Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly star in On the Town (Kelly also co-directs with legend Stanley Donen), but the movie belongs to its women.
When Kelly and Sinatra’s sailors, along with a third mate played by Jules Munshin, get 24 hours of shore leave in New York City, they certainly hope to find dates. The gag of the movie, however, is that the city’s ladies are already waiting to pounce on them. This is particularly true of cabdriver Brunhilde Esterhazy (Betty Garrett), who insists that Sinatra’s “skinny little runt” sit in front with her and forego sightseeing in favor of spending the afternoon at her place; and Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller), an aspiring anthropologist who is trying to distract herself from men by sequestering herself in a museum (it isn’t working, considering she falls for Munshin, pretty much the first man she sees). Vera-Ellen’s Ivy Smith, an aspiring starlet, is a little more reserved, but that’s only because she’s from small-town Indiana. And anyway, she gets her feminist moment in an early commercial, where she appears in various sports scenarios knocking out a series of men.
There’s an athleticism to that production number that defines many of the film’s musical sequences, including Miller’s whirling, propulsive tap dance in that museum. There’s also an experimental, third-act fantasy sequence in which Kelly, Vera-Ellen, and a group of backup dancers reenact the movie’s plot up to that point without singing, but via silhouette, music, and movement. (The music throughout On the Town is split between Leonard Bernstein and Roger Edens.)
This is first and foremost a comedy, sometimes at the expense of its production numbers (too many of them prioritize shtick over dancing). As a result, there are far more “funny” voices in the cast than there are truly gifted singers (when Sinatra finally gets a chance to croon, it’s like sweet relief). Yet for all its silliness, the musical also taps into something existential, thanks to its ticking-clock structure. As the hours slip away and impending separation looms over every note, On the Town becomes a bittersweet reminder that all our days are numbered. No wonder these women move fast.