As part of our virtual visit to Manhattan, each night we will be watching a classic film set in New York City. We will avoid some of the most familiar (such as On the Town) and others that we watch every Christmas (such as It Happened on Fifth Avenue), even though they are wonderful films. Instead, we will focus on movies that are a bit obscure and that we watch rarely.
Monday: The Clock (1945)
We hadn’t seen this film from beginning to end before. It is known as Judy Garland’s first non-singing film, even though it was directed by Vincente Minnelli and produced by Arthur Freed, who were responsible for so many of MGM’s great musicals. We put this on the watch list on the day we first arrived in Manhattan, because this film begins in Pennsylvania Station, where Robert Walker, a soldier on a brief leave before being shipped to England during World War II, accidentally meets Judy Garland, a young New Yorker. Walker is so overwhelmed by the size of the city that he is afraid to leave the station, but Garland reluctantly gives him a tour. They ride a bus up Fifth Avenue to Central Park, visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and agree to meet for a dinner date beneath the clock at the Astor Hotel. Unfortunately, today both the original Penn Station and the Astor, which both play a key role in the film, were long ago demolished. The film features some of our favorite character actors, such as Keenan Wynn and James Gleason (as a milkman … he plays the taxi driver Sylvester in The Bishop’s Wife, one of our favorite Christmas films). We enjoyable the movie, especially for the Manhattan scenes, but I doubt that it will be added to any perennial watch list.
Tuesday: The Belle of New York (1952)
This is one of Fred Astaire’s least known musicals, and he even disparages it himself in his autobiography, Steps in Time. It certainly doesn’t rank with his RKO films with Ginger Rogers or his earlier MGM films, such as The Band Wagon and Easter Parade, but I enjoy the old New York scenery (even though it’s done on a sound stage) and the music. We picked this film for Tuesday, because that’s the day we typically walk through Washington Square park. In the film, Astaire dances atop Stanford White’s famed memorial arch. It’s a fantasy sequence that doesn’t come off as well as his later famed “dancing on the ceiling” number from Royal Wedding, but it’s still interesting. His co-star is Vera Ellen, and Keenan Wynn makes another appearance in a nice character role. My favorite number is the Johnny Mercer tune “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man.”
Wednesday: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
We picked this film for Wednesday because that’s the day we usually have lunch at the 21 Club, which is a setting for many of the scenes in this film. After the nostalgic fluff of The Belle of New York, nothing could be more of a contrast than this dramatic story of a cynical, vindictive newspaper columnist (modeled on Walter Winchell) who manipulates everyone he knows to maintain his power.
We’ve not seen this film before, but it has great credentials and has a scene at Sardi’s, so we will put it in our Day 4 – Broadway viewing slot. Directed by William Wellman, the movie stars Ann Dvorak, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Lee Tracy. Interestingly, the scenes shot at Sardi’s show far fewer caricatures than you will see today, and they appear to be simpler ink drawings than the colorful sketches that fill the walls now.
We hadn’t seen this musical before and picked it for Friday because it featured a horse-racing flavored number — “Better Off Betting on a Horse.” While ostensibly set in New York, the movie is obviously shot on sound stages. There is one tantalizing reference to the 21 Club, but it doesn’t pan out. Still, it was an interesting musical, but not one we’re likely to watch again. A young Gwen Verdon appears in at least one number. Jack Cole did the choreography, and if some of the numbers remind you of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it’s probably because Cole did that more famous movie two years later.