very things that got it yanked from the movie. Bernstein really was a treasure and fortunately he was treated as such in his own time.

    1. Not all the research I did for this post ended up on the page, MCB. I've read that the MGM front office didn't like Bernstein's music but I've also read that it was Roger Edens. At that time the Freed Unit was referred to as "royalty" on the MGM lot, so it isn't too surprising that they could either decide or be assigned to make significant changes to a musical that had already proven itself in its original form as a big Broadway hit.

  4. Wonderful tribute to Bernstein and this outstanding musical. How lucky you were able to see it on the movie screen. A couple of years ago I saw the Broadway production of On the Town - well done as it was I kept seeing in my mind the numbers as played by the film cast. Some things you should just leave alone, especially when done by the likes of Bernstein, Comden & Green.

    1. It doesn't surprise me that you imagined the film cast performing the stage numbers, Christian, I'd be doing the same thing. The film cast was excellent, and so energetic and engaged throughout. I'll assume that back in 1949 MGM put more faith in the Freed Unit because Bernstein/Comden and Green had not become legends yet.