Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Yanks Are Coming (PRC, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was The Yanks Are Coming, a 1942 vest-pocket musical from the “B” studio PRC (as Don Miller noted in the 1970’s in his book on “B” movies, it’s surprising that by the 1970’s the cost of making a movie musical was considered so prohibitive even major studios rarely footed the bill, whereas in the 1940’s “B” units at second-tier studios like Columbia and Universal, and third-tier studios like Monogram and PRC, regularly churned them out on the cheap) that I’d downloaded from and thought would be fun to watch as a comparison to a state-of-the-art “A” musical like The Gang’s All Here, made around the same time and also involving World War II in its plot. One interesting difference was that this one was a lot more involved with the war than The Gang’s All Here — the big-budget Berkeley movie used the war only as a deus ex machina device to separate the juvenile leads and then reunite them, and one could easily imagine the same story being made during peacetime with a different gimmick, while The Yanks Are Coming’s plot revolved around the war and so did its songs.

Four of the film’s five songs — the title (obviously), “Zip Your Lip,” “There Will Be No Blackout of Democracy” and “I Must Have Priorities on Your Love” — either directly reference the war or use it as a metaphor, and they’re considerably better than their clunky titles would lead one to believe (indeed, the one “straight” romantic ballad in the film, “Don’t Fool Around with My Heart,” is probably its weakest song). The plot is about Bob Reynolds (William Roberts), who we’re supposed to believe is not only a band singer but a major movie star (he looks about good enough to play a lead for PRC but one would hardly imagine the majors beating a path to his door) who turns down a contract worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to enlist in the Army as a buck private. (After the Pat Tillman story, the plot point “reads” rather differently today than it did in 1942, and the statement of the people around him that he’s being a sucker walking out on a major career to fight a war stings a lot more now than it did then.) In doing so he pisses off just about everyone around him, including his manager, Parky (Harry “Parkyakarkus” Parke), and his bandleader, Gil Whitney (played by real-life bandleader Henry King, who contributed his musicians to the film as the on-screen band and allowed PRC’s writers, Tony Stern, Lew Pollack, Edward E. Kaye, Arthur St. Claire, Sherman Lowe and Edith Roberts, to depict him as a horrible egomaniac who thinks anyone who enlists is a sucker — until the end, when he receives a telegram that his older brother, a servicemember, has been killed in combat and is shocked into making the patriotic gesture of enlisting himself). His girlfriend, Rita Edwards (Mary Healy), who’s also Whitney’s other band singer (most bands in that era carried two singers, a man and a woman), is more sympathetic.

During basic training he befriends fellow private Butch (“Slapsy” Maxie Rosenbloom in one of his more restrained, and therefore funnier, screen appearances; his best moment is when someone tells him he looks like Maxie Rosenbloom, and he takes it as an insult!) and just wants to serve out his time and help fight the war, only he’s waylaid by a pair of wealthy women, Vicki (Lynn Starr) and her mother Flora (Jane Novak), who want him to star in a benefit show with Whitney’s band and singers, now under the leadership of his long-suffering arranger Sammy (Jackie Heller). The big show never happens — that would have been too much to ask for on a PRC budget — because the men in Bob’s unit get called to combat before it can be staged, but we see most of it being rehearsed and get to hear a lot of Bob’s voice, which is quite good when he sings softly but when he has to do a loud song like the stentorian title track he’s so insensitive and rhythmically stiff he makes Dick Powell sound like Sinatra by comparison. The film is an hour and four minutes long and the plot resolution is exactly what you’d expect — Vicki, who goes through much of the movie wearing a weird hat that looks like it’s got twigs sticking out of the top of it (one wonders if they would grow if you watered them), makes her play for Bob but he and Rita patch up their differences and end up together just before he ships out — but there are some nice consolations, including genuinely tasteful wallpaper in a PRC movie for a change and the chance to see songwriter Lew Pollack, who’s known today (if at all) only for his 1920 jazz instrumental “That’s A-Plenty,” a Dixieland standard (though even the musicians who play it don’t always know who wrote it: I met one bandleader who thought it was written by the far more famous Ben Pollock, the drummer/bandleader who discovered Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jack Teagarden and Harry James) but who not only wrote some of the songs for the film but also co-wrote the “original” story and appeared briefly as himself.