Judge Clark Douglas demands that you drop and give him twenty...verses of a fabulous song!
Our review of Ronald Reagan Centennial Collection, published March 3rd, 2011, is also available.
Three classic World War II patriotic musicals to raise stars, stripes, and spirits.
This new box set from Warner Bros. collects some interesting pieces of the past: three propaganda-driven cinematic variety shows created to boost morale among the U.S. Military and the American public during World War II. The first of these is This Is the Army, spotlighting the songs of Irving Berlin. George Murphy, Alan Hale, Ronald Reagan, and Joan Leslie star in this production, which includes such songs as "God Bless America" and "I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." Next is the celebrity-heavy Thank Your Lucky Stars, featuring a series of comedic and musical vignettes from such notable names as John Garfield, Eddie Cantor, Dinah Shore, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart, and Hattie McDaniel. Finally, we have Hollywood Canteen, a musical about a club for GIs run by Hollywood stars. Turning up are such folks as Jack Benny, Joan Crawford, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Roy Roger & Trigger, Barbara Stanwyck, and many others.
It may be light on celebrity cameos in comparison to the other films included here, but the biggest and most spectacular film of the set is undoubtedly This Is the Army. This Technicolor event is a fascinatingly cheesy piece of propaganda filmmaking, seeming particularly fervent in its desire to help out the war effort. This is the sort of film in which a starry-eyed young child says, "Boy, I hope this war lasts a long time so that I can get in on it!" When a young man receives his draft notice, his eyes light up with glee as he says, "I'm going to go serve our country!" His girlfriend seems equally excited about this thrilling news. It's a demonstration of American strength shown through a combination of macho posing and giddy musical numbers.
To be sure, the film is more than a little bit corny, and also a little bit on the obnoxious side. For instance, the primary plot line running between the musical numbers centers on a romance between Ronald Reagan and Joan Leslie. Leslie desperately wants to marry Reagan, but the future president is understandably hesitant. He's about to go off to war, and doesn't want to leave a grieving widow behind if he doesn't make it back. The film frowns on this sensible way of thinking, suggesting that it is one's patriotic duty to marry their sweetheart, war or not. If you don't, well? the Nazis win! This isn't the film's only liability. A minstrel show number performed by soldiers in blackface is an embarrassingly dated moment, prompting the U.S. Army to offer up a brand new statement of apology that appears before the film begins. Even more awkward is George Murphy's line after the musical number concludes: "And they said that an old-fashioned minstrel number wouldn't work today. That was just as great as it was back in the old days!" Sigh.
Despite the many problems the film has, it's difficult to deny the sheer spectacle of This Is the Army. Irving Berlin's tunes are fairly entertaining, and Berlin even sings one of them himself towards the end. He's not much of a singer, but it's great to see the man himself here. Kate Smith also turns up midway through the film, and offers a stirring rendition of "God Bless America." There are also numerous numbers performed in drag, and believe me, you haven't lived until you've seen Alan Hale dressed up as a fetching young lass. Also, the movie did raise a good deal of money for the U.S. Army, which is worth noting.
I was relieved to discover that Thank Your Lucky Stars drops the constant propaganda in favor of offering up some straightforward entertainment. The name of the game here is comedy, and the star-studded cast delivers a lot of lightweight fun. Perhaps I've got a little bit of Mr. Burns of The Simpsons in my soul, but I have always found Eddie Cantor to be a pretty funny guy. Cantor receives the most screen time here, playing two roles. First, he offers a self-deprecating version of himself, messing things up and being self-serving at every turn. Second, he plays a Hollywood tour guide who looks just like Cantor and is constantly being teased. As a result, the tour guide has built up a lot of hatred for Cantor, and would love nothing better than to see the singer fail. One of these two characters is onscreen most of the time, and Cantor proves to be the perfect master of ceremonies for a vignette-driven flick like this.
Lots of small pleasures are included. Humphrey Bogart shows up to play up his tough guy persona (which is subsequently subverted by the delightful S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall). Hattie McDaniel does a really nice rendition of "Ice Cold Katie," one of the only moments in the film that explicitly deals with the war. Errol Flynn shows up Dick Van Dyke's awkward Mary Poppins accent and Sam Elliot's mustache, which is a very unusual thing indeed. Many other celebrities turn up cheerfully poke fun at their own image, leading to two hours of pleasing lightweight entertainment.
Unfortunately, Hollywood Canteen gets everything wrong that Thank Your Lucky Stars right. For those who don't know, The Hollywood Canteen was a real night club that existed from 1942 to 1945. The only way to get it was to be a man or woman serving in the U.S. Military. If you had a uniform, you could come on inside and everything was free. The club was run by volunteers from the entertainment industry…everyone from sound guys to leading actresses. The film offers a look at what life is like inside The Hollywood Canteen, and embellishes everything just a little bit.
The result is a film that feels exasperatingly self-congratulatory and bloated. Oh sure, there are plenty of celebrities, but they aren't any fun here. They're playing super-nice versions of themselves, and they all want nothing more than to express their undying gratitude to the troops. That's all well and good, but it makes for a dull movie. Well, most of the time, anyway. A few moments get so silly that they become unintentionally delightful. For instance, one solider boy pines endlessly after Joan Leslie. When he finally meets her, he gasps in awe. He stammers that he has been infatuated with her for quite a long time. Leslie looks at him achingly. "Well then I guess you'd better kiss me," she smiles. They two passionately embrace and lock lips. Uh-huh. Bet that happened to a lot of soldiers.
The transfers here are reasonably solid. The cleanest of the films is the only color feature, This is the Army. The picture is occasionally a bit on the blurry side, but otherwise it looks solid and bright. The other two look reasonably good, but both suffer from a light stream of scratches and flecks. The mono audio on all three films is sufficient, if occasionally leaving a bit to be desired to the musical numbers.
In terms of supplements, the best material can be found on This Is the Army. There you will find an excellent 47-minute documentary called "Warner at War," narrated by Steven Spielberg. The doc discusses politics among the movie studios during the late 1930s and early 1940s, and makes a note of how Warner Bros. was the first studio to take a firm stand against the Nazis. It's compelling stuff; well worth checking out. There's also an audio commentary with Dr. Drew Casper and Joan Leslie, which is a mixed bag. While it's great to hear some memories from Leslie and some of the historical info, Casper was just too infatuated with the film for me. His hyperbole got a little wearisome after a while. Also included is a very funny deleted scene of an Irving Berlin song called "My British Buddy," which was only shown in Great Britain. Talk about pandering! All three films are given a solid "Warner Night at the Movies" package, featuring a couple theatrical trailers, a cartoon or two, some live-action shorts, and a newsreel. These do help set the mood nicely for the films, giving the viewer a nice sense of the era.
Warner Bros. and the Homefront Collection will be of great interest to history buffs (and diehard fans of musicals), but I'm afraid that it functions much better as a unique view of WWII Hollywood than as entertainment for today's viewers. This is the Army is simply too patronizing and Hollywood Canteen is simply too dull, leaving only the charming Thank Your Lucky Stars as a piece of genuine fun. Keep that in mind before making a purchase. Otherwise, this set should meet expectations. Not guilty.
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