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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Universal Winning The War


Follow The Boys (1944) Features Camp-Following Stars

As much a wartime revue for Charles K. Feldman's client list as for Universal stars doing their bit for servicemen. Feldman produced, independently as was case with prior successes for Universal (including The Spoilers), him in ripe position to deliver up names beyond a somewhat impoverished contract list at his releasing studio. Noted then and certainly now was fact that Universal did not put their biggest attractions, Abbott and Costello or Deanna Durbin, before cameras for Follow The Boys. We do glimpse Nigel Bruce among a crowd, but no Basil Rathbone (understandable as he was contracted to MGM, and did his Universal Holmes series as loan-outs). Stars like Gloria Jean, Maria Montez, and Evelyn Ankers are shown in pans across rows of silent onlookers at a pep meeting conducted by leading man George Raft. Lon Chaney, seated behind Sophie Tucker, says not one word and has but a couple shots to represent him for whole of the film. There is Orson Welles with a silent Noah Beery, Jr., Turhan Bey behind and mute as well. Welles is a more vocal participant, and gets in his magician act with Marlene Dietrich for assist. Interesting to see Orson comparatively thin and robust, a dashing figure in top hat and tails, his sleight-of-hand neutralized by clunky special effects revealing studio artifice behind his "magic."




Highlights like this are interspersed with humblest vaudeville. There’s even an extended dog act presided over by Charles Butterworth, this making sense for Follow The Boys being designed as much to salute vanished variety as wartime men at arms. The Andrews Sisters might be anticipated in any Universal show from this period, but again, their act is compromised by uneasy blend of actual performance and soundstage recreation --- same for Jeannette MacDonald, though she has a nice number in a hospital tent which at least suggests the emotional bond shared by these performers and the servicemen they entertained. We see Donald O’Connor and Peggy Ryan running out to greet what looks to be thousands of GI’s at an outdoor camp stage, only to find themselves cut away to a studio mock-up of the location for their number. What a disappointment Universal didn’t capture that act as it played to recruits, but Follow The Boys wasn't about documenting reality of camp shows. We're lucky, in fact, to have what few and sporadic shots there are of these mass gatherings. Near to the end W.C. Fields saunters into a post canteen to do his pool table routine for what would be a last time. It took Bill just two days to film, despite a schedule allowing for ten. Still, his pacing is slowed. Favored stooge Bill Wolfe walks through unmolested, as if The Great Man had simply forgotten he was there, while subdued laughter from the intercut "audience" is kept to a minimum, possibly on the theory that theatre-goers’ mirth would fill the void. One look at Fields' haggard appearance and you know why he couldn’t get insured for another feature. Still, his routine is what keeps Follow The Boys on radar for devoted fans today. There is a DVD available from Region Two, part of a UK Marlene Dietrich mega-box.

5 Comments:

Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I always loved the W. C. Fields segment of this film. There a couple of others he lends his presence to as well. Each comes alive for me the moment he comes on screen.

7:47 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Fields' photo isn't even in the ad.

10:52 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Apropos of nothing, Radio Shack sold an official W.C. Fields battery tester in the 70s. Here's one of many eBay auctions for it:

https://www.ebay.com/i/161796258215?chn=ps&norover=1&mkevt=1&mkrid=711-117182-37290-0&mkcid=2&itemid=161796258215&targetid=882904020427&device=c&mktype=pla&googleloc=9032190&poi=&campaignid=6469981122&mkgroupid=86285324342&rlsatarget=pla-882904020427&abcId=1141176&merchantid=114822757&gclid=Cj0KCQjwpfHzBRCiARIsAHHzyZrsFpiXxSsygZV2hQm0ddhXNrEeaH37QlO-vFxhEm8_KPXtSPhHnCQaAneeEALw_wcB

I got one as a stocking stuffer and still have it, although it no longer works after I tried to test a 9-volt battery on it. Sigh.

Also have an official deck of W.C. Fields cards, with quotes and photos on them. That includes a "cheating guide", which in fact is just a Fields-free article on spotting card cheats printed on a folded strip of paper. Looking back, the early 70s was the twilight for mass market Fieldsian merchandise.

2:37 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I first saw Fields it was on TV alone after midnight.

Did.Not.Find.Him.Funny.At.All.

Then I began to run his films as part of my program at Rochdale College in Toronto.

Seeing him with a paying audience was a huge surprise. Orson Welles has a lot to say about that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V421bF698sA.

I not only quickly came to love his films I learned a lot watching him work.

10:47 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

Fields also appeared in Feldman's "Song of the Open Road," a benefit for American Youth Hostels, and Jane Powell's film debut.

8:39 PM  

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