Thursday, July 8, 2010

War Tune Shorts (U.S. Government and 20th Century-Fox, 1942-1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched an interesting download — almost certainly something someone copied from a VHS tape of public-domain material since it had the telltale lines, squiggles and occasional dropouts endemic to cheap and/or badly handled VHS’s — called War Tune Shorts, including the 1945 theatrical short All Star Bond Rally produced by 20th Century-Fox as well as less often seen episodes of the Army-Navy Screen Magazine offering features about such Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) shows as Command Performance, Mail Call and Jubilee. The gimmick behind many of these programs was that the artists and the material they presented were all based on requests written or radioed in from servicemembers themselves stationed overseas, many of them in combat zones; ironically, the German government produced a similar show for their troops called Wunschkonzert (literally “wish concert” though usually rendered as “request concert”) and made the same sort of big to-do about how actual servicemembers’ requests had formed the content of these shows.

The tape ran about 75 minutes and featured many of the popular entertainers of the day, including Mr. G.I. Entertainer himself, Bob Hope (doing some of the lamest material he ever had — like when he said that the Russians were proving to the Germans that “Crimea doesn’t pay”), who hosted many of these programs and interspersed them with jokes from his radio-show gag writers. All Star Bond Rally is a relatively familiar 20-minute short that was shown stateside to encourage people to buy war bonds — there’s a framing sequence in which Jim and Marian Jordan, playing the characters of Fibber McGee and Molly from their popular radio sitcom, ultimately buy a $100 bond at a window set up for that purpose in the theatre lobby on their way out from the show — which features a well-known clip of Frank Sinatra doing “Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week)” in a reunion with his first major employer, Harry James, staged surprisingly creatively by director Michael Audley with the band in shadow and Sinatra seen first in silhouette before Audley brings up the lights and shows him full-face (and Sinatra is seen here in his early string-bean phase, looking like a wet mop and showing why so many males wondered at the time why so many females were having erotic dreams about someone who looked like that) as well as a harp solo from Harpo Marx and a final stentorian jingle for war bonds sung by Bing Crosby with chorus — Bob Hope was in this one, too, and earlier Crosby was shown interjecting a response after Hope’s monologue, to which Hope responds, “Will ya look at that? They’re giving the extras lines now!” There’s also a nice bit towards the end of Sinatra’s song, where Audley cuts to Bing backstage … yawning.

Other major stars shown here include Judy Garland — giving one of her most technically accomplished and heartfelt renditions of “Over the Rainbow,” getting the lyrics right (as she often didn’t) and singing with both technical assurance and real soul; Betty Hutton, doing her usual fractured screaming on the song “Murder, She Said” (Anita O’Day also recorded this in her early days as Gene Krupa’s band singer, and not surprisingly her version was a lot more musical and also a good deal funnier); Cass Daley, making Hutton sound like Billie Holiday by comparison in a version of “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” (the song written for Bette Davis to sing in the Warners omnibus Thank Your Lucky Stars, though if you want to hear someone make real music out of this song check out Kitty Kallen’s recording with the Jimmy Dorsey band); Carmen Miranda doing a beautiful vocal on the original Portuguese version of “Mama Eu Quero” (I first learned this song from Xavier Cugat’s record and just assumed the original had been in Spanish!), singing as soulfully as she usually did in her native tongue, and leading a bouncing-ball sing-a-long on “I-I-I-I-I I Like You Very Much;” Ethel Smith doing her cookin’ version of “Tico Tico” on electric organ (ironic that Charles and I watched this just one day after hearing Walt Strony play the same arrangement “live” at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park); Lena Horne, doing two numbers on Jubilee (the AFRS show aimed especially at Black servicemembers and one of the most interesting from the standpoint of the jazz collector: the only genuinely good-sounding — technically, not musically — recordings of Billy Eckstine’s orchestra are from Jubilee broadcasts and they also preserve Sarah Vaughan and other major jazz singers at their best), including a version of “The Man I Love” considerably more emotionally intense and soulful than the one she’d recorded for Victor a few years earlier; and a male jive duo, also on the Jubilee set, who are quite entertaining for what they do.

It seems a bit odd that AFRS relegated Horne to the segregated Jubilee program when she already had a considerable white audience, but those were the breaks then; fortunately, the combination of Horne’s talent and her assertiveness (including breaking the color line in Las Vegas when the Flamingo Hotel offered her a gig in 1952 and one of her conditions was that they give her a room in the hotel to stay in for the duration of her stand; when they balked — they’d previously forced Black entertainers in Vegas to stay either in private homes or in one of the grungy all-Black hotels that were just outside the city limits — Horne told the Flamingo’s management, “If I’m good enough to sing on your stage, I’m good enough to sleep in your bed”) ultimately earned her the cross-racial audience she deserved. The host of Jubilee was Black comedian Ernie “Bubbles” Whitman, who was a big man but hardly as fat as all the repetitive jokes about his weight would lead one to believe — he later turned up as the boyfriend of Beulah on the early-1950’s TV sitcom of that title, whose title character was an all-knowing Black maid to a pretty thick white couple and was played by Hattie McDaniel in the show’s first season and Louise Beavers after McDaniel died. These wartime films are worthwhile not only as souvenirs of entertainment in the early 1940’s but also as an evocation of the Zeitgeist of the period, the confidence which slowly built up among America’s servicemembers and civilians alike as the war went on and gradually went better for our side.