Thursday, December 18, 2008

Private Buckaroo (Universal, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I ran the 1942 film Private Buckaroo to dub the songs off its soundtrack (there were no fewer than 14 of them!) and had fun seeing it again even though it’s a pretty pointless movie — well, the point was to crowd in a lot of great swing music by Harry James and the Andrews Sisters, along with a nice title song sung by Dick Foran in much the same vein as his introduction of “I’ll Remember April” (also a Raye/De Paul song) in the Abbott and Costello comedy Ride ’Em, Cowboy. The plot — there is a plot — deals with radio crooner Lon Prentice (Dick Foran), who’s desperate to get into the Army despite his one flat foot, and eventually does so — while Harry James (who in real life was 4-F) is drafted and there’s a lot of “comic” byplay about James’ inability to blow bugle calls. (There’s also a lot of wince-inducing references to James as “the world’s greatest trumpet player,” which he wasn’t; in 1942 the world’s greatest living trumpet player was Louis Armstrong.)

The plot gimmick is that Prentice complains about the Army’s rules and regulations, and as a result lieutenant Howard Mason (Richard Davies) decides to exempt him from having to do anything he doesn’t want to do — figuring (rightly) that this will piss off the other men so much that eventually Prentice will want to pull his fair share of duty and become a good soldier just to gain the respect of his peers. Meanwhile, Prentice is also romancing Mason’s sister Joyce (Jennifer Holt). The plot goes through more twists and turns than one would think possible in a 69-minute musical with at least eight songs, some of them generated by the eight-year-old sister of the leading lady, who’s got to be one of the most consummate child bitches ever put on the screen by anybody. Also involved in this bizarre movie is Donald O’Connor (as one of a pair of dead-end teenagers who lie about their age to enlist).

The best part of Private Buckaroo is the music; the second-best part is the comic relief, which is actually a good deal more entertaining than the plot it’s supposed to be relieving: sergeant “Muggsy” Shavel (Shemp Howard, during that period of his career when he still got to make great movies with first-class comics like W. C. Fields, Olsen and Johnson and Abbott and Costello, before the illness of his younger brother Curly forced him into the Three Stooges as Curly’s replacement) and entertainer Lancelot Pringle McBiff (Joe E. Lewis — the real one, who frankly comes off much more like Bert Lahr than Frank Sinatra!) are romantic rivals for the affections of well-proportioned but big-nosed comedienne Bonnie-Belle Schlopkiss (Mary Wickes).

At the end there’s a fascinating sequence showing the Andrews Sisters singing suitably patriotic songs with titles like “Johnny, Get Your Gun Again” and “We’ve Got a Job to Do” amidst a lot of stock footage showing combat and also war production — when I showed this film to Charles right after I bought the videotape he watched this sequence and said, “Wow! Universal was doing socialist realism!” It’s a decent movie, effectively directed by Edward Cline (even though it doesn’t contain any of the demented slapstick that was what ex-Keystone Kop Cline did best as a director) from an O.K. script by Edward James and Edmond Kelso based on a story by Paul Gerard Smith — and the music is a lot of fun for any swing buff (and there’s a lot more of it than in some of James’s more lavish “A” vehicles for major studios!).