A 1940s Movie Rarity – Hollywood Comes To New York To Film “On The Town”
It was the early 1920s and in his autobiography director King Vidor recalls describing his next film to his boss. Vidor proposes shooting the film on location for authenticity. His fiscally minded producer Abe Stern tells him, ” A rock is a rock, and a tree is a tree. Go shoot it in Griffith Park!” Vidor whimsically titled his 1953 book A Tree is A Tree.
A sacred truth under the old Hollywood studio system was save money whenever possible. Shoot films at the studio or on the back lot. Occasionally the crew picked up and left the studio to shoot on location. A true rarity was to shoot on location and in Technicolor. The Technicolor process bloated the budget of any film.
The Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein musical On The Town was a Broadway smash, running 462 performances from 1944-1946. The story involves three sailors on leave in New York City for 24 hours. Each sailor meets a girl and falls in love.
Hollywood always loves a hit. MGM acquires the rights for big bucks and say they will film in Technicolor. MGM fills the main roles with proven Hollywood names. Not one of the original Broadway stars receives a part in the movie. The studio always seems to find a way of drastically changing what made an original property successful. Not surprisingly, in a typical studio cost-cutting decision – On The Town, so intrinsically set in New York, is slated to be filmed at the studio in Hollywood.
This was unacceptable to the film’s co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Kelly and Donen insist upon shooting on location in New York. They fight with MGM and reach a compromise. MGM gives Kelly and Donen nine days to shoot in New York.
In March 1948 the stars of the film, Frank Sinatra ,Gene Kelly and Jules Munchin, arrive in New York and filming proceeds all around the city. The result is the opening montage of On The Town with the stars singing the rousing New York, New York all in the city proper, not Melrose Blvd. The total time of actual New York City footage in the final film is just seven minutes, The rest of the film is shot back in Hollywood at MGM’s studio.
But these few minutes of on location shooting help make On The Town a classic.
See what you can still recognize. Many locations remain unchanged. Others are gone forever.
Filming was not possible everywhere in New York. The stars will not attempt to film in Times Square fearing creating a mob scene. The final sequence of the opening montage is shot at the studio with a rear projection of The Hotel Astor in Times Square.