Warner Bros. and the Homefront Collection
This is the Army (1943) / Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) / Hollywood Canteen (1944)
This is the Army (1943 – Warner Bros. – 121 minutes)
Directed By: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Ronald Reagan, Joan Leslie, George Murphy, George Tobias, Alan Hale, Charles Butterworth, Dolores Costello, Una Merkel, Stanley Ridges, Rosemary DeCamp, Ruth Donnelly, Dorothy Peterson, Frances Langford, Gertrude Niesen, Kate Smith, Joe Louis
This is the Army uses a multi-generational framing story in order to present a series of elaborately staged production numbers of patriotic Irving Berlin songs. It opens in the World War I era with singer/dancer Jerry Jones (Murphy) being drafted into the Army and staging a Broadway show starring his fellow servicemen to raise money for the Army Emergency Relief Fund. After the successful show's run, Jerry is deployed to Europe where he suffers a leg injury that ends his dancing career. Flashing forward about 25 years, the USA is entering World War II and Jerry's son, Johnny (Reagan) has enlisted in the Army. Another morale-boosting fundraiser is commissioned, and Jerry gets the opportunity to reunite with his old service buddies, update his show, and work with Johnny to stage it. As the show is put together and performed across the country, additional drama plays out involving Johnny and his fiancée, Eileen (Leslie). Johnny refuses to marry Eileen until after his military commitment is over, despite Eileen's wishes.
For modern audiences, the appeal of this film comes down to two things: patriotic nostalgia and Irving Berlin. Fans of either element will have a lot to enjoy, including a stirring rendition of "God Bless America" by Kate Smith that is the epitome of both. The film is largely an adaptation of Army Emergency Relief Fund benefit shows Berlin staged circa World War I and World War II. The production numbers, which are the films real raison d'etre feature several well known actors from Warner Bros. films such as George Tobias and Alan Hale, music/radio stars such as Smith, and a large cast of GIs, many of whom performed in Berlin's contemporaneous stage show. Considerable novelty is added by production numbers featuring heavyweight champion Sergeant Joe Louis working a speed bag while James Cross sings "That's What the Well-Dressed man in Harlem Will Wear" and Irving Berlin himself performing the doughboy's lament "Oh How I Hate to Get up in the Morning".
Director Michael Curtiz keeps things moving along at a zippy pace and uses a variety of techniques to give the stage numbers their own visual signature. When the production numbers start getting especially large near the film's conclusion with what seems like an endless formation of GIs on the stage, one cannot help but think of how Busby Berkeley, who had left Warner Bros. a few years earlier, would have handled them.
Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943 – Warner Bros. - 124 minutes)
Directed By: David Butler
Starring: Eddie Cantor, Joan Leslie, Dennis Morgan, Edward Everett Horton, S.Z. Sakall, Dinah Shore, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn, John Garfield, Ida Lupino, Ann Sheridan, Alexis Smith, Jack Carson, Alan Hale, George Tobias, Hattie McDaniel, Spike Jones and His City Slickers
Thank Your Lucky Stars follows the course of a group of Hollywood hopefuls including songwriter Pat Dixon (Leslie), singer Tommy Randolph (Morgan), and dramatic actor Joe Simpson (Cantor). They are all hoping to break into the entertainment industry, but Pat and Tommy are swindled by an unscrupulous agent, and Joe cannot succeed as a dramatic actor because audiences cannot stop laughing at his uncanny resemblance to Eddie Cantor. They conspire to get Tommy a slot singing in a big Cavalcade of Stars military benefit show being staged by producer Farnsworth (Horton) and composer Schlenna (Sakall). For their part, Farnsworth and Schlenna are perplexed by a deal they had to cut with the real Eddie Cantor (himself) to get singer Dinah Shore (herself) into their show. Egomaniacal ham Cantor uses his contract with Shore as leverage to horn his way into the show and starts to take over the entire production.
This is the least dated and most entertaining film in the collection, primarily because the plot used to frame all of the production numbers is actually quite entertaining. The film is adapted from a stage play with the team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank having a hand in the screenplay. As a result, the light comic plot in which Cantor gets to poke fun at himself in a dual role, Morgan gets to sing and romance Joan Leslie, and Leslie gets to look cute beyond all reason doing impressions of other film stars and shaking her balled fists next to her temples every time she gets a ridiculous idea, is every bit as entertaining as the musical and comedy production numbers.
These numbers feature Dinah Shore and a seemingly endless stream of Warner Bros. contract stars either doing what they do best or doing what they are asked to do like a bunch of good sports. Ann Sheridan, Bette Davis, John Garfield, and Errol Flynn were not exactly known for their musical chops, but they all get their own production numbers which they put over well enough to entertain and to provide a surprising treat for their fans. Similarly, fans of Olivia De Havilland and Ida Lupino probably never imagined they would see them singing, dancing, goofing, and mugging on stage in a comic musical number with George Tobias, but they are afforded that rare opportunity here. Other highlights include the "Ice Cold Katie" number featuring Hattie McDaniel and an uncredited Willie Best that trades a bit in stereotypes, but mostly trumps them with talent, and a wacky number around a camp fire by Spike Jones and his City Slickers.
Hollywood Canteen (1943 – Warner Bros. – 124 minutes)
Directed By: Delmer Daves
Starring: Robert Hutton, Dane Clark, Joan Leslie, The Andrews Sisters, Jack Benny, Joe E. Brown, Eddie Cantor, Kitty Carlisle, Jack Carson, Joan Crawford, Helmut Dantine, Bette Davis, Faye Emerson, Victor Francen, John Garfield, Sydney Greenstreet, Alan Hale, Paul Henreid, Andrea King, Peter Lorre, Ida Lupino, Irene Manning, Nora Martin, Joan McCracken, Dolores Moran, Dennis Morgan, Janis Paige, Eleanor Parker, William Prince, Joyce Reynolds, John Ridgely, Roy Rogers and Trigger, S.Z. Sakall, Zachary Scott, Alexis Smith, Barbara Stanwyck, Craig Stevens, Joseph Szigeti, Donald Woods, Jane Wyman, Carmen Cavallaro, Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra, Sons of the Pioneers, The Golden Gate Quartette
Hollywood Canteen is a tribute to the titular club for servicemen founded by a group including such luminaries as Bette Davis and John Garfield. The story follows the experience of two recuperating servicemen over the course of four nights. Corporal Ed "Slim" Green (Hutton) visits the club, is amazed to find himself both waited on and entertained by big name celebrities, and impresses stars such as Garfield and Davis with his earnestness to the point that they arrange for him to meet and receive a kiss from his favorite actress, Joan Leslie. Slim convinces his friend, Sergeant "Brooklyn" Nowland (Clark) to accompany him to the club and finds himself awarded for being the one millionth service man to come through the door. This good fortune gives him a chance to be further acquainted with Leslie while being lauded by the stars and his peers. When he is scheduled to head back overseas, Slim hopes that Leslie will come to see him off, but Brooklyn suggests to him that her interest was all just an act.
The actual Hollywood Canteen was a fine example of the Hollywood film community pulling together to reach out a hand to those who could use it. If there is one thing that the Hollywood film community is even better at than reaching out a hand to those who could use it, it is reaching out the other hand to pat itself on the back. That brings us to this film celebrating the famed club for service men (and women) that was released about three weeks after it officially closed its doors. That's probably for the best since servicemen seeing the film would no doubt be disappointed if they went to the club without getting to kiss Joan Leslie and meet her family.
The perfunctory plot, based very loosely on the actual one millionth visitor to the club who received a kiss from Betty Grable, is really just an excuse to string together a massive group of celebrity cameos, most of which are quite entertaining. In addition to the several expected musical numbers, there are also comedy bits, either played on stage as part of the show, or taking place "on the floor" as the film's protagonists stumble across various celebrities. My favorite such bit had Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet lampooning their creepy bad guy personas.
The star power, as quantified by the cast list above, ultimately wins out making this an entertaining film for fans of classic Hollywood and 1940s style comedy and music.
As a bit of film history trivia, Joan Crawford's humorous cameo as herself was her first appearance as a contract player for Warner Bros. after her long association with MGM. It was also her only onscreen appearance over the year and a half period between 1943's Above Suspicion and 1945's Mildred Pierce. Barbara Stanwyck was not under studio contract, but her appearance here was also her first in a string of three consecutive films for the studio.
All titles are presented in 4:3 video appropriate for their original theatrical presentations.
This is the Army, the only Technicolor title in the set, looks good for the most part, although the element used for transfer has sporadic registration issues. Additionally, shots involving opticals such as titles or fades have greatly increased contrast and blown out highlights in bright areas of the screen. Color seems somewhat desaturated based on modern ideas of Technicolor, but this is probably consistent with the look of contemporaneous release prints (none of which I have seen, so take that comment in the spirit of modestly informed speculation with which it is offered). Detail is generally very good, visible print damage is minimal, compression renders the relatively unfiltered grain acceptably, and video-realm high contrast edge ringing is minimal to non-existent.
Thank Your Lucky Stars features an excellent video presentation with natural but not excessive film grain, solid grey scale with deep gradients in both dark and light areas of the screen, and only mild signs of element wear and tear. Video domain artifacts are minimal and negligible from a reasonable viewing distance.
Hollywood Canteen looks to have been derived from an element a couple of generations lower than the one used for Thank Your Lucky Stars. Grain is heavier and contrast is a bit higher, but detail is still pretty good. The heavy grain results in some mild compression artifacts, and there are a few sequences in the film where detail is lost due to blooming in bright sections of the image.
All titles are presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio. Considering the vintage of the tracks, I was happy with the presentations of all three films. They exhibited acceptable fidelity with low levels of noise and few obvious noise reduction artifacts.
This is the Army
Commentary by Joan Leslie and Dr. Drew Caspar is primarily a commentary by film scholar and USC professor Dr. Drew Caspar. He gives his usual breathless lecture about the film, Curtiz, Berlin, techniques employed by the filmmakers, breakdowns of the history of the genre, and several other topics. Around the 89 minute mark, Joan Leslie joins Dr. Caspar for a sixteen minute Q&A session where she fields questions and offers anecdotes about This is the Army, her Hollywood career, and a few other films including Thank Your Lucky Stars and Hollywood Canteen. She does not always have illuminating answers, but it is nice to hear from her. My favorite bit is when she discusses having to get Ida Lupino's permission for her impression of her in Thank Your Lucky Stars.
Warner at War (47:01) is a newly produced documentary by Warner go-to guy Constantine Nasr that takes a look at how Hollywood in general and Warner Bros. Studio in particular supported American and Allied efforts in World War II. The documentary looks at the early history of Warner Bros., the patriotism of Jack and Harry Warner in particular, the controversy over Confessions of a Nazi Spy and Charlie Chaplin's UA film The Great Dictator, the effect of Pearl Harbor and the USA entering the War, the formation of the OWI, hindsight controversy over Mission to Moscow, postwar films addressing veterans issues, and myriad other topics. Footage consist entirely of archival footage, photo pans and zooms, and film clips held together by a narration by Steven Spielberg. It is presented in 4:3 color video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio. This is a very interesting and informative documentary and one of the highlights of this collection.
"My British Buddy" Outtake (2:16) presents Irving Berlin singing the song in tribute to America's friends across the Atlantic. This Technicolor outtake looks almost as good as the feature film.
Theatrical Trailer (2:45) shows that Warner marketed this aggressively emphasizing the patriotic message and star wattage.
Under the "Warner Night at the Movies" banner, we get the following features presented in black and white 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound.
"Edge of Darkness" Theatrical Trailer (2:16) is a promo for the Errol Flynn film in which he plays a Norwegian resistance fighter opposing Nazi occupation.
Newsreel (1:41) Consists of war footage under the heading "MacArthur's Yanks Blast Salamaua" showing multiple bombing runs. You get to see McArthur himself near the end
The United States Army Band (8:39) is a one reel short that features footage of the titular band playing in Washington D.C. mixed with newsreel footage of Army soldiers in action.
Confusions of a Nutsy Spy (7:35) is a Norm McCabe directed Looney Tunes cartoon in which police officer Porky Pig and his dog, Egghead, try to capture the elusive terrorist spy known as "Missing Lynx". Norm McCabe does not have quite the sense of story pacing of the best Warner directors, but the cartoon does feature some funny animation and good gags.
Thank Your Lucky Stars
9/27/43 Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater Broadcast (29:13) is an audio only feature consisting of a radio show featuring musical highlights from Thank Your Lucky Stars starring Eddie Cantor, Dinah Shore, and Dennis Morgan. Cantor trades quips with host Truman Bradley before launching into the musical segments.
Theatrical trailer (2:16) predictably emphasizes the film's star power.
Under the "Warner Night at the Movies" banner, we get the following features presented in black and white 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound unless otherwise indicated below:
"Watch on the Rhine" Theatrical Trailer (2:12) is a promo for the Bette Davis/Paul Lukas film about anti-Nazi freedom fighters.
Newsreel (2:50) offers up silent footage in and around the actual Hollywood Canteen for Service Men.
Food and Magic (9:22) Is a Warner one-reeler in which Jack Carson emphasizes the importance of food production and conservation during war time. Carson's character is dubbed "Mysto the Magician", and he does a few special effects-aided magic tricks during the course of illustrating his points. There is a small role featuring a young Bill Kennedy who I remember as the host of a Detroit-area TV show called "Bill Kennedy at the Movies" for several years when I was a wee lad.
Three Cheers for the Girls (16:22) is a musical short with a loose framing device featuring four chorus girls which is used to link together six production numbers from other Warner Brothers musicals.
The United States Navy Band (9:49) is similar in conception and execution to The United States Army Band one-reeler which appears on the This is the Army disc except this time we have a mix of footage of the Navy in action and the titular band performing in Washington D.C..
Falling Hare (8:28) is a Technicolor Robert Clampett directed Merrie Melodies cartoon in which Bugs Bunny is continuously frustrated in his efforts to thwart a pesky gremlin trying to sabotage military planes. The cartoon is filled with typically wild Clampett gags with expert animation from Rod Scribner and Robert McKimson. This is one of my favorite cartoons.
Herr Meets Hare (7:15) is a Technicolor Merrie Melodies Friz Freleng directed Bugs Bunny cartoon from 1945 in which Bugs takes on the Nazis. The Goering caricature looks very much like a Chuck Jones design even though he is not credited. Writer Michael Maltese would re-work a lot of a Wagner/Bugs-as-Brumhilde gag sequence from this cartoon in the later Chuck Jones cartoon What's Opera Doc.
Hollywood Canine Canteen (7:42) is a Technicolor Merrie Melodies Robert McKimson directed cartoon in which lots of dog caricatures of big Hollywood and musical stars entertain at the titular club.
Under the "Warner Night at the Movies" banner, we get the following features presented in black and white 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound unless otherwise indicated below:
"The Doughgirls" Theatrical Trailer (2:31) is a promo for the Warner Brothers comedy featuring the A-List trio of Ann Sheridan, Alexis Smith, and Jane Wyman
Newsreel (3:29) contains silent footage of Allied soldiers operating in the European Theater. It features a sporadic low pitched rumble on the audio track that seems unnecessary given that the footage is supposed to be silent.
I Am an American (15:48) is a patriotic two-reeler that looks at the history of white immigrants in the USA from the vikings, the pilgrims, and the founding fathers, It then focuses on an immigrant Polish couple and their descendants who serve in the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II. It also lists several prominent immigrant Americans through the years. It concludes with footage from "I am an American Day" celebrations including a speech from Dennis Morgan
Proudly We Serve (17:55) s another patriotic two-reeler that looks at the training of a US Marine Corps Sergeant named Tex as an Aerial Gunner including an elaborate multi-projector simulator. The female instructor tells the Sergeant in training about women from all walks of life serving in the Marines as instructors, mechanics, parachute riggers, secretaries, photographers, and musicians.
Report from the Front (3:21) is a promo where Humphrey Bogart, standing with wife Mayo Methot, reports on their visit to the troops and puts in a heartfelt plug for the American Red Cross that details many of their good works before soliciting theater goers to contribute.
Stage Door Cartoon (8:05) is a Friz Freleng directed Technicolor "Merrie Melodies" cartoon where Bugs Bunny is chased by hunter Elmer Fudd into a theater where they both engage in some wacky theatrics and even catch a Bugs Bunny cartoon in the midst of their hunter and prey activities.
All films are encoded on dual-layered "DVD-9" discs that are packaged in slimcases with cover art derived from vintage promotional art. The three slimcases are in turn bound together in a thin cardboard box with appropriately patriotic graphics and images of Ronald Reagan, Errol Flynn, Eddie Cantor, John Garfield, and Bette Davis on the cover.
The Warner Bros. and the Homefront Collection compiles three patriotic films from the World War II era which use their plots as branches from which to hang a number of variety show routines from large ensembles of stars of music and cinema. They are presented with good audio/video transfers marred only by limitations in their film source elements. All of the discs are packed to the gills with trailers and vintage short subjects. The stand out supplements are a commentary with film scholar Dr. Drew Caspar and Joan Leslie on This is the Army and a newly produced documentary called Warner at War that is narrated by Steven Spielberg.