It Takes a GREAT Nation

I recently read two very different, in most ways unrelated, nonfiction books that led to my discovery of three older movies (a trilogy of sorts) that are gems of their own peculiar type as well as historical documents of their time. The books are The Things Our Fathers Saw: The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA (2015) and Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud (1989).

The subject of the first is obvious from the title; the second was the basis for the recent TV miniseries about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. According to the book, it was Davis who “prevailed upon [her boss Jack] Warner to contribute his profits from three patriotic all-star films” to the war effort. The first of the trio was This Is the Army (’43) with Lt. Ronald Reagan and heavyweight champ Sgt. Joe Louis among its stars. Thank Your Lucky Stars (also ’43) had cameos by everyone from Humphrey Bogart to Errol Flynn; Hollywood Canteen (’44) topped its predecessors by casting 62 stars among its retinue.

Each an Oscar nominee in one category or another (including music), the three films are still enormously entertaining and unabashedly patriotic. Available individually in various forms, they’re also in an inexpensive box set, Warner Bros. & the Homefront Collection.

The opening credits for the first film (a Technicolor production) are actually Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army, based on a musical called Yip Yip Yaphank, which Berlin originally wrote during WWI and This Is the Army, his successful stage revue at the onset of WWII with a cast entirely of enlisted men. The film (directed by the great Michael Curtiz, who’d helmed Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca a year before) combines Berlin’s two song-and-dance showpieces as well as the two world wars with a sentimental story. George Murphy plays Jerry, a hoofer-turned-soldier during WWI; his son Johnny (Lt. Reagan) carries on the family tradition in WWII.

Several Hollywood performers (mostly character actors) figure prominently in the connecting story segments, but most of the movie cast real-life soldiers for the big stage numbers. The music is fabulous, punctuated by show-stoppers, including Kate Smith belting out “God Bless America,” a song Berlin pulled from Yip Yip Yaphank, over the radio. By today’s standards, the film is occasionally embarrassing, with unintentional racism (particularly in a blackface number) and the fact that whites and blacks do not occupy the stage together.

Still, This Is the Army is a testament to the talent and spirit of the American soldier (regardless of race and, yes, even gender) during the greatest conflagration the world had ever known. It’s also terrifically entertaining.

Thank Your Lucky Stars (available on Blu-ray) has more of a plot, but just barely. Dennis Morgan plays hopeful crooner Tommy, Joan Leslie plays hopeful songwriter Pat; they’re both trying to get a shot at stardom on comic/singer Eddie Cantor’s popular radio show. The plot’s focus is a charity benefit featuring noted stars (most not known for dancing or singing skills) strutting their stuff.

Playing themselves, tough guy John Garfield and Errol Flynn (in real life having just survived a statutory rape charge) have funny musical numbers. Bette Davis almost steals the show with her only song on film—the Oscar-nominated “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old”—followed by a jitterbug number that nearly does her in. Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel (Mammy, Gone with the Wind) belts out a rousing number featuring African-Americans in a rendition of “Ice Cold Katy,” one of the movie’s real showstoppers. Other stars doing musical bits are Dinah Shore (in her film debut), Spike Jones, Ann Sheridan and many more.

One of the film’s more luminous delights is 18-year-old Joan Leslie who, in 1941, had played Gary Cooper’s girlfriend in Sergeant York. In 1942, she moved up, playing James Cagney’s wife in Yankee Doodle Dandy before moving on to play Reagan’s intended in This Is the Army. Winsome, beautiful and charming, she’s the only major star to appear in all three of Warner’s patriotic musicals.

In Hollywood Canteen (’44), Leslie plays herself; Robert Hutton (a Jimmy Stewart lookalike) is Cpl. Slim Green, a lucky G.I. who wins a date with her at the Hollywood Canteen. It was a nightclub and lounge of sorts, started by Bette Davis and John Garfield as a haven of R&R for soldiers and sailors on leave. Entertainment, food, table service and dish-washing were provided by some of Tinseltown’s finest, many of whom appear in the film—including Dame Bette’s nemesis, Joan Crawford.

The love story is hokey but sweet, and the comedy (mostly by way of Sgt. Nowland, Slim’s pal, played by Dane Clark) is rather cornball. Still, the numerous musical numbers (of all types, including Jack Benny on the violin and Roy Rogers on Trigger—riding, not bowing) are an absolute delight.

We know how the Greatest Generation endured and fought. The Homefront Collection shows us another side, more gentle and fanciful but still united in their patriotism.