Was 'On the Town' the First Film Musical Shot On Location?

Kelli Marshal

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?

On the Town

Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Cast: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett
Year: 1949

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.

Kelli Marshall teaches media and cinema studies courses at DePaul University. Her work has appeared in Mental Floss, AlterNet, FlowTV, The Conversation, Literature/Film Quarterly, Journal of Popular Film and Television, and other mainstream and academic publications. Follow Kelli on Twitter at @kellimarshall or contact her at






Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.