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Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Stars-and-Stripes Show To Top Them All

This Is The Army (1943) A Historic Seat-Filler

Out of circulation 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 for nationwide 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 Fort Roach during WWII, and getting leave to do This Is The Army. 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 Dandy done 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 hep-jive extravagance).

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 last crowd 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 housed 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 level in 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 do studios 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 gung-ho Hollywood 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 with Washington 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 the studio 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.


Blogger Dave K said...

Well, John, you did it again. Once more you've budged me to seek out a film I've missed... in this case avoided... with a barrage of facts and musings. Got Warner's three disc HOMEFRONT COLLECTION as a Xmas gift a while back. Checked out many bonus features, revisited THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (a longtime guilty pleasure) spot-checked HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (zooming through the story elements.) But I left the THIS IS THE ARMY disc in the jacket. Had seen tiny PD bits over the years and had always hurriedly walked away. I had never really watched the thing, unlike the other very familiar two. The Berlin and Kate Smith spots crop up all the time, of course, in various docs and such, but the rest was pretty new to me. And pretty entertaining, too, although, as you suggest, much of the fun is placing this stuff in historical context. Would love to hear more about the above-the-title Berlin films. ON THE AVENUE, ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND, THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS, CALL ME MADAME, etc. How many of these did the composer own a chunk of? I know his estate kept ANNIE GET YOUR GUN under wraps for decades. Are there others they have tucked away?

5:32 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Wonder if there's any filmed record of the actual live show. I doubt the stage version had the big sets the movie put behind each number. Also wonder if they dropped many songs or acts to make way for the framing story (the DVD has one deleted number).

Is Dave K talking about the film ANNIE GET YOU GUN? I remember it turning up on TV in my youth, and being annoyed at how it deviated from the play I did in my teens.

When I was doing community theater from the 70s on, the play was readily available and produced constantly (Gower Champion directed Debbie Reynolds in a major touring version). I understand licensers might pull the rights for a given title in the amateur/regional market if a major revival is coming through, but that isn't a long-term thing.

12:08 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

ON THE AVENUE was bottled up for years -- in 1988 a Boston programmer tried and failed to rent this picture, having been told that Mr. Berlin controlled its circulation. The exhibitor then wrote a persuasive letter to the 100-year-old Mr. Berlin, who granted permission.

12:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scott's noting of Irving Berlin's age in '88 reminds me of an article I read about him around that time. Its focus was the saga of the failed musical MR. PRESIDENT, but Berlin's subsequent years were also covered. It noted how the increasingly embittered composer was horrified when many of his still-valuable copyrights, starting with ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND, began expiring.

The Disney corporation usually gets the blame when it comes to copyright extensions, and that's justified. But perhaps Washington's motivation to capitulate had less to due with Mickey Mouse than to embarrassment that the nation's number one tunesmith outlived the rights to much of his own work.

7:03 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I like THIS IS THE ARMY okay but love the soundtrack.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

When it came to his music, Berlin was a real tightwad -- not so much monetarily, but personally. When the Boy Scouts wanted to sing "Oh I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," he refused to let them change the line "Some day I'm going to murder to bugler" to "be the bugler." Nor would Berlin allow Jimmy Breslin use two lines from another of his songs in a novel, simply because he didn't like how violent it was. And then there was the time he (unsuccessfully) sued Mad magazine for $25-million when it parodied his songs:,_Inc.

And yet he never bothered renewing the copyright on "This is the Army." Strange guy.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, WHITE CHRISTMAS, and probably some other Berlin works are controlled and licensed by the Rodgers and Hammerstein group. I've done both of those shows under their auspices and I've met Berlin's daughters. They are fiercely protective of their father's work, not just financially, but artistically.

Before one performance, the sisters were in the room and introduced to the cast. When asked if they had anything to say to the cast, one daughter simply said, "sing the right notes."

And she wasn't joking.

2:58 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

George Murphy. Ronald Reagan. Yuk. On the other hand, Joan Leslie. Yum.

5:17 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon remembers those BIG Warner stages (Part One):


Just read and very much enjoyed your background on "This Is the Army!" I do have that on DVD, from a package set as I recall also including "Thank Your Lucky Stars" and "Hollywood Canteen". We now have a very nice HD/BD of "...Lucky Stars", which is also the best of the three, not to say it isn't also highly dated, etc, etc. Frankly, I'd vote for "...Canteen" next, before "...Army!", but that's not as a repudiation of the Berlin film.

Interesting that Berlin himself performs "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning!" But, I remember reading in his biography that he played the same role in the original stage presentation! So it was only fitting. Besides, as he proves permanently on film, he has a pretty good voice! Of course, in his day, songwriters often 'pitched' their own tunes, in whatever voice they had. There are recordings of Frank Loesser singing quite a few of his great Broadway (and other) tunes, and he had a great, 'New York'-accented delivery. I'm sure there are others; matter of fact, I remember that I own a CD of Kurt Weill singing 'audition-style' many of his tunes.

I knew that there had been a special stage built on the Warners lot for "The Sea Hawk", and inaugurated with that production, but I didn't know the crucial information---that it had long since burned down! How I would wonder, during those exciting times when I worked on the storied lot, which sound stage had hosted this amazing movie? Little did I know...! I've been able to put together more-or-less where the grand (in every sense) Stage 21 once stood, but you can only approximate, of course. There are at least three wonderful documentaries about the history of Warner Bros., one concentrating on the entity itself, one about the brothers with an emphasis on Harry [because it was produced by his granddaughter, I believe!], and yet a third (produced by Jack Warner's grandson) about J.L. They're all interesting and illuminating. And I'm pretty sure it was in one of those that I finally learned that the amazing stage they'd built for bit water scenes and big ANY scenes had gone down in flames long ago. Just look at the HEIGHT of it! And I thought Stage 16 was big! (Not that it isn't!---and yes, that's the one that Hearst had RAISED to its present height for a movie starring his inamorata/partner, Marion Davies.) The 'gremlin on the wing of the plane' scenes for the remake of the Twilight Zone episode, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", were filmed over the [dry] reservoir tank on 16 for "Twilight Zone: The Movie", which I worked on. Later I know the interior tank was filled and used for the filming of the remake of "The Poseidon Adventure", to name one. But by the evidence of that amazing picture, it looks like you could have put Stage 16 inside of Stage 21!

2:17 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon:

And all your remarks about the actual hardships, as far as creature comforts, of shooting like that, with Technicolor which had an ASA of 10 (!!---anybody who remembers using actual film in their still cameras, as I do, remember when ASA 100 wasn't considered terribly 'fast', i.e., sensitive to light!), caused many actors and crew people to sweat bullets, I'm certain. Though Maureen O'Hara had an interesting comment in her speaking about "The Black Swan", for the early DVD reissue, to the effect that Leon Shamroy's mode of lighting for Technicolor for that film was relatively bearable compared to Edward Cronjager's for "To the Shores of Tripoli" (uh, unless it was "From the Halls of Montezuma"!) I have, however, also never forgotten makeup artist Charlie Schram telling me and another person (merely Dick Smith, the greatest makeup artist of the 20th century) that when he worked on "The Wizard of Oz", the scenes on Stage 31, I believe is right, at MGM, involving the poppy field, were lit with so many arc lights that the temperature in there was well over 100ยบ, and that poor Bert Lahr, who happened to be his charge unfortunately for him, almost 'died' inside his actual lion skin costume. The elaborate but early (therefore relatively primitive compared to today's) prosthetic makeups almost floated off the principal cast members in such heat, and so it's always amazed me after hearing such stories how good it all looks whenever I view this classic!

But, it also appears in this wonderful photo, taken from what appears to be the uppermost lighting grid on Stage 21 at Warners, that there is a non-functional source of lighting in the photo, off to the lower right. My guess is that this is daylight! I'm guessing, but perhaps this photo was taken during a photo and general rehearsal before the take, and so they had the doors open so they wouldn't die in there for no good reason! Seems to make sense to me!

I'll have to have another look at "This is the Army". I take all your points as valid, as I so often do...but I remember on my first and so far only viewing that this is NOT one of the more entertaining or engaging WB films of its otherwise wonderful decade. As you say, though, it was honoring a preexisting and hugely popular vehicle, and it was aiming to inspire and comfort Americans who had a huge investment in money and anxiety in that war.
That era cannot, in fact, be evoked today EXCEPT through its movies, and the emotions they attempt to evoke are nothing compared to the emotions that the public which came to see them were having to deal with, en mass.


2:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Berlin had a fight with original star Ezra Stone and had him and his feature number cut from the film, "The Army's Made a Man Out of Me." A bit of it is in the trailer. I am also amazed at all the drag & minstrel material in the movie. That lengthy bit with soldiers dressing up as actresses Jane Cowl and Lynn Fontanne is very uncomfortable to watch (and I'm gay!). How did audiences of the time take it? Even Victor Moore in the audience has to say how proud he is that his soldier son is in a dress. Wha?
A friend also points out that the TITA unit was the only integrated unit in the armed services. The black soldier number is a real highlight.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Online sources indicate the minstrel number was actually added just for the film version. 'Zat right?

4:25 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

Ian Whitcomb couldn't quote any Berlin songs in his entertaining history of American pop music, "After the Ball," though he did quote from a song someone else wrote to capitalize on one of Irving's early hits: "When Alexander Brings His Ragtime Band to France."

The drag bits were a surprise to me as well, though drag revues were part of the British military in such shows as "Splinters," and the British Boy Scouts had their much-beloved "gang shows" which always had the scouts cross-dress for the last act. You would think that "This is the Army" could have recruited a WAC or two, but the Army didn't want to send any women out in the battle zones. There is a story I'm told is true, of the military sending an exotic dancer out to do a mock-striptease for the boys, without revealing that the dancer was actually male.

2:14 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

Great write-up on THIS IS THE ARMY, which is also interesting as part of Curtiz' war cycle, including the notorious MISSION TO MOSCOW. That also premiered at Warners' Hollywood -- later the Mark Hellinger and now the Times Square Church -- which is the only surviving purpose-built movie palace left in Midtown Manhattan (Radio City Music Hall was designed for live performances). It's been beautifully preserved and is well worth a visit. These are some of the best photos I've seen of its heyday as a movie palace, so thanks so much for posting them. There are also some shots of the YANKEE DOODLE DANDY premiere there floating around, but for me the Holy Grail would be seeing any images from the CASABLANCA premiere at the Hollywood on Thanksgiving Day 1942, complete with Bogie, Bergman and an Army parade. (Macy's being out of the parade business for the duration).

5:44 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Have never seen stills from the CASABLANCA premiere, Lou, but you have certainly whetted my appetite for them. I will be on the lookout from here on, and will certainly publish any that might come across here at Greenbriar.

Also very much enjoyed your recent New York Post coverage of Universal's restored "The Road Back," which was shown at MOMA. Lots of info and data that was all new to me:

5:56 PM  

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