“One by one, the lights have dimmed at New York City's repertory cinemas, leaving a dark hole that the new Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center hopes to illuminate,” began New York Times reporter William Grimes in his coverage of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s grand opening of the Walter Reade Theater 25 years ago. Since then, several theaters have emerged, others have darkened, but the Walter Reade has held fast as an institutional luminary. Tonight, to mark the theater’s anniversary, the Film Society will present a free double feature of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s cinematic adaptation On the Town (1949), followed by John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), both of which screened in the theater’s inaugural series “Great Beginnings: First Films by Great Directors.”
The first film to be publicly shown at the Walter Reade, On the Town presents a glittering (and high-budget) Hollywood vision of New York City that stands in stark contrast to Cassavetes’ gritty, shoestring production. Opened in New York City by MGM 72 years ago to the day, On the Town became the first Hollywood musical to feature extensive location shooting, mixing a bit of realism with its pomp. While Kelly and Donen’s adaptation retained the premise of the original stage production—three sailors on 24-hour shore leave take to Manhattan to experience the city and find romance—the film diverges in both its depiction of female agency and race. As a result, missing from the film’s largely whitewashed cast is the much celebrated racial diversity of the original production, including the central interracial relationship of Japanese-American dancer Ivy (Miss Turnstiles) and white sailor Gabey.
Here, Shadows becomes a compelling addition to the bill. Hailed as the “harbinger of New American Cinema” for its undoing of Hollywood conventions and its independent nature, Shadows follows a free-roaming narrative of three black siblings living in 1950s Manhattan. Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), one part of the trio and a white-passing female, becomes sexually involved with Tony (Anthony Ray), who is white and bolts once he realizes that Lelia is black. Raucous, urgent, and tender, the film is a portrait of the period's racial tension and identity-formation that feels necessary today. In celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Walter Reade, it’s important to take note of how much difference ten years between On the Town and Shadows madein terms of who is included in the onscreen narrative and how much work has yet to be done.