I was six years old the first time I saw On The Town. It was love at first sight.
A film adaptation of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s musical, On The Town follows three sailors on shore leave in New York City. When Gabey (Gene Kelly) catches sight of Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen) posing as subway sweetheart Miss Turnstiles, he drags pals Chip (Frank Sinatra – be still my beating heart!) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) around the city in a desperate bid to find her. Along the way, they pick up street smart cabbie Hildy (Betty Garrett), and anthropology student Claire (Ann Miller), and get ready for a real night on the town.
Old Hollywood movies don’t always age well. I have a pretty sizeable collection of movies from the 30s and 40s, so I like to think I know what I’m talking about. For every 1940s love story, there’s a 21st century viewer cringing at the TV.
But is On The Town any different? Well, you know, it just might be. And it’s due in no small part to two of the women at the centre of the story: Brunhilde ‘Hildy’ Esterhazy and Claire de Loone.
The Gabey/Ivy storyline might be the heart of the film, but it’s not what does it for me. Ivy is too 1940s manic pixie dream girl meets stripper (well, cooch dancer) with a heart of gold, and Gabey is too driven by a romanticised ideal of a girl he’s never met for me to get behind his mad dash across Manhattan. As a kid, sure, it was nice and cute and full of fun songs and beautiful clothes, but as I got older what really appealed was
Frank Sinatra the portrayal of Hildy and Claire.
These women are not what you’d expect from a 1940s family friendly musical. Both are single, sexually active, and active in what might be seen as masculine circles. Hildy has her own source of income as a taxi driver, something she took up during the Second World War, and Claire is a student of the sciences. Hildy’s line “I never give up anything I like!” became a rallying cry for me upon returning to this film as a teenager and an emerging feminist.
Fully acknowledging the reality of the situation – Gabey, Chip,and Ozzie only have 24 hours shore leave – Hildy and Claire are ready, able, and willing to show the boys a good time. And yes, a good time absolutely means sex.
From Hildy boldly inviting Chip to Come Up To My Place, and listing her *ahem* talents in I Can Cook, Too (sadly absent from the movie version), to Claire letting the boys know exactly what she’s looking for in a man in Prehistoric Man, in anything other than a light hearted musical, these two might find themselves cast as femme fatales or soon-to-be fallen women. But Hildy and Claire are never painted as anything other than fun, friendly, and a damn sight smarter than the sailors they’re hanging out with.
Put simply, Hildy and Claire are women unafraid to say what they want, and unafraid to go after it, whether it’s in their career or social life.
On top of all that, it’s worth noting that Hildy and Claire are definitely the brains of the outfit. They’re both New Yorkers, though from very different social sects – any contact between Hildy and Claire (and her mysterious benefactor) before the events of the movie would likely only have occurred if the latter’s chauffeured car broke down and Hildy picked up the fare – and both use their skills to ensure the night runs smoothly. Well, as smoothly as any night involving a collapsed dinosaur skeleton and a car chase can do. Together, they form an alliance, making sure that Gabey doesn’t accidentally discover the truth about how unimportant the role of Miss Turnstiles is, protecting both his naivety and Ivy’s reputation in the process.
It’s not exactly passing the Bechdel Test – everything they do is to ensure the male sailors having a good time, after all – but those little moments between Hildy and Claire, the secret handshake, the eye rolls, the quick thinking, all help round out and establish the characters and make it possible for them to steal the show from (of all people) Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.
Of course, there are women like this in plenty of other movies (and I’m not just talking about Golden Age pictures), but what set On The Town apart for me was that these women were never punished for it and never had to undergo some sort of revelation, see the error of their ways, and change. There’s nothing to suggest that, after the movie, Hildy does anything other than go back to her cab and carry on as before. And, more importantly, there’s nothing to suggest that there’s anything wrong with that.
There was no intense love story between Hildy and Chip (the positively perfect You’re Awful notwithstanding) or Claire and Ozzie. There was no weeping or desperate exchange of addresses at the docks as the sun began to rise. No “I love you!” screamed from the top of the Empire State Building. No sequel featuring them pregnant and abandoned. There was just drinking, dancing, car chases, and (implied, but you KNOW it happened) knocking boots, all set to a killer musical score.
Funny how a film from 1949 can seem so refreshing.
Interestingly (though perhaps more to us as 2017 audiences, rather than contemporary 1940s cinema-goers), writers Comden and Green did not think of their female characters as particularly progressive in any way; to them, Hildy Esterhazy and Claire de Loone were historical fact. Quoted in a 1998 American Theatre article, Comden said, “There were actual women cab drivers during the war, and women were more, well, on the prowl.”
But, as the article itself went on to say:
These tough, fizzy girl characters stand out in a genre filled with femme fatales or simpering virgins. […] Hildy and Claire make On The Town seem less of a period piece than other musicals written in that era.
Comden and Green knew that a woman could be a whole host of “negative” or “unattractive” things (working for a living, sexually active while unmarried, studying in the sciences, bold enough to go after what she wants), things that Hildy and Claire are, and still be a good person. It isn’t deemed progressive or exciting in any way, because it’s a plain fact. They knew and embraced what so many of us know and embrace now – that a woman is more than her relationship status, her job, or her sexual choices, and that she certainly doesn’t deserve to be punished for any of it. Hildy and Claire are neither ashamed of nor (and perhaps even more importantly) are they shamed for it. They don’t have to learn anything, or rediscover themselves in any way. Yes, they find themselves a man, but it’s balanced out by the fact that it’s for one night, and by the fact that that is never treated with sadness or tragedy.
Perhaps its the safety of the movie-musical, the fact that it is clearly not real life, that allows for this sort of treatment in an era when we would expect much more reserved female characters, or for the less reserves ones to get their just desserts in some way. But I’ve always believed that the most successful musicals are the ones that have some modicum of reality to them, something tangible and recognisable that allows an audience who don’t live in the sort of town where when you start singing, everyone else joins in, to still feel a connection. The Wizard of Oz had a small town farm girl, as blown away by glorious Technicolor as we were. West Side Story tackled race relations. Doctor Dolittle… well Doctor Dolittle had a two headed llama, but I’m okay with that.
The reality is I won’t ever marry Frank Sinatra (mostly because he’s dead but also because my boyfriend probably wouldn’t be pleased), and even if I did, the museum loving Chip is just a character. But Hildy and Claire are a reality. There are women like them all over the world, and all throughout history. And seeing that sort of positive representation on screen is validation for all the women like them.
We’re okay, girls. And would you look at that, we’ve always been okay.
Now, who’s for a night On The Town?