On the Town (1948), On-Location Shooting, and Setting the Record Straight

On the Town (1948), On-Location Shooting, and Setting the Record Straight

In about 45 minutes’ time, I have located over a dozen statements declaring On the Town (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1949) the first movie musical to be shot on location. Had I more time (or energy), I’m confident I could track down at least double this amount.

These People Have Been Duped (Sorta)!

  • The first MGM musical with scenes shot on locationOn the Town deploys the magic of New York City—from Rockefeller Center to the Empire State Building—as its setting. (Film Society of Lincoln Center)
  • [Producer Arthur Freed] fought to give Kelly and choreographer Stanley Donen their first shot at directing and wangled a week of location shooting out of the studio, the first time a Hollywood musical had shot on location. (TCM)
  • This was the first musical feature film to be shot on location. In a TCM interview, Ann Miller took the credit for pleading and persuading Louis B. Mayer to do the shoot on location as she had “never seen New York.” (IMDB)
  • This was the first movie musical to be filmed on location. (MUBI)
  • This was the first time any major studio sent a company to shoot musical sequences on public sites in New York.” (Hugh Fordin, MGM’s Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit)
  • On the Town was a breath of fresh air into the old musical genre. It was one of the first films to be shot on location. (Brattle Film Foundation)
  • In just five days of shooting selected sequences, they opened up the genre as no one had ever done before, creating another first: a musical film shot on location. (PBS, American Masters)
  • It’s a breakthrough film that, for the first time, took the musical out of the claustrophobic sound stages and onto the streets for on-location shooting. (TV Guide)
  • It marked the first movie to have a musical sequence shot on location in New York. (Hollywood Musicals Year by Year, Stanley Green)
  • The three sailors on leave in On the Town [...] find their girls, not in a purified world of dance, but in a real New York (the first musical made on location) that embraces both their dancing and their search. (The World in a Frame: What We See in Films, Leo Braudy)
  • On the Town (MGM), co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, marks the first time a musical is shot on location. (“I’ll Sing You a Thousand Love Songs:
    A Selected Filmography of the Musical Film,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 8.1 [1980].)
  • Kelly adapted Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway romp about gobs on leave for his directorial debut and became the first (along with codirector Stanley Donen) to film a musical on location — a bustling postwar New York, New York. (Entertainment Weekly)
  • Based upon a ballet by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein, it was also the first movie to have its music sequences actually filmed on location. (“Dance: Its Past and Its Promise on Film,” Journal of Popular Culture [Winter 1978], Richard Sonnenshein)
  • GENE KELLY, Y’ALL: This film was a milestone. 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. (qtd. in NY Times)

As a colleague Martha Shearer and I recently discussed on Twitter, this bit about On the Town is essentially a myth. So strong is this myth that, as one can see above, some rather prominent writers, journals, and organizations are ultimately mistaken. If you skipped over the quotes I compiled, featured above, for example, are Turner Classic Movies (TCM), PBS’s American Masters series, the NY Times, film scholar Leo Braudy, the Journal of Popular Film and Television, and (ha!) Gene Kelly himself.

on the town set 3

Kelly, Munshin, and Sinatra filming on location. NYC.

These People Know What’s Up

Interestingly, my search today reveals only three people who are on the right path in terms of On the Town‘s on-location shooting.

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 in the artistry that Kelly and Donen brought to the table. The result is that’s 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, btw) who provides readers with the most detail and a couple of examples of those films that came before On the Town:

As early as 1929, King Vidor used extensive location photography in Hallelujah [specifically from Arkansas and Tennessee]. From cotton fields and shantytowns to the final chase in the swamp, Hallelujah succeeds in recording the poor man’s South. Using scenes shot on location in Chino, California, Mamoulian High, Wide, and Handsome (1937) is able to create a sense of openness and closeness to the land which would have been impossible indoors. Many other films before On the Town use location photography.” (278)

In the cotton fields. Hallelujah (1929).

In the cotton fields. Hallelujah (1929).


Perhaps those in the long list above legitimately do not know that other Hollywood musicals precede On the Town in terms of location shooting. It’s no wonder they aren’t aware. Again, like “Play it again, Sam,” a line many viewers think they heard in Casablanca (1941) but was actually said by Woody AllenOn the Town‘s on-location myth has become ingrained in cinema history.

Or perhaps it’s just easier to say that On the Town—certainly more familiar to the public than something like High, Wide, and Handsome—is the first film musical shot on location? After all, as Knight and Jordan point out, on-location musicals prior to On the Town, while legitimate, didn’t have “the variety of scenes in 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?). (For more on the technical side of things, see Fordin’s discussion of synchronizing action, lip-sync, and dancing, p. 264 of MGM’s Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit.) For these reasons, On the Town is generally considered “the most seminal.”

I guess I’m here to set the record straight about On the Town‘s place in cinema history, especially since I’m also guilty of touting it as the first on-location musical and then not usually adding a disclaimer after that statement.

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 do shoot this way? No.

And with that, I’ll let young Sinatra take us out, as he sings on location atop the Brooklyn bridge—the year before On the Town was in production. (Thanks, Martha, for directing me to this film!)