Plenty of stories surround the classical Hollywood musical On the Town (1949). A skinny Frank Sinatra was forced to wear prosthetics to fill out the backside of his sailor pants. Jules Munshin was so terrified of heights he had to be tied to another person while performing atop the Empire State Building. And the Hays Office, ever concerned about morality, changed the lyrics of “New York, New York” from “it’s a helluva town” to “it’s a wonderful town”.
But perhaps the most often cited bit of trivia about On the Town is that it’s the first film musical to be shot on location, using major New York City landmarks as its backdrop.
Dozens of major outlets, including Turner Classic Movies, IMDB, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, MUBI, PBS, TV Guide, and Entertainment Weekly — claim On the Town is the first Hollywood musical with scenes shot on location. Academic publications like What We See in Films, the Journal of Popular Film and Television and the Journal of Popular Culture print the same. Even Gene Kelly, one of On the Town’s directors and stars, tells the New York Times, “It was the first musical to be shot on location. We took the musical off the sound stage and showed that it could be realistic.”
As I discussed with my colleague Martha Shearer, who literally wrote the book on New York City and the Hollywood musical, this bit about On the Town is a myth. So strong is this myth that rather prominent writers, publications, and organizations are ultimately mistaken.
Interestingly, a few people are on the right path in terms of On the Town‘s real-life mise-en-scène.
The first is Timothy Knight whose book on Frank Sinatra, Sinatra: Hollywood, His Way, includes this brief note on the matter: “Although there had been one or two scenes shot on location and other musicals, no prior musical had the variety of scenes and the artistry that Kelly and Donen brought to the table. The result is that On the Town is generally considered the first feature musical shot on location.” The second blurb comes from Scott Jordan Harris, whose book World Film Locations: New York contains this sentence: “On the Town isn’t the first movie to take advantage of the actual city, but unquestionably it’s the most seminal.”
But it’s Rick Altman, author of The American Film Musical (a book sorely in need of an update), who provides readers with the most detail and a couple of examples of on-location musicals that precede On the Town. As Altman tells it, as early as 1929, King Vidor used location photography of cotton fields, shantytowns, and swamps in MGM’s Hallelujah. The same goes for Paramount’s High, Wide, and Handsome (1937), which features scenes shot outdoors in Chino, California. Finally, Altman blatantly reminds readers, “Many other films before On the Town use location photography” (278).
It’s no wonder many legitimately aren’t aware other Hollywood musicals precede On the Town in terms of location shooting. Like “Play it again, Sam” — a line many folks think they heard in Casablanca (1941) but was actually said by Woody Allen — On the Town‘s on-location myth has become ingrained in cinema history.
Or perhaps it’s just easier to say that On the Town — more familiar to the public than a movie like High, Wide, and Handsome — is the first film musical shot on location. After all, as Knight and Harris point out, on-location musicals prior to On the Town, while legitimate, didn’t have “the variety of scenes and the artistry that Kelly and Donen brought to the table.” Nor were they as technically difficult to shoot, I imagine (undisturbed fields vs. the din of Manhattan).
So, On the Town Seminal in its use of on-location photography? Yes. The best remembered film musical for this reason? Yes. The first Hollywood musical to shoot this way? No.
And with that, I’ll let young Frank Sinatra take us out, as he sings on location, atop the Brooklyn Bridge, the year before On the Town was even in production.