Screening The 'Homefront': War Musicals On DVD The Homefront Collection, a new DVD set from Warner Home Video, showcases three World War II-era Hollywood musicals: This Is the Army, Thank Your Lucky Stars and Hollywood Canteen.


Music Reviews

Screening The 'Homefront': War Musicals On DVD

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One of the major national products of World War II was film - documentaries, dramas, musicals, and comedies - both about our armed forces overseas and life at home. Three song-filled and star-studded musicals have just been released on DVD. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: The Hollywood musicals released during World War II are mostly not great movies. They were designed as lightweight entertainments to cheer up both the troops and the home front. Many of the musical numbers are wonderful, but they're hung on pathetically flimsy storylines. "This is the Army," for instance, is both more and less than a screen version of Irving Berlin's famous all-soldier stage revue, which had no plot at all.

The film actually makes a defense for producing wartime entertainment and the importance of boosting American morale. It's directed by Michael Curtiz, who had just directed "Casablanca." He adds battle scenes and foxholes getting blown up in a limp story about Ronald Reagan as the son of George Murphy, another movie star turned California politician, who refuses to marry perky starlet Joan Leslie until after the war is over. The musical numbers, which have nothing to do with this plot, include the legendary Kate Smith introducing "God Bless America" and Irving Berlin himself plaintively singing his most famous war song.

(Soundbite of movie "This is the Army")

(Soundbite of song "Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning")

Mr. IRVING BERLIN: (Singing) I've been a soldier quite a while And I would like to state The life is simply wonderful, The Army food is great. I sleep with 97 others in a wooden hut. I love them all. They all love me. It's very lovely, but

Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning. Oh, how I'd love to remain in bed, For the hardest blow of all Is to hear the bugler call Ya gotta get up. Ya gotta get up. Ya gotta get up this morning.

Someday I'm going to...

SCHWARTZ: Another wartime musical, "Thank Your Lucky Stars," is an amusing slapstick vehicle for radio and Vaudeville star Eddie Cantor, who plays both himself and a poor schnook who looks like him. Joan Leslie is back as a would-be songwriter. The musical numbers feature stars who are mostly not known for their musical ability - Errol Flynn, Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland, and best of all, Bette Davis, who sing - or let's say, delivers with sly self-parody this Oscar-nominated Frank Loesser-Arthur Schwartz lament of women on the home front.

(Soundbite of movie "Thank Your Lucky Stars")

(Soundbite of song "They're Either Too Young or Too Old")

Ms. BETTE DAVIS: (As Herself) (Singing) They're either too young or too old. They're either too gray or too grassy green. The pickings are poor, and the crop is lean. What's good is in the Army, What's left will never harm me.

They're either too old or too young, So darling, you'll never get stung. Tomorrow, I'll go hiking with that Eagle Scout, Unless I get a call from grandpa For a snappy game of chess.

SCHWARTZ: The guest stars in "Thank Your Lucky Stars" all donated their fees to the Hollywood Canteen. This was a club where servicemen on leave could eat and drink and even dance with a volunteer celebrity. It was founded by Bette Davis and John Garfield, who are among the dozens of stars who appear in a film called "Hollywood Canteen." In one of the least plausible plots ever devised, a soldier with a crush on, of all people, Joan Leslie, meets her at the Hollywood Canteen, then visits her family, with whom she's still living, and they fall in love before his leave is over.

To classical music lovers, the film is of historic importance because it has the only screen appearance by the great Hungarian violinist, Joseph Szigeti. He plays a delightful short piece, then engages in this remarkable duet with another notable fiddler, Jack Benny.

(Soundbite of movie "Hollywood Canteen")

(Soundbite of violin music)

Mr. JACK BENNY: (As Himself) I'll take it now.

(Soundbite of violin music and screech)

Mr. BENNY: (As Himself) It's an old violin.

(Soundbite of violin music and screech)

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHWARTZ: I've been waiting for years for this to be released on DVD.

(Soundbite of violin music)

(Soundbite of applause)

SCHWARTZ: Not all wartime musicals had trivial plots. Turner Classic Movies, my favorite cable station, occasionally shows a movie not yet out on DVD called "The Sky's The Limit," starring Fred Astaire, droll Robert Benchley, and yes, the inevitable Joan Leslie, with songs by Harold Arland and Johnny Mercer. Astaire plays a disillusioned Air Force hero. His big number, "One for My Baby and One More for the Road," is one of the bitterest and most believable images of what a serviceman might actually be feeling.

Yet, lurking behind even the silliest of these movies is the threat of impending loss and heartbreak. And that's what gives all these musical numbers such poignance and, in a funny way, makes them so timely.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. He reviewed three World War II musicals now on DVD in the Warner Home Video "Homefront" collection. I'm Terry Gross.

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