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During WW2 the movies received a big jolt of patriotic fervor, and not all of it was aimed directly at profits. Near the center of Hollywood's morale-building effort was Bette Davis and John Garfield's "Hollywood Canteen" project, which set up shop on Cahuenga Blvd. and operated for years. It's exciting to see the actual newsreel images of the stars on the dance floor with grinning, 'how can I be so lucky?' soldiers and sailors. It was a big shock to realize while working on Close Encounters that our celebrated matte painter Matthew Yuricich wasn't lying -- one of the most frequently excerpted newsreel images shows Matt dancing with none other than star Marlene Dietrich, and she looks like she's having as good a time as he is.
Warners wasn't the first to turn the spirit of Hollywood Canteen into a movie. United Artists released Sol Lesser's Stage Door Canteen in June of 1943. The all-star effort gave the impression that a young soldier could find romance at a Canteen in Times Square, while celebrities big and small washed dishes and bussed tables. I'm not so sure that happened anywhere outside of publicity photos, but anything's possible. A parade of stars play fictionalized versions of themselves, while the musical interludes alternate between swing bands and longhair 'kulture' offerings. The official Hollywood Canteen movie wouldn't arrive until December of 1944. It uses almost the same exact format.
Chasing Stage Door in July of '43 was Warners' This is the Army, an all-Irving Berlin musical that mixes characters from Berlin's patriotic plays with bits that seem to be replays of Yankee Doodle Dandy. The accent was on huge group chorus numbers, with an abundance of American flag imagery.
But the most eccentric and perhaps most satisfying of the 'for the boys' war musicals is Thank Your Lucky Stars (September '43). An unabashed all-star Warner Bros. variety spectacle, it carries a plotline just trivial enough to be tossed aside for a dozen or so odd musical interludes. Thank Your Lucky Stars' best material gives big musical numbers to Warner talent not normally known for musical work.
The story setup is that Edward Everett Horton and S.Z. Sakall are staging a gala benefit in a Hollywood theater. A couple of the bigger non-musical stars make cameo appearances, as when an unshaven Humphrey Bogart shows up backstage and is frightened away by 'Cuddles' Sakall. The gag of tough guy Bogart going limp was later aped in at least one WB cartoon. Trying to take over the benefit is the bossy Eddie Cantor, who happens to have an exact double in Joe Simpson, a tour bus driver desperate to break into show business. Some of the comedy is cute, and we like it when Cantor's yes-man / bodyguard / accompanist Mike Mazurki plays the piano, and we can see he's doing nothing at all with his fingers. Warners' young stars Joan Leslie and Dennis Morgan fill out the rest of the backstage story, playing Hollywood hopefuls 'Pat Dixon' and 'Tommy Randolph', ambitious songwriter and singer. A crooked agent has bamboozled both of them, with the result that Tommy thinks he's under contract to Eddie Cantor.
Thrown out of her room, Pat is taken to a cowboy encampment called Gower Gulch, where Tommy sings with Spike Jones and his band (a demanding taste I haven't yet acquired). 1 Pat sings a couple of pieces of songs as well, and one scene allows her to do an audition reprising her turn with James Cagney in the previous year's George M. Cohan movie. If you're wondering where Cagney is, by 1943 he had again separated from Warners and was trying to make it as an independent producer. It's a little odd that most of the celebrities play 'themselves,' but selected performers take on fictional roles. It's like the old conundrum in the Disney cosmos, where we must wonder, if Pluto is a dog, what is Goofy? The in-jokes confuse things further, what with 'fictional' Pat winking at 'Leslie's' past work, and the director and producer (David Butler and Mark Hellinger) showing up for a walk-through cameo. Eddie Cantor has it both ways, playing 'himself' and an even more nervous twin. Thank Your Lucky Stars is not as surreal as Hellzapoppin' but it is chaotic.
This brings us to the musical numbers, each of which is a keeper for a different reason. The majority of the songs are by Arthur Schwartz and Frank Loesser, although tunes by others sneak through, especially in the underscore. Spike Jones and his City Slickers do their standard comic cut-up antics. In her first film appearance Dinah Shore sings the title tune and croons another, both in a stage setting. If Shore seems subdued, perhaps she hasn't yet learned that she looks best when flashing her winning smile. Dennis Morgan proves a better singer than he is an actor. He shines singing a ballad called 'Good Night, Good Neighbor', to a supposed Latin beauty played by Lynn Baggett. Sharing that number in a parallel dance scene is Alexis Smith, who is not only beautiful but graceful in the extreme. Presumably staged by LeRoy Prinz, the dance has no showoff moves yet impresses with its fluidity.
The scene is fun because Alexis Smith is not noted as a dancing star. Warners typed its talkie-era performers to such a degree that we forget that most of them began on various New York stages. Some dramatic actors were able to use their song and dance skills only at parties. The big hams Jack Carson and Alan Hale have fun with a hat and cane number. George Tobias is usually relegated to comic sideckick status, but here does an excellent job of anchoring a 'jive baby' novelty number with pinch-faced Olivia de Havilland (dubbed) and Ida Lupino (a stage performer since childhood). In their normal careers de Havilland and Lupino were bankable doing serious drama, which leaves an odd film like this one to record their only song and dance performance.
John Garfield has 'Mr. Cooperative' written all over his contribution. He does a tough-guy act mussing up Eddie Cantor's tuxedo, and then goes before a microphone to vamp his way through "Blues in the Night", an Arlen-Mercer song. Garfield can't carry a tune but his spirit is such that it doesn't matter. Given the full glamour treatment is Ann Sheridan, singing "Love Isn't Born" to a group of sorority sisters. (last photo below↓) The featured college girl is bouncy Joyce Reynolds, who would be given her big break starring in the next year's Janie. Unfortunately, she would be bounced by Joan Leslie for the sequel Janie Gets Married. (1946)).
Ann Sheridan and two other top Warners stars get large photos on the poster for Thank Your Lucky Stars. Each receives an elaborate production number. By 1943 Errol Flynn had already been acquitted over his first bout with statutory rape charges, and was having public relations difficulties. He does a busy song & dance number set in a British pub, "That's What You Jolly Well Get" (top photo ↑). Flynn interacts with a score of pros as he boasts and bluffs his way through the song, and is eventually tossed through a window. Like most of Flynn's efforts when not in 'dauntless and intrepid' mode, he seems strangely misplaced -- as if not comfortable in the role. He needed more opportunities to break the confines of his screen persona.
Bette Davis reportedly personally engineered her 'singing and dancing' debut. She makes a full entrance into and out of the movie, as if to remind all and sundry that she's just dropping in to be polite, but that we shouldn't expect her company on a regular basis. Her taste in songs is excellent. Written for the film, "They're Either Too Young Or Too Old" was covered by many artists for the radio, nominated for an Oscar, and eventually became one of the best remembered songs of the war. Like John Garfield, Bette puts the tune across mostly by force of personality. For Davis fans the big thrill of the show is the number's finale, where she's grabbed by an eager fellow -- a jitterbug contest winner named Conrad Weidel. He tosses and swings Davis to and fro, and we can see the moment where her knee slams onto the floor. When she hobbles away, dizzy, it's for real -- she didn't want to do the scene twice. Of such moments are legends maintained.
The wildest dance number sees Warners going for a full-on jive showstopper with an all-black cast. 1943 was a big year for all-black studio musicals, what with Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. The song is "Ice Cold Katy", a high-energy number played in a stylized stage setting with dancers in Zoot-themed costumes. The song tells the story of Private Jones (Willie Best), who is to marry his intended Katy Brown(Rita Christiani), but she's been stalling all day. A vast chorus of neighbors led by Hattie McDaniel harangues Katy to 'marry the soldier', while a squad of M.P.s and the preacher (Jess Lee Brooks) wait impatiently.
The song is a catchy, sharp-edged swing piece slammed out with the kind of power heard in WB's cartoons. The set design and group movements are more dynamic than anything else in the picture, and the great-looking black performers move in high style. McDaniel belts out her role with authority, and Jess Lee Brooks' baritone voice is even more commanding -- he played the preacher in the bayou in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels. 2
There are serious drawbacks, though. Willie Best's Private Jones is a stereotyped slack-lipped Sad Sack who can barely stammer out his words; he's so stupid that his eyelids close and flutter when he tries to talk. The head of the M.P.s displays minstrel show comic faces while sputtering out the order for Private Jones to report for duty. LeRoy Prinz's choreography has plenty of strutting and attitude but no dance highlights. Billed in other movies with specialty dance numbers, Rita Christiani does little here but stand and swing her hips. Was the number originally longer and more elaborate? I'm also curious to read what Dr. Donald Bogle says about "Ice Cold Katy" -- is it a rare showcase for black talent, or another cause for condemnation? I find it both unique and entertaining, even as I ask why Private Jones couldn't be one of the pretty boy dancers. Better yet, why couldn't Willie Best be allowed to play it straight and smart? "Ice Cold Katy" is a must-see.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Thank Your Lucky Stars might seem an odd choice for Blu-ray, but we're happy that the label is skipping to and fro in the library instead of doing the usual thing of hitting the biggest sellers first. Fans of musicals will be overjoyed.
The sharp B&W image snaps, and the superior Warners audio recording seems clearer than today's mixes. The elements appear to be in prime condition.
The WAC has chosen some appropriate extras. We're told that the performers' salaries were donated to the Hollywood Canteen, the first anniversary of which is commemorated with silent news film of crowds outside and ceremonies and dancing inside. They're all wide shots, so spotting the celebs (Davis, Garfield) requires a large screen. Two Bugs Bunny cartoons are included, Fallen Hare and the fall-down hilarious Little Red Riding Rabbit -- both are in HD. Jack Carson is the main talent in Food and Magic, a War Office food conservation short subject with a carnival theme. The United States Army Band is a performance piece, while the service oriented short Three Cheers for the Girls is a cheesecake-oriented look at Warners chorus 'cuties' with clips of several older Busby Berkeley musical numbers, especially ones that fixate on semi-nude females. Trailers are included for Thank Your Lucky Stars and the Lillian Hellman-written Bette Davis movie Watch on the Rhine. A radio presentation is offered as well.
WAC and Warner VP George Feltenstein was able to slip in one of his rare audio finds: the version of the title song under the disc menu is not the track from the movie, but a rare recording of Dinah Shore's original, longer performance. It has an extra chorus not heard in the final film. George was curious to find out who would notice, and gave permission to call attention to it here.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. As presented in the film Gower Gulch is a homeless encampment at the foot of the Hollywood Hills. In reality it's a stretch of Sunset Blvd around the corner of Sunset and Gower where some of the 'poverty row' studios once hired cowboy talent right off the street. That corner is across the street from the fancy CBS Radio Building. It's now a shopping center (where Savant gets his hair cut). Savant lives on Gower Street, albeit seventeen blocks to the South, right next to the Larchmont restaurant row.
2. Students of Black Cinema of the '30s and '40s know all of these faces -- I recognize in Ice Cold Katy at least one singer who has a much bigger part in Stormy Weather. Kino Lorber is assembling a box of alternate black ethnic movies. I'm told that Jess Lee Brooks is in a number of them.
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T'was Ever Thus.