It is 5.57 on a summer's morning in New York City, and a dock worker has just arrived for his shift, lamenting that he'd rather be in bed. Suddenly a hoard of sailors streams from a nearby ship and three of them - Gabey (Gene Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) start to sing the city's praises, looking forward to all the fun they'll have during their twenty-four hour leave. Chip, the youngest, wants to see as many of the sights there as possible, and as none of them have ever been there before they agree, for a couple of hours at least. Then Gabey and Ozzie decide the one thing they really need to make their stay worthwhile is a woman - well, three of them...
A huge success in its day and credited as one of the films that made location shooting popular in American films as this was the first musical to use the technique, On the Town still has quite a few fans who regard it on a par with the Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen movie which came next, Singin' in the Rain. It's not quite that good, and could have done with a measure of that follow-up's self-mockery, as here all that exuberance is intended to be taken at face value and more than one viewer has been left finding this somewhat overbearing. But that apparently endless energy does make this something special, whether it wears you out or not.
Another appealing aspect to modern eyes is that sauciness, as it is under no illusions about all those stories of what sailors really like to do on shore leave in a big city. So with the women who Chip and Ozzie pair off with there's no doubt about what these ladies have in mind when they get their very own military man for a day, with Ann Miller's scientist singing us a song about how she prefers a primitive man, with suggestive lyrics concerning bearskin (bare skin?!) and tom-toms. Miller plays Claire, who Ozzie falls for, while Betty Garrett plays cabdriver Hildy who aims to teach the green Chip a thing or two, and indeed does exactly that.
But before you go thinking this is one step above cheerful sleaze, there's the Kelly plotline to be taken into account. He latches onto the girl he sees on a poster on the subway, that month's "Miss Turnstiles", actually so-called cooch dancer Ivy (Vera-Ellen) who has dreams of making it as a proper ballerina. They meet cute, then she rushes off to her classes leaving Gabey with the rest of the day to track her down, which he does more through perseverance than luck, at her college of performing arts. They get to talking properly and wind up agreeing to meet at the top of the Empire State Building at half past eight, though oh dear, Gabey has an idea that her title is far more prestigious than it actually is and she is not about to let him down.
It's nice that the other two women are well aware that Ivy isn't really a celebrity but go along with her story anyway, as that initial brashness gives way to an unexpected sweetness. We still have one of those Gene Kelly ballets to sit through, which tells us nothing we didn't know and doesn't even have many of the other main cast members appearing in it, but the film recovers with a headlong rush into pure romance, with a car chase to boot. Although that location work was much trumpeted, there's more studio material than there is business on the streets of New York, but it does operate as a genuine tribute to the most famous city in the world, with the most famous song about it too, until Sinatra sang a different "New York, New York" later in his career at any rate. If you can take it blazing brightness and it doesn't give you a headache, then you can easily see why Kelly and his collaborators thought so highly of it. Music by Leonard Bernstein and Roger Edens, with lyrics by the famed Adolph Green and Betty Comden team, who also wrote the script.