Following is one of my earliest classic movie memories as I shared it on The Cinementals site, a random post on June 5. It’s on a movie that means the world to me, that was a revelation and one, which I thought was my little secret, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s ON THE TOWN (1949). Let me set the stage.
My father has always been a very serious man. Since we immigrated to this country when I was five years old, I remember him worrying about one thing or another all the time. His constant message/advice to my brother and I was “do the right thing.” Follow the rules. He doesn’t believe in making waves, in good or bad. He doesn’t like the limelight. He’s the opposite of a risk-taker. Anything that strays from the “average” leads him to worry. And, he’s a loud worrier. Not a quiet man by any stretch of the imagination. From a very young age I’ve had an ever-present goal to ensure I gave him nothing to worry about.
One day, during our first year in this country – we’d just recently moved to New York City – my dad is doing a lot of his loud worrying with my mom as I sat (probably rolling my eyes, wishing he’d lighten up) waiting to watch whatever movie was being served that day. I have to mention, to that point I’d heard a lot about New York City but only in relation to conversations I’d overheard. I was aware that’s where we’d moved. But, I didn’t know what type of City it was nor where it was specifically, etc.
The movie starts. The New York City skyline appears and a dockworker is walking toward the camera singing what sounds like a ballad of sorts. I am now transfixed, ignoring the worrying. Then all of a sudden, the music speeds up and these three guys in uniform start signing “New York, New York…it’s a wonderful town” and sheer panic sets in.
I am dumbfounded. Initial, sudden shock escalating as the song progresses. My father, the guy who didn’t like to make waves, who preferred to walk the beaten path had, in error I was certain, brought my brother and I to the center of the world – the kind of place that movies were made about. I looked around, saw he wasn’t paying attention so I quickly lowered the volume. I was keeping this to myself! If he ever found this out, I was sure we’d be packing immediately, leaving this place where people dance in the streets. I really believed that. In hopes of putting this in perspective, consider this was one of the first movies I’d ever seen. Ever. To be introduced to my new home, to the beauty that is/was New York (to me the movie was depicting what was happening at that moment) by these astounding talents, those images, that music, was truly wondrous. I watched the rest of the film in awe. The wonder of the characters about the City, feeding my own. I tried to make mental notes of all the places I wanted to visit, following the guide used by Chip, Frank Sinatra’s character in the movie.
Later that day my cousin came over, she’s my same age. When I saw the chance I pulled her aside and asked her if she realized that we lived in New York City and that there was a movie about it. She said yes – though I’m not sure I believed her. What were the chances? And why wasn’t she dumbfounded by the talent – Kelly, Sinatra, Munshin and the fabulousness of Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen and Betty Garrett, the hilarious Alice Pearce! None of them deserved nonchalance! They deserved reverence! I asked if her parents knew. She didn’t know, which gave me a sense of relief. I doubted they knew if they hadn’t said anything about it. We spent the rest of that day discussing which one of us could be Miss Turnstiles (although I don’t think I could even pronounce it properly). After much debate, we decided it should be me since I’d already ridden a subway so I prepared, mentally, to ask for ballet lessons.
Sure, there are movies about everywhere, USA. Many of which I love. And there are many about New York City as well. But none will ever compare to this movie because of that day. I still get very excited whenever I see and hear Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin step off that ship and sing about my home town, a reminder of how lucky I was to have been raised in New York City – and the nerves associated with the fear of the possibility that would change.
Naturally, I outgrew the worry of my father listening to the songs in this film and deciding to move. But the affection and connection I have for ON THE TOWN have never waned. Although I am fully aware of the reality – that it was never my little secret, I don’t like to consider that. It will forever seem that way to me. This film represents what I love best about the movies – their magic. And what I love best about New York City – its wonder. This one’s personal. Just imagine picking up and coming to an entirely new country, a foreign land with a foreign tongue and landing in a place about which little girls, sailors, and the grandest of stars dream about. That sort of thing only happens in the movies and yet, it happened to me.
More memories in stills:
The magic of MGM musicals put the “gold” in the Golden Age.