To be honest, I found On the Town mostly hard to watch. It was fun to see Ann Miller in her prime, Vera-Ellen in something that’s not White Christmas (which I’ve probably seen around 50 times), and some of the sets are superbly constructed (particularly from the top of the Empire State Building).
Much of the movie, however, is frustrating: a clunky musical with songs that truly spring from nowhere, and a narrative with not much going for it. (The sailors have to leave shore within 24 hours, so knowing they can’t end up with any of these women — who cares?)
What kept me going was the bizarre sexuality of, frankly, all the characters. I expected a squeaky-clean musical where everyone waited til marriage, but in this postwar vision of New York, even 24 hours is too long.
The story is: three sailors (Gabey, Chip, and Ozzie) have 24-hour shore leave in New York. In their initial hours they buzz around to several key sights, like the Statue of Liberty and Central Park.
On their first subway ride, Gabey notices a poster for “Ms. Turnstiles,” prompting a lengthy fantasy dance sequence. She is the perfect woman: a dancer, an artist, a fighter, a homemaker. Smitten, he decides he must meet her with his little time left in New York. He crosses paths with her in a subway station, forces his gang to visit museums, galleries, theaters in search of her – and eventually hunts her down at her dance lessons. They make a date for that night.
At the team’s first museum stop, Ozzie falls for Claire – an anthropologist who turned to her line of work to distract her from men. (Really.) She is intrigued by Ozzie as he resembles a “Prehistoric Man” (is that a compliment?) and sings a song about it.
Along the way, the crew stops a taxi cab, driven by the “lady cab driver” (not “cab driver”) Hildy. She instantly falls for Chip, inviting him to “come back to [her] place.” Eventually, she and Chip do go to her place, but have to kick out her annoying roommate Lucy first. After that, the scene ends, leaving us to fill in the blanks (pun intended) as to what transpires.
The hi-jinks of On the Town are so striking because they are for such immediate ends. Gabey, Chip, and Ozzie make it clear they have to leave within 24 hours. Ms. Turnstiles, Claire, and Hildy are under no illusions that their sailors will come back to them. Their sexual pursuits between sailor and patriot are portrayed more as civic duty to our servicemen – not a short-term deposit for a long-term relationship. Perhaps On the Town is a uniquely veiled salute to the Rosie the Riveters outside the factory.