On the Town is one great fast moving musical, one in which the dance is supreme. Not surprising because this is the first film that Gene Kelly had total creative control over.
On the Town ran for 462 performances on Broadway from December, 1944 to February, 1946 and it's score was composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden. Naturally the book included some topical war time references for 1944 which were eliminated in 1949. So was about half of Bernstein's score, but Comden and Green wrote the lyrics for the new songs also with Roger Edens. That certainly helped keep the continuity.
Of course the signature song of the Broadway score, New York, New York was kept. The rest of the score is really not all that great in terms of marketability. But Kelly was interested in giving the dance center stage in this film and he succeeded admirably.
Of course of the six principals in the cast he had both Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen, a pair of very good dancers to help.
The plot of On the Town is threadbare. Three sailors, Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin get 24 hour shore leave and they are determined to experience as much New York as they can. That opening number with the men pouring out of the ship on the Brooklyn Navy Yard dock is unforgettable and then Kelly, Sinatra, and Munshin singing and dancing New York, New York.
Munshin attracts the attention of Ann Miller who finds his resemblance to a caveman recreation astounding. Her big moment on the screen is tap dancing to Primitive Man ending with Munshin destroying one of the dinosaur skeletons in the Museum of Natural History.
This was Munshin's third film after MGM signed him up for a small role in Easter Parade. He was a borscht belt comedian who got his big break on Broadway in Call Me Mister. With Sinatra and Kelly in Take Me Out to the Ballgame before On the Town, he was a pretty funny fellow. He spent his career equally between the stage, screen, and later television. Perhaps it's why he's not really remembered today by film fans that much.
Sinatra catches the eye of cabdriver Betty Garrett. One big reason for rewriting the score was in the original play there was no ballad for Sinatra's character. Besides the ensemble numbers, Sinatra and Garrett sing Come Up to My Place from the original score and You're Awful, Awful Nice to be with. Nothing terribly memorable, in fact Frank never recorded any of the material from On the Town. But to have in the film and not give him one ballad would have been ridiculous.
It's the dance numbers that make On the Town. Besides the ones previously mentioned, Kelly and Vera-Ellen do a salute to their common small town in Main Street and there is the lengthy A Day in New York ballet. The year before Kelly had shown what he was really capable of creating in the Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet in Words and Music. Now that he had complete creative control and he made maximum use of it. Of course this was nothing compared to what he was to create in later films.
Vera-Ellen probably is best known for being Rosemary Clooney's sister in White Christmas. But she's shown to far better advantage here. I'm surprised Kelly did not team with her more often.
On the Town is really helped a lot by the location shooting in New York. Director Stanley Donen very skillfully blended his shots of well known New York landmarks like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Brooklyn Bridge, Wall Street, Columbus Circle with the later interiors done on the MGM soundstage. Really great job of editing.
To see New York in 1949 you couldn't ask for three better guides than those sailors on a 24 hour pass.