Before the three protagonists of Gene Kelly’s On the Town come bounding into frame, the audience is greeted with a series of sweeping shots of the static New York skyline. We see a construction worker wandering along the dock bemoaning the early start to his working day with the line, “I feel like I’m not out of bed yet”. This is the everyday New York, quiet and predictable. But this lackadaisical start is upended with the first notes of ‘New York, New York’. The shrill whistle, the clamour of a full orchestra and the crowds of sailors rushing off their ship establish the energetic pace that this film will now move at. Humdrum New York is relegated to the background – this film is about the exceptional, not the everyday.

While the big movie musical may have an external reputation as insincere and predictable, the genre is an exploration of people’s biggest and most uncontrollable feelings. These films filter our all-encompassing emotions through the precision necessary in composing music or blocking complicated dance scenes. When it is done well, the result is a staggering expression of our deepest feelings in a tightly choreographed package. On the Town is a great example of the movie musical’s power, beautifully capturing the feeling of overwhelming joy at the simple prospect of a night out in the big city.

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Courtesy of: MGM

On the Town takes place over one day during World War II. It follows three sailors, Chip (Frank Sinatra), Gabey (Gene Kelly) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin), who are determined to use their day off from the navy to explore New York. The film is buoyed by an unimpeachable optimism, the characters driven by a sense that everything is within their reach. This conceit is supported by this fictional version of New York, which is small and contained – travelling from one landmark to the next is simply a matter of tap dancing and will for this group, rather than geography, as they playfully glide around a colourful and clean version of the iconic sights. This city is joyously bustling, not crowded; symphonic, not loud.

Dancing is a key component to any classic movie musical. The choreography must be impressive enough to sweep an audience up while propelling the story forward. The dance sequences in On the Town draw attention to some of the shortcomings of modern movie musicals. Recent ventures into this genre place more emphasis on naturalistic acting and as a result boast less impressive athleticism during dance sequences. Even today, Gene Kelly remains an iconic performer infamous for his ferocious dedication to the craft. Kelly’s ruthlessness was evidenced by his co-stars’ stories of 16-hour rehearsal days and dancing until their feet bled. On the Town showcases Kelly’s propensity for perfection, and the fantastic results of this. The clarity and rigour with which the performers dance is thrilling. Every tap of the foot and swoop of the skirt is cleverly timed, designed to physically embody the music, representing the childlike excitement that bubbles beneath the surface of every interaction in this film.

On The Town

Courtesy of: MGM

In classic musical style, lead characters meet their romantic interests and unite midway through the film, providing the impetus to sing the title track on the heights of the viewing deck of the Empire State Building. There is nothing more exciting than the carefree preamble to a night out, gathered with the shared anticipation of where the evening could take you – and here we experience it alongside our protagonists and the sparkling lights of the city. Their playful jumps and twirls are almost victorious as they overlook the vastness of the busy, beautiful city. The elation of this staging is paired with the exaggerated lyrics of the song: “we’re going to raise a riot/the Brooklyn Bridge, we’ll buy it!” No declaration is too ridiculous to be included in this hopeful space; who knows where this one night may take them?

The dancers are framed differently after they descend to the city’s streets and are surrounded by people, not sky. They become flashes of primary colour amid a sea of drab grey and brown suits. With this contrast, they bring to life the hopefulness of their earlier song, visually representing their plans for a night of fun.

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Courtesy of: MGM

While On the Town‘s appeal goes beyond its era, the movie’s wartime setting adds another layer. This context is nothing more than an ominous backdrop meriting barely a passing reference, but it explains why these characters place so much weight on just one evening. This foray into the big city is their one chance to escape the demands of the navy and international warfare and enjoy themselves. The freedom to roam and explore, free from worry, is a universal longing in situations far beyond the specifics of a historical war, adding a new layer beyond the fun. On the Town gives us the opportunity to live vicariously through these characters’ joyous traipse around New York, with each skip down the street, each catchy chorus feeling earnestly alive. Even in the exaggerated genre, the hope Kelly infuses into a musical about going out does not feel exaggerated or overwrought today; instead, it remains prescient and bittersweet.

In its final shot, On the Town injects a sense of loss into this overwhelmingly uplifting film. The three women are bidding their partners farewell to the sound of the same anonymous worker singing about the frustration of an early start. The sun has risen, putting an end to their night on the town. Gabey, Chip and Ozzie trudge back to the ship with their love interests watching on, but in the foreground, we see a new crew eagerly disembarking. This forced parting is painful, but there is promise of cheer to come as a new trio explores New York.