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Hollywood offered support for the Korean War effort in the best way it could, considering that our participation in the United Nations' "police action" in Korea was a completely different experience than the World War that had ended just five years before. The peacetime draft pulled veterans back into service and sent eighteen year-olds halfway around the world, and not everyone saw the need. Perhaps because nobody could be certain that the war wouldn't be over in a few weeks, few films directly addressed the issue. Samuel Goldwyn's I Want You tried to be a Korean War update of The Best Years of Our Lives but sent mixed signals: the war may be unpopular but fathers and sons of good conscience should accept their obligation and not avoid the draft.
Back in WW2, Warner Bros. had initiated the morale building cycle of movies designed as USO substitutes. Emulating the real-life USO club for servicemen only on Ivar Street in Hollywood, the films The Hollywood Canteen, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Stage Door Canteen and others were episodic variety shows where top stars sang and danced with big band favorites; dramatic stars appeared in cameos. More often than not, the only story was a thin romance between a young starlet and a deserving serviceman fresh from under his mother's apron. Veterans like Tallulah Bankhead and Katharine Hepburn would be on hand to offer the girl professional advice.
1951's Starlift attempts to update the formula with only occasional success. Appearing at a bond rally in San Francisco, Doris Day and Ruth Roman allow a pair of young Airmen to talk them into visiting nearby Travis Field to cheer up soldiers being airlifted to the Korean front. Long lines of troops climb aboard converted B-29 bombers. Seeing the bored and nervous soldiers waiting to board the transport aircraft, the celebrities prevail upon their Hollywood peers to start coming to Travis for a regular show, which is dubbed "Starlift."
Naturally, all of the talents on view are Warner Bros. contract players, from a star roster much thinner than what was available a decade earlier. Ruth Roman and Doris Day have the largest roles, with Doris doing a good job singing in the waiting room. The poignancy of the moment comes through when half of Day's audience is called to their flight before her song is finished. Patriotic gesture aside, the scene inadvertently makes Day come off as light entertainment for the condemned. Even the Air Force brass behaves as if the endless line of men going to war is a grim business.
The stars also do glamorous greeter duty for planeloads of returning wounded, which further emphasizes the "carousel of casualties" nature of war in a way surely not intended by the filmmakers. Starlift wisely doesn't wave the flag over this spectacle -- nobody offers speeches about making the world safe for Freedom.
As in all of these films, name stars do cameos, essentially playing fictionalized versions of their public personae. Character types lower in the Hollywood food chain must play fictional characters. Comic Dick Wesson has a field day as Airman Sgt. Mike Nolan, a braggart who cons his way into the stars' hotel. He also invents a story about his buddy Cpl. Rick Williams (Ron Hagerthy) being the boyfriend of the attractive starlet "Nell Wayne", played by the bright young actress Janice Rule. The virginal Rick is mortified when Mike lets the stars think they're heading for combat -- Rick and Mike are flyers who ferry the conscripts only as far as Honolulu. Nell Wayne is a glamorous starlet yet lives at home under the supervision of her parents. The tired story forces Nell to pretend to be Rick's girl for the good of the war effort, because catty columnist Louella Parsons has built them up as the "Starlift Lovers". Rick thinks Nell is just after personal publicity. All differences are naturally straightened out before the finish, with the "youngsters" united as authentic sweethearts. The intelligent stage actress Janice Rule didn't make very many memorable pictures, yet it's fun to watch her shine in what is essentially a nothing role.
The cavalcade of stars is, well, disappointing. Doris Day and Gordon MacRae belt out a tune together and fare the best. Virginia Mayo's undernourished exotic dance number makes her look like an ordinary showgirl. Gene Nelson's dance with Janice Rule is a highlight; between this film and his unnoticed noir turn in Crime Wave, we realize that Nelson deserved better opportunities than providing support in Doris Day musicals. Phil Harris gamely lampoons his boisterous image playing poker with recuperating soldiers, whining and griping as he loses big to the Air Force cardsharps. Of course, it's all a big-hearted act; Harris is losing on purpose.
Jane Wyman doffs her furs and sings a song -- and not very well. Comic Tommy Noonan performs an excruciatingly unfunny "silly chef" routine. Randolph Scott plays emcee in the eventual Starlift stage show, while Gary Cooper and Frank Lovejoy do the best they can with a lifeless Wild West musical skit. James Cagney makes a walk-on appearance, ribbing Dick Wesson's rather good Cagney impression by quoting dialogue lines from White Heat, his WB comeback hit from the previous year. Typed as an obnoxious wiseacre, Wesson is unusually effective when he gets to play honest sentimental concern at the conclusion. Studio casting practices guaranteed careers for many memorable character players, but very few had opportunities to move up to better roles.
Although most of the celebrities acquit themselves well, by 1951 the idea of movie stars visiting troops in a movie seems disingenuous and self-congratulatory. A range of personalities from Danny Kaye to Marilyn Monroe did real USO stints during the Korean conflict, tours that first and foremost focused on the boys. Starlift is a well intentioned but rather flat-footed effort. The Korean War and Cold War politics just didn't mix well with upbeat Hollywood entertainment.
Warners' DVD of Starlift shows the B&W film to be in fine shape, with strong sound. The many scenes using rear projection make it unclear whether any personalities actually went on location to Travis AFB.
Starlift is the odd film out in the TCM Presents: The Doris Day Collection but certainly an interesting curiosity. The other pictures include three WB musicals in color (It's a Great Feeling, Tea for Two and April in Paris) and The Tunnel of Love, a B&W CinemaScope comedy from MGM that co-stars Ms. Day with an uncomfortable-looking Richard Widmark.
For extras, Warners has added a trailer, a color short subject Desert Killer, a Joe McDoakes short comedy and the Merrie Melodies cartoon Sleepy Time Possum.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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