Monday, January 3, 2011

Fewer stars than there are in Hendon: All-star World War 2 morale movies

Let the Andrews Sisters sing us in:

The coffee pot is always hot
And are the doughnuts keen!
The welcome mat says 'check your hat'
At the Hollywood Canteen!

Then apologies, next, for the title of this post, a pun that will mean nothing to anyone reading this outside of England, but which does make the most important point about the all-star morale-boosting specials, of which most studios produced at least one example during the war years: though each one utilises the slimmest of plots as an excuse to assemble guest spots featuring their studio's roster of star players, they tend to come up fairly light on stars. The Andrews Sisters, not officially affiliated with any one studio, topline two of them, Hollywood Canteen (1944) for Warners, and Follow the Boys (1944) for Universal (the studio with whom they were most identified), but the rest of the bills are strictly home teams only.
It would have been nice if the Warners and the Mayers and the Cohns couldn't have got together, pooled their resources and done something really surprising as a joint contribution to the war effort, with interesting combinations of stars from all studios... but no. The Hollywood Canteen was one thing: Hollywood Canteen the movie is a strictly Warners affair. (Incidentally, I don't know how Warners got the rights to use the Canteen - which really was an all-studio collaborative effort - for their own exclusive movie; perhaps it was because they had Bette Davis and John Garfield on their books, and a Hollywood Canteen movie without either would have been absurd.)

Actually, though, the idea of all the studios clubbing together is central to the plot of Follow the Boys: star hoofer Tony West (George Raft) hits on the idea of producing a battalion of Hollywood stars who will tour every possible conflict zone bringing entertainment to the troops. Nothing so petty as studio rivalry can be allowed to stand in the way of this noble endeavour, and sure enough all the studio heads bend over backwards to show their support. Surprisingly, we are treated to shots of the other studio buildings, and at the operations centre where the various combinations of stars are matched to the appropriate locations, we hear frequent updates on what their stars are doing for the cause. A phoney headline announces the participation of Columbia, MGM, Paramount, Republic, RKO, Fox, Universal and Warners in a "Huge Mass Meeting" (what no Monogram?)... but a shot of the audience shows a suspiciously Universal-heavy crew: Andy Devine, Gloria Jean, Turhan Bay and Lon Chaney Jr are all prominent among the front rows. (As is Nigel Bruce, looking disdainfully amused as if he had been dragged without warning to the set, seemingly still chewing the bubble gum Dr Watson sampled in Sherlock Holmes in Washington.)
You have to hope that none of these studios charged for the right to use their logos and mention their players: if so it's not just Universal that ended up short-changed. It must have been highly frustrating for the viewer to keep hearing characters wandering into shot and saying things like "RKO just okayed Cary Grant; we'll hear from Paramount later today on Colbert and Dick Powell!" only to find that this incessant name-dropping is the closest they're actually going to get to any of them.
But even allowing for the studios' jealous reluctance to cross-pollinate their talent, there does seem to be an odd stinginess even with their own personnel.
“Humphrey Bogart waits on tables, Hedy Lamarr makes sandwiches, and Errol Flynn has his own speciality – he sweeps out the place,” explains Joe E. Brown to a visitor to Warners' Hollywood Canteen, but we get to see none of them. We get Greenstreet and Lorre and Henreid, but no Bogie – why? Similarly unfathomable is the absence of both Deanna Durbin and Abbott & Costello from Follow The Boys. Paramount seems to have been the most generous with their headliners: Bing, Bob, Betty, Dottie, Ronnie and even Alan Ladd are all present and correct in Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), the latter gently mocked in a comic sketch. (Also displaying an unexpected gift for self-deprecation is Cecil B DeMille, and Sturges pops up as himself too.)
Of course it helps that Paramount's roster included a generous assortment of names whose talents lent themselves to variety spots. Other studios often struggled to incorporate stars with no particular aptitude for revue. Hollywood Canteen has it easiest: the set-up of the stars all helping out allows the audience to simply (in many cases literally) bump into them, as actors playing servicemen cluelessly say stuff like, "Has anyone ever told you you look like Joan Crawford?" (Note incidentally, that Canteen, made after Joanie's move to Warners but before she had actually made any movies for them, marks the first occasion she shares a bill - if not, alas, any actual screen time - with Davis, nearly twenty years before Baby Jane.)

My favourite of the Canteen walk-ons are Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, who deliver this deliciously deadpan rebuke to a marine getting a little too frisky with Patty Andrews (I love Lorre's line, "Sydney, doesn't that constitute mayhem?"):

Star Spangled Rhythm comes up with the smartest solution: it casts otherwise useless dramatic players against type in comedy sketches (and gets George Kaufman to write them). As well as the aforementioned Alan Ladd quickie (as result of the munitions shortage he is seen attempting a stick-up with bow and arrow) there is a very funny sketch called If men played cards as women do, actually a remake of a 1929 Paramount short of the same name, with Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland and Franchot Tone commenting on each other's hats and passing bitchy remarks about their host's decor.

Here's the glorious highlight of Star Spangled Rhythm: the novelty number A Sweater, a Sarong and a Peek-a-boo Bang, performed by Dottie, Ronnie and Paulette (was Paulette really best-known for appearing in campus-set sweater roles, and if so which ones?), with grotesque assistance from Walter Catlett, Arthur Treacher and Sterling Holloway:

With many top stars unsuited to the format except in novelty walk-ons, and more still actually in uniform themselves, an often inspired desperation informs the items on the bill. Follow the Boys brings back Sophie Tucker ("Just in case any of you fellas don't know me, I'm a little something left over from the last war"), enlists Charles Butterworth as emcee of a weird dog act (recalling the indignities of MGM's Dogville shorts of the early thirties), and plunders the radio waves for Dinah Shore. W.C. Fields ambles through an abbreviated version of his pool routine, but he is clearly past his prime, and the make-up artists were either not bothered or not able to disguise the livid alcoholic blotches all over his face.
But the shining oddity is this magic routine featuring a cigar-puffing Orson Welles (and the 'Mercury Wonder Show') performing that celebrated trick 'sawing Marlene Dietrich in half'. Marlene is especially endearing; I love her nervous sotto voce asides to Welles ("Orson! We haven't rehearsed this!"):

"It tickles!"

I haven't much mentioned the nominal plots of these movies, because everyone knows the plots are the least interesting parts. Furthermore, because the stars in guest spots are the chief attraction, the plotty sections don't tend to have big players in them. (Why pay star wages when you can fill the film with stars on a day's pay and leave a contractee to do the actual acting? It's just like today, when those big, crappy films that exist solely to show off their special effects tend to ‘star’ people like Jeff Goldblum and Matthew Broderick.)
This also offers a sneaky opportunity for the studios to give green talent a high profile, low risk try out. So the actual 'star' of Hollywood Canteen is not Bette or Babs or Crawford but Joan Leslie, supposedly - and most conveniently - the favourite star of the film’s fictitious one millionth serviceman to visit the canteen. (“Imagine me standing right here and talking to Barbara Stanwyck!” he swoons when the Lady Eve herself leans forward and offers him a turkey sandwich. Yeah – but talking about how you prefer Joan Leslie, you big sap!)
Follow the Boys gives its central role to George Raft, (not so much on the up as difficult to place these days) but gives by far the film’s showiest dramatic part – his screen siren wife Gloria Vance - to dancer Vena Zorina, who had already appeared in a specialty number in Star Spangled Rhythm. You may not even recognise Una Merkel, playing straight and attractively dressed and made-up, as Raft's sister.
The addition of plot to an already crowded bag of items leaves almost all of these films feeling overlong: Hollywood Canteen, which stops even bothering with guest stars for much of its final third, instead losing its way amidst the complications arising from Joan Leslie's adventures with her dopey starstruck admirer, feels at least half an hour longer than necessary.
A surprisingly maudlin air hangs over these final scenes too, which may seem odd in a morale booster, but it's nothing compared to the finale of Follow the Boys, which lurches without warning into such complete and unexpected tragedy that you suspect Thomas Hardy had a hand in the screenplay. One minute Raft and an audience of submariners are enjoying the Andrews Sisters deliver a spirited underwater rendition of Shoo Shoo Baby, the next a Japanese torpedo scores a direct hit and Raft is engulfed in a torrent of water. ('Tony West Missing, All Others Rescued', stresses the newspaper headline, presumably to reassure audiences who would otherwise be fearing for the safety of the Andrews Sisters.)
Not only is West killed, he dies without ever knowing that his estranged wife was waiting to be reconciled with him, and has just given birth to the child he didn't even know she was carrying. The film ends with Gloria tearfully enlisting to join his star platoon, keeping up the good work.
I guess wartime audiences were less shocked by such tragedies than we are now: they were, of course, a daily occurrence, and the inclusion of such an ending to what was ostensibly a spirit-lifting movie makes for a salutary reminder that these were years in which death was a constant companion in everybody's lives.
Even for movie stars he came. At Tony's headquarters are large boards, in which the platoons of stars are listed next to their locations and engagements. Briefly glimpsed alongside is an 'Honor Roll', comprising the names Carole Lombard, Leslie Howard, Roy Rognan, Tamara, Charles King and Bob Ripa.
If you don't know who any but the first two are, as I did not, look them up.