Musical Noir and On The Town (1949)

 On the Town (1949) follows three sailors on 24-hour leave. It's just a  feel-good Gene Kelly-Comden and Green musical and nothing more. Or is it?

Raymond De Felitta praises a different Comden and Green story for being the antithesis of musical comfort food: It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) - a film about  three Army pals who, ten years later, cannot reestablish their friendship. Felitta calls the film  a “musical noir” that  bookends On the Town as “a dark, decade-later answer to that earlier show's [optimism]….”
Indeed, the older film is largely filled with carefree characters. However, Kelly, et al. did not wait for Fair Weather to answer the earlier film’s optimism. The cynical half of the On the Town diptych is right there in the film itself, in the “A Day In New York” ballet sequence. 

Kelly’s character in the main plot, Gabe the sailor, cannot find the woman that he has won, loved  and lost in the Big Apple. He looks at a sign advertising “A Day in New York: A Comedy in Three Acts,” then muses over the day. In his mind, the play becomes a six minute ballet which reruns the actions of the entire story up to that point in an abstract and decidedly more cynical light - stripping away the earlier comedy mask, revealing tragic persona.

The ballet  within the film
The first act of the daydream ballet echoes the film's main plot, with three overjoyed sailors leaping about against a  New York City skyline. They soon meet two women whose languid hip movements contrast the earlier slapstick scenes of female sensuality. (Earlier scenes even include crashing dinosaur bones and crooning to a caveman statue). Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne seem to defy gravity and float like the handkerchiefs they carry. Outstanding.

The main sailor (Kelly, playing Gabe's alter ego), not having a dance partner, sees a picture of Vera-Ellen’s character and sets out to find her.

The ballet's second act begins by mirroring  the setting in the main plot - guy and gal meetcute in a dance studio. Earlier in the film, when Kelly finds her there, he sings about walking along main street in his small town , introducing her to local denizens. Very cute.

Ballet version - courting at night
In the ballet, however, the two are clearly having a torrid affair. The first studio is brightly lit by sunlight, the second by a searing spotlight on an otherwise dark stage. In the earlier dance, the lady makes the guy wait a few taps as she makes up her mind about marrying him.  She assents with a nod of her head  and they jauntily skip down the “road.” At the second studio, it’s  instant, serious passion on display -  mirroring movements then chasing each other around, over and under the dance barre.

The ballet's third act finds Sailor elated. (I‘ll bet he is!)  Just as in the main plot, the two go on the town and Lady leaves without warning. However, unlike the main plot, but akin to Kelly’s forlorn clown in Invitation to the Dance (1956), this ballet leaves Sailor alone with only a memento of the woman he’ll never see again.

Ballet noir
Sitting in the bowels of  On The Town, sandwiched between ham and corn, this ballet noir does not immediately come to mind when discussing the movie. Even the  film wants you to forget it. On the heels of  Gabe’s introspection comes an outrageous, out-of-place, down-home, country song (“Count On Me”) to continue the carefree mood.

Although Fair Weather seems to be a distant observer  with a fresh perspective, declaring a moratorium on the good cheer of its innocent predecessor, it is actually the full grown plant of the seed of cynicism that has already germinated in On The Town.  The latter was simply waiting for the proper place to take root.

With the curtain falling over Sailor‘s tragic story and replaced with the “Comedy in Three Acts” sign, we’ve peaked behind Gabe’s mask. He carries on, but, as Comden and Green would later tell us, the party‘s over.


  1. Great writeup. I've never seen this. I hope this finds you doing well.

  2. Hi Keith,
    ON THE TOWN is one of the big, popular ones, as you probably know. So you'll find it on TCM and readily available on DVD or at your local library.




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