Jan 25, 2016

On the Town: Three Sailors on Leave in a Gay City

Long before I ever visited New York City, I learned all about the Battery, the Bronx, the Empire State Building, Central Park, subways, seltzer, and delis.  Like Los Angeles, it was a magical place, gleaming with steel and glass, where you could escape the constant "what girl do you like?" litany of the adults.

I learned all that through tv programs like That Girl and The Odd Couple, and through movies like On the Town (1949).

Based on a 1944 Broadway musical scored by gay composer Leonard Bernstein, On the Town follows the adventures of three sailors on leave in New York City before they ship out: the naive Gabey (dance master Gene Kelly), the fast-talking Chip (future Rat Pack singer Frank Sinatra), and the dopey Ozzie (comic relief Jules Munshin). They just have 24 hours, and they want to see and do everything, especially meet girls.

Then Gabey falls in love with a girl on a poster, Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen), mistakenly thinking she's a famous actress.

So his friends obligingly give up their plans to help Gabey track her down.

They give up their plans to help a buddy?  Anytime a same-sex friendship trumps the quest for hetero-romance, you have some significant gay symbolism.

During the madcap scavenger hunt, female cabbie  Hildy (Betty Garrett) aggressively courts Chip ("Come back to my place!").

Ozzie is courted by anthropologist Claire (Ann Miller), whose mentor thinks she's a lesbian, uninterested in men; actually, she just prefers the big, brawny type ("Give me a prehistoric man!").

And Gabey catches the eye of  the gawky Lucy Schmeeler (Alice Pearce).

Butch, aggressive women chasing unwilling, feminine-coded men: the gender atypicality gives the musical even more gay symbolism.

And even more: all of them become friends, boys and girls both -- when was the last time you saw a platonic male-female friendship in a musical?

They all help Gabey search.  When he becomes despondent, they all invite him to "Count on me."  

Gabey eventually meets the Girl, and the "three couples" share a final song and a kiss.  But there's no marriage and children: when the 24 hours ends, the three sailors head back to their ship.  Hildy, Claire, and Iris wave goodbye.

But they're not alone.  Strangers yesterday, the three women have found each other.

This movie is not about hetero-romance at all.  It's about friendship.  That's what makes it a gay classic.

Plus the energetic dance numbers, the gay connections of actresses Betty Garrett and Alice Pearce, and New York City, the most important character, brimming with light and color.  No wonder the posters call it "Twice as gay as Anchors Aweigh."

The original musical is a favorite of high school and college drama departments.  Not a lot of beefcake, but Tony Yazbeck dances shirtless in the Broadway revival.