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Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Brassiest Of Wartime Revues

An All-Star Thank Your Lucky Stars for 1943

Thank Your Lucky Stars is a wartime revue that stays largely off the topic of war. It may be a best of many that included MGM's Thousands Cheer, Paramount's Star-Spangled Rhythm, Universal's Follow The Boys, and Warner Bros.' other contribution to the group, Hollywood Canteen. WB was for me a preferred of these because their attitude toward talent and themselves was most irreverent. A Looney Tune sensibility had seeped into live action at Burbank. Whereas Metro and Para did us favor of privileged glimpse behind scenes, WB made theirs object of spoofery and personas going surprise direction. Bogart and John Garfield the tough guys? Let one be cowed and the other sing. Had Errol Flynn or Bette Davis sung/danced on screen before (let alone had she jitterbugged)? They would now. Much that was unexpected to 1943 viewership happened here. They surely were delighted.

Such jamboree amounted to studio display of trophy rooms. For a public eager to know stars in natural habitat, they were Sunday rotogravure and fan magazines sprung to life. Favorites trying the unaccustomed would, among other things, reveal employer estimation of artists' ability. Most talent is seen to advantage in Thank Your Lucky Stars, but not all. Bogart the badman threat is unable to be so with S.Z. Sakall, who gives him a slapping. HB's the slacker among Stars who sing/dance. Was he so inept for that, or unwilling to pull a number together? Sahara was in progress, so Bogart is unshaven. As "himself," there was no recourse but the gangster, his Casablanca transform to romantic lead man not fully cemented (Thank Your Lucky Stars was in production from late 1942 into 1943, period in which Casablanca premiered and then went into general release). But Bogart would always be condemned to wear Duke Mantee's mask, his WWII camp sketches built around the actor seeking a "mob" among servicemen to oppose Axis gangland. He'd even grow back stubble and be Duke again ("Nails" Bogart) as Jack Benny's 1953 TV guest.

The Garfield spot isn't as dogmatic, for at least he sings (Blues In The Night) and there's wit in changed lyrics to accommodate him, but Garfield too was mired in Warners' perception of him, intro as "The Bad Boy Of Burbank" unbecoming to an actor who needed mature parts to get out of casting rut. It was stars who surprised in Thank Your Lucky Stars that came off best. Bette Davis was held till late in proceedings for her act being most anticipated. She did They're Either Too Young Or Too Old, which became a wartime standard. There is almost violent jitterbugging she engages, which director David Butler recalled as injurious to the actress (multiple falls, scarped and bleeding knees). Davis had advantage of being at career peak here, enhancing a can-do-anything resume, and offered song-and-comic relief from high dramatics the lot of her starring WB vehicles.

David Butler as director was invited to Warners by friend and Lucky producer Mark Hellinger. Butler made it his business to get along with everyone he worked with. There was jolly countenance about him, helped by portly build and attitude that movies were just a job you did as best you could. He was the ideal journeyman, but no slouch for good results (Sunny Side Up, San Antonio, It's A Great Feeling, Calamity Jane, several of better Bob Hopes, Shirley Temples). Whatever Butler lacked of inspiration was made up with affability. I wonder how Orson Welles' career might have worked out given some of Butler's people skills. Thank Your Lucky Stars took half a year to finish, with multiple units at play. Butler had to divide time between "book" sections and the star specialties, a process not unlike what had gone on with WB 30's musicals where narrative was isolated from Busby Berkeley highlights virtually productions in themselves.

A largely unsung value of Thank Your Lucky Stars is fact that it was a last stand in a big movie for Eddie Cantor, not too different from Goldwyn's Eddie-All-The-Time formula that worked so well in early to mid-30's. For his dominating book portions here, there are two Eddies, but who tabbed the already comic legend to play himself as such an ego-driven louse? Warners tended to go rough on stars doing themselves, as evidenced by the Bogart bit, but there was nothing of Cantor's image to suggest so obnoxious a character as posited here. The nebbish alter-ego is relief from the Hyde that is "Eddie Cantor," and both make most of comic opportunity, but which among Thank Your Lucky Stars writers had it in for Banjo Eyes, a mistreated former staffer from his radio program perhaps? In whatever case, Cantor was lucky to have such a showcase in light of his air series having dropped from the Top 20, and movies lately giving him a go-by. And if not for Thank Your Lucky Stars, we'd not have minted-for-a-new-war We're Staying Home Tonight, a neat tune done with the old Cantor brio.

Thank Your Lucky Stars is about crashing Hollywood gates rather than Axis barricades, unusual among wartime revues, all the others charting narrative and much of song upon course to victory. Dennis Morgan and Joan Leslie are star hopefuls; they want less to win a war than appear on Eddie Cantor's broadcast. In fact, neither mention the conflict. Of star production numbers, the one most foursquare to war interest is Errol Flynn's That's What You Jolly Well Get, unusual for its combat "hero" revealed as a liar and braggart, Flynn in Music Hall mode and Cockney voice/garb. If Thank Your Lucky Stars was reveal of untapped talent, his may be a most startling, there being nothing of Flynn's past to suggest aptitude for song/ dance. The fact he's spoofing his own image, which would be seriously tarnished by an extended trial on statutory charges, made the act work on levels beyond surface pleasure. Thank Your Lucky Stars is available on DVD and has streamed on Warner Instant in HD.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

A great movie, definitely the best of those WWII musicals. I've never gone for Eddie Cantor, but his self-portrayal as an megalomaniac monster -- not to mention his fed-up employees -- is hilarious. Good for him for going all the way. Anything for the war effort, I guess.

I've read that Flynn had to shoot his scenes at night because he was attending his trial during the day.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I prefer HOLLYWOOD (not STAGE DOOR) CANTEEN TO TYLS, but it's still enjoyable. No one could slap "Cuddles" enough as far as I'm concerned. He's as irritating as Rosie O'Donnell. David Butler lasted a long time, long enough to direct lots of TV, including M SQUAD, WAGON TRAIN and 58 episodes of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. I remembered the night in the late 1960s when THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW honored Butler. Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers were in the audience.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Tom Hodgins said...

Thanks for the writeup on a fun movie, long my favourite of the studios' WWII star studded presentations in which they had their stars playing themselves.

You made a valid point about TYLS making few references to the war, perhaps one of the reasons why it holds up better than the others.

It's apparent to me that Bette Davis gets preferential treatment over the others in this film. She gets the film's big solo song number, They're Either Too Young Or Too Old, and it's almost at the film's end. (And in, keeping all her fans in eager anticipation).

And Davis shows a heck of a lot of spunk, too, I must add, with those hip wrenching jitterbug moves to which she is subjected by a high energy youth. You made mention of injuires incurred in the process, and I can well believe it.

I've always thought that Ann Sheridan never looked more glamourous than in her rather sophisticated rendition of a cutsey song. No actress of the '40s ever wore a snood quite so becomingly as this beautiful lady.

And I also think that Errol Flynn is hilarious in his self spoofing number, the highlight, for me, of the entire film. The fact that Flynn appears so casual and carefree at a time when his career was on the line with the statutory rape trail is further evidence that this screen swashbuckler was a massively underrated actor.

How I wish that Warners had been able to find the right material in order to have Flynn play a turn-of-the-century scalawag in a musical comedy of some kind (we'll have to suffice with Gentleman Jim, a terrific film, it must be admitted, one of the actor's very best, but not quite what I have in mind s far as musical comedy to concerned).

1:14 PM  
Blogger KING OF JAZZ said...

I always thought Butler was underrated--time and again a favorite old musical of mine seemed to be directed by him, including some of those Kay Kyser RKOs. He had quite an interesting array of credits the more you study them--actually worth an article of its own!

1:58 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Butler also directed ALI BABA GOES TO TOWN, by far the best of Cantor's post Goldwyn starring vehicles. The stars ARE a lot of fun in LUCKY STARS but nobody has mentioned the killer show stopper ICE COLD KATY. This number is nothing short of terrific and the wonderful Hattie McDaniel is only part of the reason why... the whole production packs more energy in five minutes than you find in the average musical feature!

3:19 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I don't think THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS was Eddie Cantor's "last big stand" in pictures; I would nominate SHOW BUSINESS, which was his self-produced next picture (and RKO's best-performing release of 1944).

My favorite number in THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS is "The Dreamer" -- not the Dinah Shore rendition, but the spoof of it by Ida Lupino, Olivia DeHavilland, and George Tobias. These three pull out all the stops and seem to be enjoying themselves more than the other stars,

8:53 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Had not forgotten "Show Business," Scott, and have in fact changed my wording to read "Eddie Cantor's last stand in a BIG movie," as opposed to "Eddie Cantor's last BIG stand in movies."

9:22 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

I had the same affable impression of David Butler based on his cameo in IT'S A GREAT FEELING.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

John, I forgot to mention "We're Staying Home Tonight" and the lyrics they didn't use in the feature. I once saw some Army-camp footage of Cantor singing for the troops:

"Her coffee could be sweeter
But I'm not in the dumps,
'Cause every time she hugs me
It's like two extra lumps!
We're staying home tonight…"

3:20 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

One of my favorite bits is at the closing, where Errol Flynn lip-syncs a reprise of his song, and interrupts his mouthing to admit: "That voice is so divine - too bad it isn't mine!"

11:53 PM  

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