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.
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.
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)
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 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—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!)