Out ofcirculation for years (bootlegs, most unwatchable), this was a Warner smash to make even Sergeant York and Casablanca go humble. But who recalls This Is The Army now? Mike Curtiz directs, sets
and crowds are outsized, but it's much ado about matters neither relevant nor
retro-fun (as in subject to irony or ridicule). Much of ticket sales went to the Army's Emergency Relief Fund, so
patriotic itch was scratched with each admission bought. Dismiss it as you
please, but This Is The Army was/is historic, and crucial to understanding of
movies and theatre-going habits of the era. TCM played it recent, looking very good,
so I watched (there's also a DVD). Longish prologue is WWI-set, George Murphy
and doughboy pals staging show that is Irving Berlin-composed and put on tour
fornationwide morale. Shift to a new war finds troupe nostalgic for the old
one, which brought home for me fact that former servicemen did have soft spot for
baptism of fire got when young, life thereafter a dull follow for many.
Provided limbs weren't blown off or PTSD too severe, lots could bask in fun and
excitement that was war service (observe huge membership, political muscle, of
American Legion posts).
Murphy and old cast-mates are pressed into
encore of their camp show, now swelled by offspring with talent. Of latter,
there is Ronald Reagan, himself serving at FortRoach
during WWII, and getting leave to do This Is TheArmy. Curtiz stages his revue
to end all revues, a second half given over to performance and what audiences
saw on live stages as this show barnstormed the country (all the way to October
1945). Personal stories are sketched in, Reagan ducking marriage with Joan
Leslie because he doesn't want her to end up a war widow, Una Merkel fretting
over Charlie Butterworth re-upping, etc. Here is where we could complain of
"dated" content, but what is value of This Is The Army except to
observe precisely that? This one is textbook of what pleased then, but could
not afterward, legacy a-plenty if taken in right spirit. Where patience is tested, there is
Technicolor,numbers to help imagine Yankee Doodle Dandydone with a paint brush, plus offbeat casting and cameos (Dolores Costello as Herbert
Anderson's mother, Boxer Joe Louis, as himself, bag-punching as others do
It was for such sentiment (nostalgia for war again) that the
theatrical team for This Is The Army met again ... and again ... at reunions
that lasted all the way to a 50th in 1992. This would have been the lastcrowd
that really understood impact of both performance and movie, the rest of us
left to guess, or assume falsely what folks felt when watching. I envision crowds cheering/stamping throughout, 40's equivalent of a Super Bowl,
and then some. Tough to know the thrill where prints are a smear and you're
watching alone, which was case for decades after the negative reverted to Irving Berlin custody (not heard from since, despite archival efforts to retrieve it), with sightings nil. The
copyright lapsed, so This Is The Army ranked ignoble PD from the 70's and exploit by
dollar vendors. I don't know of a revival screening the film has had, as
arties and reps would find it distinctly un-cool (all that naked patriotism),and there's a minstrel show to further muddy water. UCLA did a clean-up using YCM nitrate master positives
--- and from there, This Is The Army was like a new old movie, even if still a locked-in-time musical least likely to win converts.
This Is The Army was trapped by its era, but so was
Sergeant York and much of what wartime embraced. Others wear better because
there are elements we still respond to, like Busby Berkeley waving wand over The Gang's All Here, or Abbott-Costello peppering theirs with tried-true (and
timeless) burlesque routines. Would This Is The Army leap up with an audience?
There's few in its cast to perk interest beyond hardcores in quest of George
Tobias, Ruth Donnelly, or Alan Hale, Sr. Preservation is spotty, as in
clear-as-bell for sections, less so with others. An overture runs nearly a reel
length, that needed in 1943-44 to seat thousands entering slow after lobby
buttonhole to chip in for Army relief or bond buys. Pressure was severely on to
turn pockets inside out when theatre-going, "I gave at the office"
being no alibi for failure to pony up beyond ticket buy. After all, Warner
Bros. was giving all revenue beyond negative cost to Army relief, and if they
could take the lick, why not you?
Above is sound stage twenty-one at Warner Bros.
It was massive, as is clear. 843 people are on set to film "This Time
Is The Last Time," one of many outsize musical numbers for This Is The
Army. 500 soldiers were used, with three weeks of rehearsal ahead of the five
days needed to film it. Twenty-one was known as "the aquatic stage,"
which explains vessels parked beside the Army set. Stage 21 would burn in 1952. For
now, it would house a pirate ship from The Sea Hawk, later used for Gentleman Jim's floating pugilist match. Craft of the left looks to have graced Action In
The North Atlantic, also released in 1943. Note all the structural work and
machinery. This is how big studios kept industry dominance. It needed huge
outlay and facility to make product lavish as This Is The Army and all else
that Warners did. Just look at light poured on the active set --- must have
been blinding for the 500 having to sing/dance. I've seen soundstage stills
before, but never one set so far back as this. It's a miracle of organization
and efficiency on the one hand, but imagine pulling twenty-hour shift (WB liked
those) in a barn like this, where lighting necessary for Technicolor cooked air
to hellish levelin addition to searing of eyeballs. Hollywood was truly a best paradise when
viewed from the audience.
Assuming all of profits went to the Army, what
was in this deal for Warners? Must have pained mightily to have such a
smash and not keep gravy. Some assets, however, are richer than cash. For WB,
This Is The Army was patriotic service writ large and noticed by all of policy
makers, these to exert influence where it could dostudios the most good. Why
push anti-trust when industry-owned theatres were raking cash for good of
war-relief (bonds sold on 24 hour basis in most cities). Warners and all of
enjoyed reprieve from the Department Of Justice, and I'm guessing gestures like
This Is The Army was partly how they did it. Premiere festivity laid carpet for
government V.I.P.'s, officers with wives, whoever might thank the industry for
such selfless acts. Being in company of movie stars was glamour, but hob-knob
insiders was power, the sort a Jack Warner could but dream of. It wasn't for
nothing that he'd be escort and guide to these arbiters of Hollywood's future, even as wheels were
already in motion to divorce production and distribution from exhibition, the
bend that would indeed break thestudio system. Through good will effort like
This Is The Army, J.L. and minions could at least slow down the juggernaut, if
not stop it.
Thanks to Scott MacQueen for info on surviving elements from This Is The Army.