BluRay/DVD Reviews

WARNER BROS. AND THE HOMEFRONT COLLECTION

By • Dec 25th, 2008 •

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When I was at NYU, I had a professor of cinema studies who was enamored of Jacques Lacan. He used to say odd, impenetrable things like, “the phantasmal mother in the place of gold.” I never really understood what he meant until I saw Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” surrounded by burnished trumpets in Michael Curtiz’s THIS IS THE ARMY. All at once I had this flash of recognition. At the same time, as Ms. Smith negotiated the song’s thorny climax in a crescendo of pure-toned throatiness, I started to cry. Possibly this was due to the fugitive tonality under the word “America,” so that one wasn’t sure whether the last phrase was supposed to be in major or minor, let alone happy or sad.

As a song, “God Bless America” is a typical Irving Berlin endeavor mixing jingoistic simplicity with harmonic ambiguity, creating a feeling of melancholy and fugitive beauty. Michael Curtiz’s extraordinary film of Irving Berlin’s stage review (originally conceived in 1942 as a way to raise money for the Army Relief Fund) is also a kind of contradiction, simultaneously over the top (like the whipped cream on a wedding cake) yet starkly realistic in terms of its company of performers and the situation they were involved with. It’s similar in sensibility, if not subject, to the Maysles’ GREY GARDENS; in other words, engaging and subtly improvisational in spite of all the strum and drang.

THIS IS THE ARMY is the most stunning (in its newly restored pallette of gung-ho Technicolor) not to mention mind-altering entry in Warner’s HOMEFRONT collection, a set of three all star World War II musicals intended to raise morale and sell lots of war bonds. It was a time when many women – these films’ primary market – worked swing shifts, painted stocking seams on their legs (because of war shortages) and had about them an air of plaintive longing for separated loved ones and unfinished dreams. As a piece of filmmaking, these movies exhibit production head Jack Warner’s big bang theory of Hollywood musicals: throw as many performers as possible into the mix and hope for the best.

THIS IS THE ARMY

What distinguishes THIS IS THE ARMY is director Michael Curtiz’s emotional austerity and rightness of tone in the face of bombastic production values (not to mention the Sisyphean task of directing those two paragons of inauthenticity as father and son, George Murphy and Ronald Reagan.) The first thing one notices in the opening moments of the film is the light. It suffuses the standing sets on the Warner lot (originally built for 42ND STREET and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES), ultimately seeming to emanate from the actors themselves. There’s this dappled glow transforming Times Square into Paris in the Springtime.

It’s 1917 and American flags ripple in a lazy breeze outside the Army recruiting station on 43rd street, as Frances Langford, an icon of Bob Hope’s USO tours, sings “This Is Your Country.” Across the way is the New Amsterdam theatre where Jerry Jones (George Murphy), a song and dance man, is appearing as part of the Ziegfeld Follies. In the middle of a song, Jerry receives a draft board induction notice. (“It’ll be the performance of your life,” an elderly stage hand remarks.) Meanwhile, on a New York street composed of tenements fronted by greengrocers, Maxie Stoloff (George Tobais), Eddie Dibble (Charles Butterworth) and Ollie Twardofsky (Julie Oshins), all first generation Americans, get their draft notices as well. Under the tutelage of Sgt. McGee (Alan Hale) and the support of Maj. Davidson (Stanley Ridges), the new recruits are not only turned into a unit but put on a show, YIP-YIP-YAPHANK.

YIP-YIP-YAPHANK was a revue of active servicemen Irving Berlin staged in 1917 to raise money for the war effort, and a precursor for THIS IS THE ARMY. Therefore, the fictionalized framing plot is not simply an exercise in nostalgia but rather a means of seeing the current revue (which is the film’s subject) as well as the then current conflict in context. This works so well that even a 21st Century audience is plunged into the reality of 1942, with a country little prepared either emotionally or financially to wage a major battle against two geared-up enemies simultaneously, yet reminded of the previous generation’s sacrifice and commitment.

In its focus on America at the brink of war, THIS IS THE ARMY is much closer to the incisive imagery and sense of ordinary citizens under duress seen in Humphrey Jennings’ LISTEN TO BRITAIN [available as part of Criterion’s A CANTERBURY TALE set] then the insipid “let’s put on a show” plot mechanics of a film like MGM’s BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940. Of course, the “star ” of THIS IS THE ARMY is its cast of servicemen, and by extension, “the wonderful mosaic of America,” giving the film an egalitarian and down-to-earth sensibility.

This is made explicit during the aforementioned “God Bless America” sequence, as the characters we’ve already met in the WWI framing plot are listening (24 years later) with their families to Kate Smith’s radio program. Although miles away from each other, and secure in their separate existence as evidenced by the sets and costumes, they’re linked by the music and the remarkable light. The glow from Warners’ battery of klieg lights, overpowering even the seriously saturated color, is evocative of remembrance and determination. The camera then tracks forward into a series of close-ups that in their specificity and non-idealization are quite unusual for a Hollywood film from this period. (My favorite moment is a shot of the major’s wife darning the sleeve of the uniform he is wearing, a reminder of the then still recent depression that all Americans shared.) In many ways, this sequence is even more spectacular then the series of tracking shots that introduce the main characters in Rick’s café from Curtiz’s prior film CASABLANCA.

The spectacle of composer Irving Berlin singing “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning” (all 98 pounds of him) while dressed as a WWI doughboy is in itself a truly strange yet heart-warming experience. ( There’s a story, probably apocryphal, that Irving Berlin often was inspired musically during dinner, so his family had standing orders to tiptoe out of the room in case he began to whistle. I have this image of Mr. Berlin’s four foot, nine inch frame poised over a plate of pot roast and potatoes, whistling the first notes of what was to become “God Bless America.”)

A great deal of THIS IS THE ARMY’s spontaneity, in addition to Mr. Berlin’s musical genius and indomitable personality, can be attributed to its cast of 300 active duty servicemen. Their even-tempered demeanor and natural enthusiasm (along with the polyglot of accents and rhythms from Maine to the Texas panhandle) bursts the boundaries of a typical Hollywood concoction. Watching these men walk across the stage in their individual, inimitable way to sing, dance and tell slightly risque jokes is to cast off the burden of 60 odd years and be faced by the directness and freshness of this national trauma once again. One wonders what became of these men, who they were before the war, how many died in combat and whether any are still around. If they are, I’d like to shake their hands. That’s the way this movie makes you feel.

The patriotic musical chestnuts that season Mr. Berlin’s stew, such as “Over There” and “Let’s Hear It For The Navy”, are much more engaging than they have any right to be. These are songs my father sang when I was growing up until I begged for mercy, yet their familiarity somehow doesn’t matter. Once again, the freshness of the cast and the dynamic method of filming (not to mention the historical moment in which this movie appeared) makes all the difference.

I particularly like “What the Well-Dressed Man In Harlem Will Wear.” The song has a lilting, syncopated quality reminiscent of Mr. Berlin’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz,” while the choreography features ebullient high jumping and virtuoso swing dancing by a cast of African-American servicemen that rival the Nicholas Brothers in their enthusiasm and verve. As a bonus, Sgt. Joe Louis does his thing with a punching bag at the sequence’s climax.

The only sequence I am less then fond of is “Mandy”, a musty Minstrel song from YIP-YIP-YAPHANK, and the only number not in the original stage version of THIS IS THE ARMY. Apparently, Irving Berlin insisted on having a Minstrel routine in the film and Jack Warner acquiesced. Nobody involved with the production seems to have had much fun with this, though. The song, at least in this rendition, has cobwebs all over it, while the dancing is flat and perfunctory. The performers in blackface stand so stiffly and stare out so forlornly that one isn’t reminded of racial stereotypes so much as a bunch of aspiring Phantoms of the Opera. Even the servicemen in antebellum drag elicit very little response.

The female impersonators in this show are much less ambiguous than a 21st Century audience is used to, not so much gender-transgressive as just plain silly, since they have a tendency to be beefy guys with blonde wigs who walk more like stevedores than runway queens. In the Stage Door Canteen sequence, for instance, the humor comes from the fact that these jitterbugging, short-skirted WACS’s are unable to transcend being men, nor do they really want to. Somehow, this forms a sense of community, eliciting laughter amidst understanding.

Warners Home Video has packed the disc with extras, starting with overture and exit music that hasn’t been publicly heard since the film’s premiere in 1942. I’m not big on overtures, but this is a revelation. Someone, possibly Max Steiner or Korngold, as the music sounds very different from the arrangements in the film credited to Ray Heindorf, has taken Irving Berlin’s themes and turned them into an orchestral interlude featuring a solo oboe against a wave of resonant strings with a sublime mastery that is fairly amazing. If you’re interested in film music of the 40’s, this extra is a must.

The commentary by Drew Casper includes a charming mini-interview with Joan Leslie. Unfortunately, since Dr. Casper tends to read his text very, very slowly, I recommend listening in segments, as one is quickly sent to Comatose-land. Irving Berlin strikes again in “My British Buddy”, a musical sequence that was only included in UK releases of the film, and is available as a stand alone extra. The documentary, WARNER AT WAR, although filled with fascinating information about how President Roosevelt used Warner Brothers films as a method to prepare the US for war (with particular focus on CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY and MISSION TO MOSCOW, the latter pro-Stalin film making trouble for Jack Warner in the anti-Soviet climate after the war) mentions THIS IS THE ARMY only in passing.

In addition, each disc includes the Warners Night at the Movies feature, which has a trailer, a newsreel fragment, war related shorts and a cartoon. THIS IS THE ARMY’s cartoon is CONFESSION OF A NUTSY SPY, a frenetic black and white Porky Pig vehicle directed by animator Norman McCabe with gloopy, silly-putty like shapes, featuring a cat that says “Seig Heil” in a funny German accent, provoking a plethora of political correctness from Warner Home Video in the form of a warning, I suppose in case any former Nazis might be offended.

Of course, THIS IS THE ARMY has long been available as a public domain release, with icky greens and pinks awash in a skein of scratches. This is the first time the film has been transferred from original Technicolor matrices, and boy, does it look fantastic! The sound track is also miraculously dynamic, with no trace of compression or any other digital mischief.

I’m really surprised this film’s reputation is so dismal. It’s possible a decent transfer wasn’t available for study until now. (The rights belonged to the Army for many decades, and the film was almost impossible to see, until falling into the public domain.) I myself expected a camp classic, but instead discovered one of the best US films made in the early days of the Second World War, a superb example of documentary and fiction somehow effortlessly combining into an unique, one of a kind movie under the expert eye of a supremely talented yet still underrated director.

(Rating: ****)

THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS

THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS was released a few weeks after THOUSANDS CHEER, another star-packed WW II themed musical souffle produced at MGM. While THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS is not quite as glittery or single-mindedly patriotic, Warner’s war revue has a more elaborate story line than its MGM counterpart, focusing on the manic countenance of star Eddie Cantor. In some ways, Mr. Cantor is like a jazz musician, using a dynamic sense of rhythm and razor-sharp timing to suggest meanings and emotions only hinted at in his dialogue. How else could it be explained why a line like “My waiter ran out of cocktails” should send one into paroxysms of laughter?

The film is mostly set in Gower Gulch, CA, a fictional community down the hill from Warner Bros. Studios. Gower Gulch’s hard-luck inhabitants live in make-shift huts left over from movie sets, in particular bric-a-brac from producer Mark Hellinger’s previous projects, HIGH SIERRA and THE ROARING TWE NTIES. Mr. Hellinger himself appears on screen to commiserate with Joe Simpson (Eddie Cantor), a serious actor who tragically works as a bus driver because he’s a dead ringer for Eddie Cantor. (This film is filled with more in-jokes than a Hope-Crosby Road picture.) Joe hates Eddie Cantor, especially when tourists ask him for Mr. Cantor’s autograph.

Speaking of in-jokes, Joan Leslie, who co-stars as Pat Dixon, an aspiring songwriter with an attraction to dreadful rhymes, gets to sleep on the same porch swing that Bogart proposed marriage to her in HIGH SIERRA. Pat gets the bright idea of kidnapping Eddie Cantor during the Cavalcade of Stars, a war bond benefit that coincidentally happens to feature just about every star under contract at Warner Bros. Eddie Cantor, you see, is the honorary chairman, and Pat is certain that with Joe impersonating Mr. Cantor, Tom Randolph (Dennis Morgan), another squatter at Gower Gulch, would have his shot at fame by singing one of Pat’s songs.

If that description sounds slight, nonetheless this is one of the few wartime musicals whose framing plot is more substantial than the singing and dancing. Partially this is because the musical sequences are fairly dismal, the exceptions being Bette Davis, speak-singing Arthur Schwartz and Frank Loesser’s Academy Award nominated song about the disadvantages of wartime romance, “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old,” deserving a special mention as one of the most evocative examples of the WW II homefront consciousness, and Dinah Shore, whose gorgeous chops and bright personality enhances the title tune.

There is plenty of entertainment value to be had, however, if one approaches this film in the wrong state of mind. Although most of the musical numbers are supposed to be parodies, there’s often a thin line between satire and simple lousiness. (I have the feeling that LeRoy Prinze, the dance director, when asked what on earth he was up to, simply responded, “Hey, it’s a spoof!”) Usually the dancers in THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS are completely out of sync with each other, almost reaching, albeit unconsciously, the sublime incompetence of Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler.” Thank God for Eddie Cantor, and the screen writers who have put together a narrative that brings Mr. Cantor’s eye-rolling, pun-wielding persona into the cutting edge of 40’s comedy, with a climax involving Hollywood Indians (related, I believe to the Cleveland Indians) and the operating room of a mental hospital, including gags about frontal lobotomies and a muscle relaxant machine that goes haywire.

Gower Gulch, in both its set design, resembling a Dogpatch sandlot (beautifully envisioned by Anton Grot), and idiosyncratic residents – lorded over by Spike Jones and the City Slickers creating a fractured musical backdrop featuring pots and pans, a sneezing violin and a bleeting goat – is so darned attractive, I want to move there. It’s also brought to life by Arthur Edeson’s fantastic black and white photography. (The transfer is so luminescent and free of digital defects that the picture quality alone makes one want to watch the film again the minute it’s over.) Mr. Cantor and Ms. Leslie’s scenes together are warm and engaging, making for a happy ebullience that extends to their entire fly-by-night community. In addition, Mr. Cantor is so expert at creating two distinct personalities, it’s almost like having Hope and Crosby together in the same body.

This is the first time I’ve seen Eddie Cantor, so I asked my parents about him. They immediately began singing the theme song to his radio show in unison, which was a little overwhelming. Then my mother told me that in the late 40’s, Eddie Cantor went on a tour of US synagogues in order to raise money for the State of Israel. He had my parents’ congregation in stitches within minutes. After watching THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS, I can well believe it.

(Rating: ***)

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN

Hollywood Canteen was a club in the Los Angeles area for visiting servicemen, co-founded by Bette Davis and John Garfield as the West Coast counterpart to New York’s Stage Door Canteen. I was hoping the film HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN would have some of the same feeling of a document, entertaining yet poignant, that informs THIS IS THE ARMY, with portraits of individual servicemen that somehow transcend the constraints of a big budget musical. Both Ms. Davis and Mr. Garfield are on hand playing themselves, lending an air of authenticity to the proceedings, and there is a documentary sequence in the middle, showing many of the Warners studio workers responsible for constructing the Canteen and ensuring its success. Alas, most of the material is so fictionalized and over-produced that the only true period feeling comes from some of the acts, in particular the Andrew Sisters’ rendition of “Gettin’ Corns For My Country”, with Patty Andrews, the lead singer, turning out to be a comedienne of the first rank, performing a dead-on parody of Bette Davis, as well as the Golden Gate Quartette, a jazz-gospel group, doing an effervescent version of Jimmy Mundy’s “The General Jumped At Dawn,” that, in its vision of a US military united without the prejudices of race, color or creed, is extremely moving. The house band is Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra, performing swing standards with a sharpness that belies the thin sound of the recordings they made in this period, while the staging is consistently dynamic and visually exciting.

The plot, however, tempers one’s patience. Slim (Robert Hutton), an injured corporal in the Pacific with a serious crush on movie star Joan Leslie, is sent back to the US on a hospital ship to recuperate. Once in LA, he meets Ms. Leslie at the Hollywood Canteen. Although both stars have a freshness and all-American innocence that are appealing, the plot is particularly contrived, especially when Canteen co-founder Ms. Davis rescinds the rules about fraternization to have Ms. Leslie give war hero Slim an orchestrated kiss. Then the very next night, apparently by chance, Mr. Garfield anoints Slim the “Millionth Man” to visit the club. Because of this, Slim and Ms. Leslie go out on the town where a press photographer starts a rumor the two are married. Frankly, I would rather watch comedian Joe E. Brown eat donuts (which happens a number of times in the film.)

Still, some of the later scenes are effective, for instance, a quiet Sunday dinner which has a feeling of verisimilitude and especially a moon-lit interlude with Mr. Hutton and Ms. Leslie on a backyard swing, which ends with a hesitant yet extremely believable embrace. (Once again, the black and white transfer is simply top-notch, enhancing Bert Glennon’s terrific photography.) Here, in his second film, director Delmer Daves reveals a sense of romantic abandon that distinguished his late 50’s Tab Hunter vehicles such as ROME ADVENTURE

Dane Clark is given the thankless role of a second banana sergeant from Brooklyn, yet he manages to bring a sense of plausibility, not to mention humor, to a stock character. I particularly liked his interplay with Janis Paige as the sergeant’s reluctant amour. Ms. Paige, later to become a Broadway star in “The Pajama Game,” is cast, appropriately enough, as a Canteen hostess (she was discovered at the Hollywood Canteen before being given a Warner Bros. contract) and is already distinctive, mixing a working class sass with sure comic timing, in this, her first film.

Rating (** and a half)

I’ve always found Hollywood films from the Second World War fascinating, because of the inherent contradiction between the need for escapism in a time of world conflict versus the responsibility, especially at Warner Bros. due to Jack Warner’s closeness with President Roosevelt, of the importance in imparting essential information and instilling a sense of purpose among Americans. The HOMEFRONT collection contains three all-star musicals, two new to DVD, that simultaneously entertains and adds to one’s understanding of the period. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

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