Today thanks to a happy accident, Memorial Day and National Tap Dance Day coincide this year. I thought it might be apropos to observe them both with a look at patriotic Hollywood musicals of the World War Two era that dealt specifically with the war. These were entertainments designed as morale boosters and indirect recruitment advertisements. Musicals on other themes from this period, or ones that fall outside the war years, are outside the scope of this post.
One of the interesting aspects of these films (and the simultaneous flourishing of the U.S.O.) is that they employed many of the former vaudevillians we have written about. In fact, these years may represent the high water mark of the popularity of tap dance — and naturally the origin of that long-lasting trope the patriotic tap number, which was later perpetuated in things like beauty pageants and talent contests to the point of being a cliche. But in the ’40s it was brand spanking new, and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Here are the musicals.
The grandaddy of them all! James Cagney tears it up as his hero George M. Cohan, so right in so many ways. Cagney had tap danced in vaudeville; this film is the best showcase he ever had in Hollywood for displaying those skills. His famous simple acting style was inherited from Cohan. And it is one Irish-American’s tribute to his Irish-American spiritual forebear. Equally touching (and accurate) is Walter Huston’s portrayal of Cohan’s legendary dad Jerry, a gentle and generous pushover. Rosemary DeCamp plays his mom Nellie. Released just as America was entering World War Two, it struck the right note of patriotism at just the right time. And, amazingly, it cleaves very closely to the true story of Cohan’s life. (The biggest difference being the replacement of Cohan’s real first wife Ethel Levey, with the fictional “Mary” (played by Joan Leslie), whom here becomes the inspiration for the Cohan song by the same name.) Eddie Foy Jr. plays his own dad again, and for some additional stunt casting Jeanne Cagney (Jimmy’s sister) plays Josie Cohan, George M.’s sister. Minor Watson portrays E.F. Albee, Irene Manning plays Fay Templeton; singer Frances Langford is Nora Bayes. and Richard Whorf is Cohan’s partner Sam Harris. More deets on the classic film here.
When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1942)
The title of this movie, based on the somber Civil War song, belies its tone, which is actually a merry farce. Allan Jones plays a soldier on leave who pretends to be somebody else in order to avoid a girl who thinks he wants to marry her. The cast includes Jane Frazee, Gloria Jean, Donald O’Connor, Peggy Ryan, with performances by the Four Step Brothers and Phil Spitalny’s orchestra. It ends with a rousing patriotic number delivered right to the audience.
Private Buckaroo (1942)
Dick Foran is the problematic private, who causes headaches for his fellow recruits at basic training. cast includes Joe E. Lewis, once and future Stooge Shemp Howard, Huntz Hall of the Bowery Boys, Mary Wickes, Ernest Truex, the inevitable Donald O’Connor, and Peggy Ryan, with performances by the Andrews Sisters, Harry James and His Music Makers, and the Jivin’ Jacks and Jills.
Star Spangled Rhythm (1942)
This is the Army (1943)
This adaptation of Irving Berlin’s 1942 Broadway show stars George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Alan Hale Sr, Charles Butterworth, Dolores Costello, Una Merkel, Rosemary deCamp, Ruth Donnelly, with performances by Berlin himself, Kate Smith, Frances Langford, Joe Louis, and Gertrude Niesen,
Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943)
Men in uniform don’t figure into the plot of this one so much, although the plot concerns an effort to put on a wartime charity fundraiser show (and the movie doubled as one besides — kinda cosmic!) The plot portion featured Eddie Cantor, Dennis Morgan, Edward Everett Horton, Cuddles Sakall, and Ruth Donnelly. The dozens of other stars who make appearances are listed here.
Stage Door Canteen (1943)
Sol Lesser probably had no idea he was creating a valuable historical record when he put together this all-star showcase to support the troops. It was inspired by a real life Stage Door Canteen, an NYC venue where Broadway stars would come perform to support the men in uniform. One of the side benefits of this film is that it is a rare chance to see some major stage stars who seldom or never appeared on celluloid, such as Katharine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and Gypsy Rose Lee. There are close to 100 stars in this thing and I’m not about to type them all, I got your list right here.
Thousands Cheer (1943)
Like the Canteen films, this one contains too many stars to type (full list is here) but it’s divided in two and the first half has a storyline involving Gene Kelly, Kathryn Grayson, Mary Astor, John Boles, Gloria DeHaven, and Ben Blue.
Hollywood Canteen (1944)
Hollywood also had its own canteen to entertain the troops. 62 stars appeared in this film; they’re listed here.
Cowboy Canteen (1944)
Columbia produced the country-western version of the canteen sweepstakes, starring “Durango Kid” Charles Starrett, Jane Frazee, Vera Vague, Tex Ritter, Big Boy Williams, cowboy ventriloquist Max Terhune, The Mills Brothers, Roy Acuff and His Smokey Mountain Boys, Dub Taylor, and a bullwhip act called Buck Chickie and Buck. Don’t snub this one, city slickers. I’ve seen it and it’s great!
A patriotic revue film directed by Eddie Sutherland, in which George Raft’s character organizes a vaudeville show to entertain the troops. In the film W.C. Fields performs his 40 year old pool routine for the last time, and even does a spot of juggling. His turn (one of his last) lasts all of 15 minutes…a long stretch in such a film, if you think about it. Another one with a cast of thousands, all listed here.
Up in Arms (1944)
Danny Kaye gets drafted into the navy — and smuggles his best girl on board ship! Dinah Shore (who’s in several of these films) is also in the cast as are Dana Andrews, Louis Calhern and Margaret Dumont — together again 11 years after Duck Soup!
Here Come the Waves (1944)
Sounds like a disaster film about a tsunami but WAVES were actually the women’s branch of the U.S. naval reserve. The cast features Betty Hutton, Bing Crosby, Sonny Tufts, Mae Clarke, Jack Norton, Yvonne de Carlo, and Cyril Ring.
Two Girls and a Sailor (1944)
A Wave, a WAC and a Marine (1944)
Low budget Monogram Studios got in on the action with this less than stellar but well-meaning effort executive produced by Lou Costello under the pseudonym Sebastian Cristillo, his father’s name. A WAC was of course a member of the Women’s Army Corps, not (necessarily) a nut job. It seems to echo the triangle plot of Two Girls and a Marine, but without the long list of celebrity cameos and performances. The cast included stars of days gone by like Sally Eilers, Alan Dinehart, and Jack Mulhall, along with up and comers like Henny Youngman and Mel Blanc. Richard Lane was also in the cast.
And, honorable mention goes to:
On the Town (1949)
This one is a little bit of a cheat since it didn’t come out until 1949, although it was based on a 1944 Broadway show, and I imagine I would receive howls of protest if I leave it off. Also it makes a powerful book end to a list that started out strong with Yankee Doodle Dandy. Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin are a trio of sailors on shore leave in New York City, where they encounter Betty Garrett (memorable as a lady cab driver), Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, Hans Conried, et al. And now I’m going to have “New York, New York” in my head all day. But there are worse things.
THANK YOUR MEN AND WOMEN IN UNFORM!
For more on show biz history please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,