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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Janie's The Girl We've Forgotten

There's a scene late in Yankee Doodle Dandy where a retired George M. Cohan encounters jive-talking teens who've never heard of him or his music. Spokes-girl for the kids is Joyce Reynolds, a fresh face whose Warners audition this clearly was. She would become, for a wartime's instant, America's ingénue sweetheart, differing from Joan Leslie only for misfortune of not appearing in WB classics like High Sierra, Sergeant York, and aforementioned Yankee Doodle as did Leslie. Reynolds also ducked out of the business (marriage) and couldn't retrieve her career upon trying again afterward. There's no trace of whereabouts on the world's wide Web ... we could wonder who's even looking. Still, there's a 1944 movie called Janie in which Joyce Reynolds was showcased, and it's a topical treasure, one I wish Warners would re-master (looks a little muddy TCM-wise) and get out on DVD.

Janie came off what WB called a Seventy-Seven Week Stage Sensation. The title character was sweet sixteen and itching to be kissed, preferably by a man in uniform. Selling of Janie was what we'd call uneasy and along lines of Get Ready To Howl, You Wolves! No wonder Errol Flynn hung about high-schoolyards. Underage girls were scrubbed cleaner on then-radio faves like Corliss Archer, Junior Miss and A Date With Judy, thanks in part to vigilant sponsors not wanting protective parents up in arms. Hard to imagine the movies' Code being looser, but to some extent it was, as tender-aged Janie dons two-piece swimwear and playfully eludes soldier advances. She and friends dress grown-up and double down on cusp-of-womanhood dialogue only just removed from darker implication of juve delinquent exploiters like Youth Runs Wild and Where Are Your Children? playing just across streets from Janie.

Too many think teen pics began with the fifties, understandable considering that's when such was first customized and marketed to  youth with spending empowered by a postwar's economic boom. The Janies and Andy Hardys were more about reassuring grown-ups than servicing offspring, object being to convince us high-spirited teens were manageable after all, and that parental forbearance would be rewarded with hugs and youth's promise to hereafter behave. It would have been unpatriotic to present kids as anything like a threat --- didn't the war give us enough to worry about? Revealing is fact that most wayward youth exploitation came off poverty rows, with rare exception of a Youth Runs Wild from RKO. I'm guessing the majors entered tacit agreement to chill troubled-teen themes, at least until we polished off Axis delinquents.

Delights of Janie are so myriad as to make me regret waiting years to check in. I knew it for (seeming) incongruity of Michael Curtiz behind cameras after twin events Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Doesn't the fact we've forgotten Janie make it an unimportant property? The answer goes to modern unawareness of what a popular show this was. Success on the stage pre-sold Janie. Mr. and Mrs. Average Moviegoers that razzed a Magnificent Ambersons at previews would reliably toss hats in the air for entertainment like this, calibrated as it was to deliver precisely what a wartime public wanted. I don't know how close Janie comes to reflecting middle-America family life during that decade (probably not very), but compare the avalanche of domestic TV sitcoms a decade later with far fewer 40's features covering the same ground, and Janie's value increases all the more.

What would become stock characters are early introduced here. The harried father, saintly mother, a kid sister more insufferable than irrepressible. Phones ring, doors slam, and misunderstandings are rife. Kids talk a language no adult (or we) can translate, slang finding its 40's level --- Janie begs her dad not to be such a "tin-type" and engages something like staccato Pig Latin with in-the-know friends. Radio's penetration into then-psyches is nicely conveyed by little sister's obsession with radio; she carries one along for a bus ride so she won't miss The Lone Ranger. It's easy to forget the hold listening had on a younger generation just ahead of television's advent. Was radio more fun than tubes that would hypnotize the rest of us?

Happy Feet On a Warners' Wartime Stage and a 40's Magical Music Highlight

Joan Leslie Assumes Janie Role For The 1946 Sequel
Lest one think Janie a mere big-screen sitcom, I'd mention transcendence of a musical set-piece during the second half --- a soldier's party dazzlingly staged by Curtiz with song, dance, personalities-to-be (Keefe Brasselle, Jimmie Dodd, Julie London, Andy Williams, plus brief vocalizing by not yet christened Sunset Carson), and the dynamic finish of a conga line snaking through a night-lit sound stage exterior. Were music highlights ever so joyous as ones staged during that uncertain period of a World War? If Warners had done their own That's Entertainment, this would have been my choice for center-placement. Janie was sold as 1944's National Joy Show. It raked three million in worldwide rentals on a $1.3 million negative cost. Janie's domestic haul topped most of the Bogart, Davis, and Flynn pictures of that year, so WB's anxiety to get out a sequel made sense. That would be Janie Gets Married, with the same cast save Joyce Reynolds, shot during waning days of the war, but delay-released in mid-1946. Hopes for the sequel were reflected in its trailer to which Humphrey Bogart (!) contributed a brief appearance.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! Never heard of this movie before and now I want to seek it out. Too many entertaining movies get swept under the rug because it doesn't have a major name in it. Thank you for putting the spotlight on 'Janie'.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Joyce Reynolds was replaced by (who else?) Joan Leslie for the JANIE sequel.

I always thought Joyce Reynolds pushed a little too hard -- the female Keefe Brasselle. Fresh-faced, eager to please, always smiling, always poised for the camera, but never quite connecting with the audience. YANKEE DOODLE DANDY wasn't her only screen test: she is featured in THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS during Ann Sheridan's specialty, as the most vocal of the chorus girls.

Seems like Warners wanted the public (or the exhibitors) to discover her and create a demand for her. She must have had some name value, though, because like so many stars who were dropped by their home studios (Mickey Rooney, Margaret O'Brien, Gloria Jean, Sabu, Jean Porter, Johnny Weissmuller, etc.), Joyce Reynolds was signed by Columbia for a quick buck.

12:10 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

Found myself thinking of the Nancy Drew films, with Bonita Granville dressing like a smart career woman but acting like a hyper preteen; of Mickey Rooney, playing similar near-kids but frequently in jacket and tie; of the callow comic teenagers seen working alongside the grownups in offices; of college films where the students were identified as adults instead of wobbly teens.

It's like the Harry Langdon film "Long Pants," where there's an abrupt, official transition from little kid to adult.

Not as creepy as modern children slutting it up, but this early social maturity is still a bit strange to those of us raised with the idea you weren't remotely functional or responsible until after high school.

2:00 PM  
Anonymous MarcH said...

Clearly she had some star power...though I have never thought about her before, her scenes in Yankee and Thank Your Lucky Stars comes back to me crystal clear.

Off topic a bit...can't help but comment on how bad Warner's poster and ad art was in the 1940s. From gorgeous, customized stone lithographs in the 30s to this messy, one-size-fits-all "crazy font" in the 40s. Guess all the good artists got drafted.

9:23 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer writes in with some observations on "Janie" and wartime audiences ...

"Janie" may well be an amusing and worthwhile film. Joyce Reynolds is pert and pretty, the stills suggest a certain exuberance, and the supporting cast has a lot of reliable veterans. I’ve never seen it, so I can’t say. Its performance at the box office, however, may have as much to do with the times as with its quality. The times, of course, were during the Second World War. America put over 16 million of its citizens in uniform for it, most of them men. Despite that, the gross domestic product of the country went from a $120 billion in 1941 to $174 billion in 1944, a gain of 45 percent. How did they do it? By working six and seven days a week and sometimes pulling double shifts. Unemployment dropped from 13.9 percent in 1940 to 1.2 percent in 1944. Six million women entered the work force.

So, it was time of great tension, with the millions overseas in the fighting, millions more on the homefront working under tremendous pressure, and the course of the war uncertain, as to its duration or outcome. What did the home folks do for entertainment? Most of them went to the movies. As late as 1946, weekly admissions were over 90 million, compared to 26 million today, when the population is three times greater. And of those who went, I’d be surprised if they didn’t prefer comedies or escapist fare. There was more than enough heartache and struggle in their world to want more of the same inside the theater. So if a movie like "Janie" promised a lot of “laffs,” well, someone who left a shift at the steel mill or an aircraft factory might just want to have some.

10:51 AM  
Anonymous Dbenson said...

Dan is onto something. Just dug up your post of April 10, 2006, where it's noted that Laurel & Hardy's Fox features -- warmed-over comfort food, really -- were huge crowd pleasers.

2:55 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Errol Flynn hanging around schoolyards? Surely you jest!Dad used to tell a great story. He and Errol were driving one day from Warners to Errol's home on Mulhollond, I guess. It's about 3 in the afternoon, and they pass Hollywood High as the kids are getting-out. Errol is studying several of the more nubile young, future Warner Bros. starlets-to-be with a trained eye. Suddenly, he looks at my father. "Sport, have you ever looked at a girl and you couldn't remember whether or not you slept with her?" Dad burst out laughing. "Errol", he said, "I can assure you I can account for every girl I've ever slept with". Errol shook his head. "I envy you", he smiled.
Thought you would like that.

Jimmie Dodd had known my grandfather well during this period at WB, apparently. I can remember being introduced to him as a very little boy at a theatre called The Fine Arts in Beverly Hills (formerly The Regina!) where he was appearing courtesy of the Disney Lot in connection with a film called "White Wilderness" (isn't it funny, I can still remember that!). He was an extremely nice man, and at that age I was in awe of him, because of The Mickey Mouse Club!

Best, R.J.

9:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon shares some thoughts on Joyce Reynolds, Mike Curtiz, and "Janie" ...

That's a marvelous piece on "Janie". I have an ambiguous feeling I caught a piece of this on TCM one time, but it was in progress and I was distracted and wasn't hooked. I would love to have a second crack at it, because in your review it comes across as a classic 'homefront' film from the period. As you say in praise of its evident showstopping 'conga line scene', there is absolutely something about the '40s films from every studio that is electric, and I don't care if the subject is from some 19th century novel (e.g., "Jane Eyre" at Fox) or something right out of contemporary life (adjusted for Hollywood) like "Janie", here. Even the Abbott and Costello farces vibrate with hit, big-time, from that decade. I often bugged my movie-loving Mom with questions about the '40s, which I think both amused and bemused her. I think the only equivalent might be questions posed by kids today about the '60s, which stand apart in my memory from other decades I lived through, as having a tumultuous sociopolitical---complete with a ferocious foreign war (oops, "police action") going on, as well as a garish but undeniably colorful pop cultural quality. Yet, if you lived through the '60s (as I did from age 7 through 17), they deflate into mere reality, without losing that mystique entirely. I think the same was true of the '40s for my parents, both of whom were somewhat at a loss as to understand why their boy was so very fascinated by the decade. Like you, I think the thing is, we try to tap into its energy, optimism, and positivism, as conveyed in so many movies. Even the dark mysteries produced at Warners are full of a compelling, clear-headed sense of purpose and I'd call it destination. Not destiny---destination, or in other words, a sure-footed sense of where the damn thing's headed. These movies were well-made, from the screenplay on down. Just to read the titles of films being produced at WB contemporaneousy with "Janie" really says it all. As for Curtiz, finally I'm seeing notice upon notice and opinion upon opinion which has begun to point up the fact---in my opinion, hard fact---that Curtiz was unquestionably one of the greatest film directors of all time. Probably THE most versatile, as well. If "feeling good" in the sense of being dazzled, entertained, moved, amazed---counts for anything, he may have been the greatest Hollywood director. My favorite default request of myself and anyone else at my age is, "Define your terms." If you're talking directors, well, you have to talk about subject matter, too. There were guys who were great at one kind of thing (Hitchcock being the most easy example), and there were those who could do many different things. Furthermore, I think some were carried aloft by the way they were typecast as 'A' material specialists, just as others were held down by being assigned to 'B' material. It's often circumstantial. Anyway, I'll bet more Curtiz films are replayed and enjoyed by people who love older films than almost any other director. I know for a fact that I watch "Adventures of Robin Hood", "Casablanca", "White Christmas", "The Sea Hawk", "Jim Thorpe--All-American", and I wish I could come up with a few others, over and over again.

I remember seeing this little doll, Joyce Reynolds, in a scene from the entertaining pastiche-WW2 morale entertainment, "Thank Your Lucky Stars", supposedly asking older-and-wiser Ann Sheridan the secret to getting a guy, which provokes the latter to sing, "Love Isn't Born, It's Made". (Talk about a nicely frank sentiment!----and that's partly an intentional pun on the lyricist, Frank Loesser.)

7:31 AM  
Anonymous Jim Cobb said...

I would agree about the poster art... and would add anytime promotional material used the word "laff" the movie would be anything but funny. Not sure use of this word was unique to 40's posters, but it does seem to end up on lots of them during that period. For me usually it means a comedy that is rather forced and frantic instead of funny.

11:22 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

I used to collect old movie posters, and could spot the 40s Warners product a mile away. The fonts and designs were identical from piece to piece.

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Bill Luton said...

100% agreement about the poster art fot Janie. Warner Brothers for the most part seemed to be rationing attractive posters during WWII (and afterward). Wonder what happened in their advertising department that caused them to digress from the beautiful posters of the 1930's to the duo-tone/photomontage junk of the 1940's?

3:34 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

A quick word of total agreement on the radical change in posters that took place at WB in the 40's. And I have good reason to be aware of it. For some reason, for all (or most) of the movies that my grandfather worked on at the studio, up thru about 1940, he was credited on all poster art. I recently picked-up a beautiful, one-sheet stone litho for a minor Dick Foran western called "Blazing Sixes", with a magnificent design (this would be '36) on which he's credited. Sometimes, on films like "A Slight Case of Murder" the credit really doesn't warrant the amount of actual screentime a song was given. (Maybe this was just in the contract, or they felt that "music and lyrics by" would add extra importance to the advertising.) But then in the 40's on films in which he DID make a very significant contribution, "Casablanca" or "The Hard Way", or "Hollywood Canteen", nada. Film - credit, yes, posters, no. Odd.


6:07 PM  

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