If that picture on the left or the names in the above title mean anything to you, then congratulations, you have seen On the Town (1949), one of the greatest musicals ever. I watched it again recently and was struck by the fact that this film, in addition to its many other delights, features some of the most phenomenally modern female characters in cinema, even by today’s standards. What’s even more striking is that it’s not even a film about how modern and awesome they are, which is usually where you find those types of characters (i.e. biopics), and the filmmakers don’t seem like they’re making a film about gender politics.
I don’t know why they are the way they are – perhaps they maintained the spirit of the independent-minded women in WWII (the stage musical premiered at the tail end of the war), or perhaps they were just stereotypes/fantasies of New York women. Whatever the reason, these three knock my socks off, and I wanted to highlight why they’re such a breath of fresh air.
The plot of the film is simple: three sailors (Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin) have a 24-hour leave in New York City, which they use to meet girls and have adventures. More specifically, Gabey (Kelly) is instantly smitten with a girl named Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen) that he sees in a subway ad, and the other two pick up companions in the quest to locate her.
The first gal we properly meet is sassy cab driver Hildy (Betty Garrett – who’s still alive and looking great!). She takes an instant liking to shy Chip (Sinatra), who is far more interested in his guidebook. Actually, sassy is the wrong word – try extremely sexually aggressive. This tension leads to the great number “Come Up to My Place,” where Hildy repeatedly suggests that her apartment would be far more entertaining than the New York attractions that Chip wants to see. Forceful women like this are almost always played strictly for laughs (such as an unattractive woman making advances that the audience knows will never be reciprocated) or danger (the femme fatale), but that’s not the case here. Sure, the tension between the two is funny, but she’s meant to be liked and taken seriously, and her aggression does lead to the two getting together. There’s also no scene where she gives moony eyes and asks Chip to take her away from everything and make her his wife – no, she seems to really like her job and even takes the wheel for a wild chase through the streets with the whole gang. She has feelings too, though, and when she laments later in the day that Chip has been rather cold to her it leads to a sweet duet that’s one of my favorite musical moments ever.
The gang’s search for Ivy leads them to the Museum of Natural History, where Ozzie’s (Munshin) resemblance to a Neanderthal figure catches the eye of Claire (Ann Miller). She’s gorgeous, feisty, horny as hell – and a brilliant anthropologist! Now before you roll your eyes and make comparisons to action movies where we’re supposed to believe that people like Denise Richards are nuclear physicists, let me say that it’s really not a stretch here. I can’t find the exact wording, but either in the film or the play (or both) she tells Ozzie that she could never figure men out, so she turned to anthropology to figure out what makes them tick (and has made them tick through the ages). Pretty neat solution, huh? In the stage version, she’s actually married to a hyperbolically lenient man who even finances her dalliances with other men, but I’m glad they scrapped him for the cinematic adaptation, leaving her as a tornado of intelligence, tap-dancing, and sexuality. She even uses her smarts to talk her way out of a big mess at the end. If they remade this film today, they would probably have this character be played by a Katherine Heigl type who’s uptight, obsessed with her work, and needs a man to liberate her and show her how to have fun, but Claire reminds us that it’s completely possible for a woman to be fun, dedicated, smart and sexy.
Finally there’s Ivy, serving as a catalyst for everything else. Gabey sees her billed as that month’s “Miss Turnstiles,” an honor awarded to a female subway rider every month that results in a picture and bio on the trains. Even though it’s not a big deal, Gabey assumes it’s a high honor, and that Ivy is the girl of his dreams. Her bio is true – she studies painting and ballet, is very athletic, and loves the Navy. But she has a secret – she’s a cooch dancer at a carnival! (Note: due to the different types of entertainment available back then, I would say the modern-day equivalent of a cooch dancer is probably more like a clothed go-go dancer at a nightclub than a stripper.) She only does that to finance her ballet and painting lessons, and dreams of being a “legitimate” dancer. Now, what’s really interesting here is that this situation is not exploited for tragedy (“an innocent girl’s poverty leads her into a downward spiral of sin!”) or just for, well, exploitation (“come see an innocent girl gone bad!”). Rather, it’s just a kind of embarassing stepping stone for her goals, handled no differently than, say, an actor who pays the bills as a promotional costumed character. It’s just something ya gotta do – but maybe not something to reveal on a first date.
****SPOILERS BELOW (but really, the ending of the film is in the beginning and this shouldn’t be a huge surprise)****
After a wild day and night, the trio has to say goodbye to their girls. I mean, what did you expect? It’s a 24-hour leave, and the girls obviously can’t come with them. There are strong indications that the sailors want to continue these relationships after their tour of duty, but you don’t get any confirmation it will definitely happen. (There’s a sort-of sequel from 1955 called It’s Always Fair Weather, but since most of the original cast wasn’t available they took it in a different direction.) Kind of a bummer when you’re rooting for these romances. But here’s the crazy part: what just transpired is that three strong-willed women with careers had whirlwind affairs with three men, but except for a longing in their hearts, they remained unchanged. They still have their jobs, interests, and all elements of their vibrant personalities remain intact – in 1949! They want men, but don’t need them. Now, one might argue that this means they don’t have arcs, which I would agree with. But when they’re this wild and wonderful, and especially in a fun musical, who wants them to change? Especially because it would probably just be some annoying variation of “taming” them.
Female characters like this are so few and far between that I think they should be highlighted and remembered. So even if the energetic choreography, snappy direction, catchy songs, New York locations and great cast don’t sell you on this classic, it’s still worth it for three amazing dames. What other sassy and progressive gals on film have captured your heart?
Cursed by the gods to have a passion for film and not neuroscience, Julie writes about movies at the Misfortune Cookie Blog.