The height of World War II would see the rise of a particular new musical subgenre: the wartime all-star revue. These were breezy efforts built to boost morale with the boys overseas and with their families back home, where studios would gather all their biggest names for thinly-plotted comedies carrying a series of wildly entertaining variety acts and musical numbers. In these films, audiences could see Bette Davis sing, Ida Lupino dance, Humphrey Bogart poke fun of his tough guy image. Better still, these films would double as fundraisers, earning money for various for-the-boys charities (and, of course, audiences could also buy war bonds, right in the lobby of this very theater!).
Warner Bros. has now packaged three of its top movies from this genre - "This is the Army," "Thank Your Lucky Stars," and "Hollywood Canteen" - together in their new three-disc box set "Warner Bros. and the Homefront Collection." This marks the DVD debut of the latter two films ("This is the Army" remains available from cheaper companies in crummy public domain releases), and, as of this writing, these new discs are exclusive to this set. The set collects all three discs (one movie per disc) in three slimline cases which fit into a handsome cardboard slipcover. And all three movies are accompanied by Warners' terrific "Warner Night at the Movies" brand of extras, which recreates (more or less) a complete evening's worth of cinematic entertainment from the year of each movie's initial release.
"This is the Army" (1943)
During WWI, Irving Berlin penned the musical "Yip Yip Yaphank" while serving at Camp Upton; the show was created as a fundraiser for the Army, with a cast and crew of soldiers eventually taking the show to Broadway, where it would earn $80,000 for the Armed Forces. A collection of vaudeville acts and "follies"-style numbers, "Yip Yip Yaphank" is best remembered today for the song "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" - while a new patriotic tune called "God Bless America" wound up dropped from the final show by Berlin himself for being "too sticky."
The onset of WWII would bring Berlin back to Camp Upton, where he inquired about a new musical. "This is the Army" ran on Broadway for several months in 1942 before hitting the road, where it would eventually earn several million dollars for the Army Emergency Relief Fund. Once again, the cast and crew were made up entirely of soldiers, including a handful of black performers, making a dent in the Army's segregation policies of the time (even if, unfortunately, blacks and whites were banned from sharing the stage simultaneously).
With the play a rousing success, Warner Bros. set about bringing it to the big screen. The film version of "This is the Army," directed by Michael Curtiz (fresh off the one-two punch of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "Casablanca"), would be a masterful blend of both of Berlin's Army musicals, with a new behind-the-scenes story whipped up to hold it all together. Many of the soldiers from the stage tour appeared alongside Hollywood stars, and to add to the patriotic flavor, the credits came packed with the military rankings of everyone involved.
The film opens in WWI, with professional dancer Jerry Jones (George Murphy) getting drafted, eventually smooth-talking his way into putting on a show: "Yip Yip Yaphank." It's a smash, and when the unit gets their orders to ship out, they turn the show's final number, the aptly titled "We're on Our Way to France," into a farewell march, singing as they pile out of the theater, into trucks, and off to war, kissing loved ones goodbye along the way. (It's no Hollywood exaggeration, either: the show's final performance really did end that way.)
Flash forward to the dawn of a new war. Jerry's son, Johnny (Lt. Ronald Reagan), enlists, as do the sons of many of Jerry's old army buddies. One such son is killed at Peal Harbor, and his brother signs up to take his place. A visit to Camp Upton (where the old gang's cantankerous drill instructor, Sgt. McGee - played with grumpy delight by Alan Hale - is still hard at work, all these years later) stirs up old memories, and a new plan: a new show, put on by Jerry (now a Broadway producer) and Johnny.
This brings us to the halfway mark of the two hour-plus picture, and the rest of the film is devoted almost entirely to Berlin's stage play. We're given some cutaways (mainly to proud parents in the audience, or rapid goings-on backstage, or a subplot involving Johnny's romance with sweetheart Joan Leslie), but those exist merely to keep the tempo afloat by providing between-number energy and a story throughline the revue itself does not contain.
And what a revue! A cast of hundreds fills the screen for "This is the Army, Mr. Jones," "How About a Cheer for the Navy," "This Time We Will All Make Certain," and several other rousers. Zoot-suited tap dancers fly (as champ Joe Louis offers speed bag accompaniment) to the tune of "That's What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear." Tumblers and magicians and quick wits deliver memorable vaudeville routines. Berlin himself drops by to ever-so-softly sing "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." Curtiz channels his inner Gene Kelly to stage the lovely near-fantasy dance sequence "I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen." Alan Hale gets dolled up in drag for the wild "Ladies of the Chorus" routine.
Granted, we also have to contend with the ugly blackface version of Berlin's "Mandy." Berlin may have been progressive in pushing for integration in his shows, but he also sure loved clinging to his outdated minstrel acts - he had to be talked out of including this one in the stage version (only to have it resurface, regrettably, for the movie), and such "nostalgia" would keep popping up well into the mid-1950s - Curtiz' "White Christmas" features a non-blackface medley tribute to Berlin's minstrel songs. It's tough to view the "Mandy" sequence today, partially because it's such an unfortunate artifact of its time, but also because, simply, even on its own merits, it's just not very entertaining - especially when compared to the exciting "Harlem" scene, which pops with a modern vibrancy that a throwback to a dead genre can't provide.
The rest of the film is solid enough to make up for such missteps, with high points including Kate Smith's proud, almost tear-jerking performance of "God Bless America," which has been called the most memorable take on the anthem. (Curtiz peppers the song with cutaway visuals of American families across the country listening in, hearing the song as a call to action.) Such moments do their jingoistic darnedest, and "This is the Army" becomes a great Fourth of July movie, big and bold and proud.
Note: This new release from Warner Bros. offers the film in its complete edit, including Berlin's overture and exit music, which hasn't been attached to the movie since its initial theatrical run.
Video & Audio
"This is the Army" was Warners' first outing in the three-strip Technicolor process, and for the most part, the image holds up sixty-five years later. There are a few scratches visible during the "Mandy" number, but otherwise the print has been cleaned up considerably, with minimum grain and no visible dust or debris. Colors are a pinch faded (perhaps a problem with the source itself?), but it's nothing distracting. As with all of the shorts and other features in this set, "This is the Army" is presented in its original 1.33:1 full frame format.
Update 12/4/08: Eagle-eyed reader Bill V. writes in to point out something I overlooked in my viewing:
"I wondered if you thought the beginning reels of This is the Army were slightly out of register for the 3 strip technicolor. There seems to be an orange 'glow' to the area next to the actor's faces that isn't present later in the film."
Upon closer inspection, there are a few instances of a faint glow. (Watch when the bugler talks to his wife about enlisting.) I'm not enough of a Technicolor expert to say if this is a print flaw or transfer issue; anyone out there want to chime in? Either way, it's so minor (and so easily overlooked) that it shouldn't be a point of contention in the disc's video rating.
The Dolby mono soundtrack makes the most out of the non-stop music, which sounds crisp and surprisingly vibrant here. Optional English and French subtitles are provided.
The "Warner Night at the Movies" program for "This is the Army" includes: a trailer for the war thriller "Edge of Darkness;" a newsreel (sadly presented here without audio); the musical short "The United States Army Band," which sets patriotic military footage against performances from the titular musicians; and the wickedly silly Porky Pig cartoon "Confusions of a Nutsy Spy." Warners' now-standard disclaimer warning about outdated stereotypes appears before the cartoon and the movie itself, just in case you've forgotten that racism is stupid.
Film historian Dr. Drew Casper delivers a dry but informative commentary track, which includes an interview with Joan Leslie later in the film. Caspar is obviously reading from notes, and the track feels like a lecture that rarely comments directly with the on-screen action. This saps some of the energy from the proceedings, yet there's so much information to be found here that it's still a nice listen.
Narrated by Steven Spielberg, "Warner at War" packs plenty of Hollywood history into its fifty-minute frame. The fascinating documentary begins in the early 1930s, with Jack Warner slowly chipping away at production code rules (don't show Nazis in a bad light, lest we upset German audiences!) while isolationists complained the studio was producing pro-war propaganda. The feature follows Hollywood into WWII, with its production of military training films and stirring morale-boosting musicals and dramas; the focus remains on Jack Warner's efforts to keep his studio's output as socially relevant as ever, even if it would cost him later. (The most fascinating story here is that of "Mission to Moscow," a pro-Stalin piece made at the behest of FDR himself in hopes of rallying support for the States' new Soviet allies; the film would later haunt Warner as the Cold War heated up.) Those interested in wartime Hollywood will find plenty to enjoy here.
A short outtake finds Berlin leading a chorus of "My British Buddy," a song included in international prints of the film in an effort to appeal to Allied audiences. It's a cute but forgettable tune, and the fun isn't so much in the song itself but in seeing Berlin onscreen for just a few more minutes.
The film's original trailer rounds out the disc.
"Thank Your Lucky Stars" (1943)
Arguably an unofficial companion piece to MGM's similarly star-heavy "Thousands Cheer" (released just weeks earlier), "Thank Your Lucky Stars" is an all-star revue disguised as a backstage comedy. The loose plot involves a trio of Hollywood hopefuls hoping to make it big while producers struggle to put on a charity show featuring Tinseltown's biggest names. It's all an excuse to collect as many familiar faces as possible, then have them sing and dance for the troops. (Stars' salaries and box office receipts were both donated to the Hollywood Canteen, which earned over two million dollars from the project.)
As a musical, it's big, sloppy fun. Robert Morgan stars as Tommy, aspiring radio star; Joan Leslie is Pat, aspiring songwriter. They meet on the streets of Hollywood, and he takes her back to his place: a shanty town made from discarded movie sets, where everyone's friendly and Spike Jones and His City Slickers just might pop by to play a tune or three.
Tommy's pal is Joe, a struggling actor who can't get work because of his striking resemblance to Eddie Cantor. Joe, of course, is played by Eddie Cantor, who also plays a hammed-up version of himself, complete with all the requisite put-down jokes that come with a star poking fun of his own image. What follows is a slim kinda-sorta-"Prince and the Pauper" plot, with Joe impersonating Cantor in order to sneak Tommy and Pat into the Cavalcade of Stars, a benefit show that provides most of the revue distractions.
Presented here under the guise of "rehearsals" and "stage performances," the revue scenes are merely lavish cutaway sequences in which, say, Bette Davis sings "They're Either Too Young or Too Old" in a nightclub and then does the jitterbug (take notes: it's the only time she'd sing on screen), or Jack Carson and Alan Hale do a number about "Goin' North," or Hattie McDaniel belts out "Ice Cold Katie" with Willie Best. Olivia de Havilland, Ida Lupino, and George Tobias shed their serious images and rip a jazzy take on "The Dreamer." Errol Flynn gets playful with "That's What You Jolly Well Get." And backstage, none other than Bogie gets tough guy-ed by S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall ("I hope my movie fans never find out about this!").
It's all so gloriously unapologetic in its randomness, a cinematic variety show that allows stars to get silly for a good cause. It's a heck of a crowd-pleaser, especially since it actually manages to make its disposable "story" work. There's a goofy charm to Cantor's over-the-top self-mockery, while Morgan and Leslie offer up some decent screen chemistry, delivering the right amount of aw-shucks charm to the backstage shenanigans.
Perhaps it's a little too lightweight - the movie is often remembered these days as too shameless, too inconsequential - yet it all holds up remarkably well. The star power alone lends the film a certain energy, and there's something about the film's no-holds-barred approach to the comedy that keeps it from being just a shallow compilation of musical numbers. "Thank Your Lucky Stars" remains tremendous entertainment.
Video & Audio
The black-and-white photography is very clean in this transfer, with minimal grain and no noticeable print damage. Detail is crisp, and black levels are nice and rich.
The Dolby mono soundtrack is even better, again delivering an unexpected amount of depth to the musical sequences. Optional English and French subtitles are provided.
The "Warner Night at the Movies" program for "Thank Your Lucky Stars" includes: the trailer for "Watch on the Rhine;" another audio-less newsreel; the short "Food and Magic," which urges those at home to ration their food and avoid waste as a means of supporting the troops (could you imagine such sacrifices being asked of us today?); the musical shorts "Three Cheers for the Girls," in which we meet a few lovely lasses who make up the choruses in all our favorite cinematic dance numbers, and "The United States Navy Band," in which the band plays patriotic marches over images of our fine military; and the classic Bugs Bunny-meets-the-WWII Gremlin cartoon "Fallen Hare."
A real treat for old time radio fans is the inclusion of the half-hour radio adaptation of "Thank Your Lucky Stars," hosted by Eddie Cantor. Here, with time not permitting the full two-hour film to be reenacted, the radio show becomes a best-of reel, with stars popping by to repeat their favorite performances, this time in front of a live audience. (The variety format of the movie translates quite well to radio.)
Finally, the film's original trailer is also included.
"Hollywood Canteen" (1944)
How to top previous revues? Here comes "Hollywood Canteen," the best of the bunch, not only for its sheer star power - the opening credits boast thirty-nine acts - but for its complete charm. This is a sweet movie, built entirely (and solidly) around a lovely little story. The countless musical performances and celebrity cameos keep everything moving wonderfully, but it's the underlying tale that leaves us smiling wide.
As noted above, the Canteen was a real place, a West Coast answer to New York's Stage Door Canteen, founded by Bette Davis and John Garfield as a means of giving back to the military. Movie stars volunteered to wait tables and do dishes, and they'd all mingle with the GIs, maybe offering a dance or two. Sometimes they even took the stage. Everything at the Canteen was free of charge to American and Allied servicemen and women. The ticket of admission was your uniform.
"Hollywood Canteen" is a fictionalized tribute to this home away from home, offering the sights and sounds of the club for all the soldiers who couldn't make it to Hollywood (and to all the civilians not allowed inside). The story offers a perfect fantasy experience: Slim (Robert Hutton, in a sincere, gentle performance) is a fresh-faced GI on leave for three days; when he hears about the Canteen, his only wish is a chance to meet Joan Leslie, if only for a moment. Unfortunately, Joan's not on duty tonight, but wouldn't you know it, Bette Davis and John Garfield conspire not only to arrange a meeting, but a kiss, too.
This launches a whirlwind romance between Slim and the movie star, who, like all the stars here, plays herself. Slim wins the club's "millionth man" contest and an all-night date with Joan. (The actual one millionth soldier to walk through the club's doors won a smaller yet no less desirable prize: a kiss from Betty Grable. Lucky!) Their date makes all the gossip pages. And Joan doesn't mind one bit - Slim's a real sweetheart.
By itself, this story's a winner, with enough grace and warmth to fill its own old fashioned romantic comedy. The side plot - in which Slim's pal, the fast-talking Sgt. Nolan (Dane Clark), sets his eyes on a beautiful junior hostess (Janis Paige) - is equally appealing, and the whole movie takes on a lively charm. Sure, it's all hokey as can be, and the corny fantasy gets pushed to ridiculous levels (in one scene, the injured Nolan is thrilled to realize that thanks to his newfound joys, he can walk without his cane!), but as escapist delight, it's hard to top the smiles found here.
Then, of course, there are the guest stars. More than "Thank Your Lucky Stars," "Hollywood Canteen" is a who's who of show business. The Andrews Sisters. Kitty Carlisle. Joan McCracken. Roy Rogers and Trigger. Eddie Cantor and Nora Martin. Jack Benny and Joseph Szigeti. Robert Hutton and Joe E. Brown. Jane Wyman and Jack Carson. Jimmy Dorsey and His Band. The Sons of the Pioneers. Rosario and Antonio, with musical accompaniment by Carmen Cavallaro and Orchestra. The Golden Gate Quartette.
And that's just on stage! You'll also meet Paul Heinreid, Ida Lupino, and Barbara Stanwyck. Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre pop up to say that they're really "gentle people." Sgt. Nolan lands a dance with a Joan Crawford look-alike who warns him: "Don't look now, but I am Joan Crawford."
Better still, unlike "Thank Your Lucky Stars," in which the celebrities obviously filmed their scenes separate from the main action (that film's encore finale loses some energy by failing to visually unite all its stars), the guests in "Hollywood Canteen" are all right in the thick of the action, clowning around with a fellow celebrity or three and a hundred or so extras on the side. It's one thing to see Errol Flynn tackle a jokey stage number; it's far more impressive to see Patty Andrews whip around the Canteen as part of an elaborate visual joke, or Joe E. Brown lead hundreds of GIs in a round of "You Can Always Tell a Yank," or Davis and Garfield get into the thick of the plot as they scheme in Slim's favor.
There's always the possibility of getting self-congratulatory here, but Davis and company always manage to deflect such a tone, instead always pushing instead to pat the backs of the servicemen. "Hollywood Canteen" manages to follow through on the mission of its real-life counterpart: to say, loudly and proudly, thanks, soldier, now why don't you take your mind off things for a while?
Video & Audio
"Hollywood Canteen" looks a little softer than "Thank Your Lucky Stars," but not enough to distract. There's plenty of detail to be found in the black-and-white photography, and grain and dirt are once again kept to a minimum.
Once more, the Dolby mono soundtrack is very solid, nicely supporting the various musical interludes. As with all three films in this set, hisses and pops are absent. Optional English and French subtitles are provided.
The "Warner Night at the Movies" program for "Hollywood Canteen" includes: a trailer for "The Doughgirls;" one last audio-less newsreel; "I Am an American," which traces the proud heritage of a family; "Proudly We Serve," in which an aerial gunner gets trained by (gasp!) a female instructor; "Report from the Front," a plea from Humphrey Bogart to donate to the Red Cross; and the Bugs Bunny-Elmer Fudd showdown "Stage Door Cartoon."
Two more classic cartoons are also presented. Bugs Bunny takes on "Fatso" Hermann Goering in "Herr Meets Hare," featuring the duo in full-on Wagnerian costume, a gimmick later reused to great effect in "What's Opera, Doc?" (This cartoon includes Warners' stereotypes disclaimer, thus reminding kids not to mock Hermann Goering.) "Hollywood Canine Canteen" is less successful, as it's one of those middling shorts where movie stars are redone as dogs, and that's as far as the joke goes. It works well as a time capsule, but not as a laugh-getter.
The original trailer for "Hollywood Canteen" completes the disc.
Warner Bros. does this little genre right by offering up three of its finest entries in editions that show them off quite well, and with a heavy assortment of notable extras to round out your evening's entertainment. The only thing missing is a set of war bonds. Highly Recommended.