Friday, June 29, 2012

Thank Your Lucky Stars (Warner Bros., 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Thank Your Lucky Stars, one of the handful of big all-star musicals, some of them (like the independently made Stage Door Canteen and Warners’ Hollywood Canteen — the latter inspired by the fact that the real-life Hollywood Canteen had been founded by Bette Davis and John Garfield, both Warners’ contractees) directly inspired by the war effort. This one was only indirectly inspired by the war effort: producers Farnsworth (Edward Everett Horton) and Dr. Schlenna (S. Z. Sakall) are putting together a big benefit for Atlantic Charities (an effort to raise money for survivors of air-raid attacks in allied countries) and for that they’ve decided they need the singer Dinah Shore (shown in a considerably less flattering hairstyle than she got later but still recognizable both physically and vocally). Unfortunately, Shore is under exclusive contract to radio star Eddie Cantor (playing himself), an insufferable egomaniac who insists on putting his personal stamp on everything he gets involved with, telling old, lame jokes, doing out-of-date songs and revamping the choreography. Cantor offers Shore for the benefit as long as he can get to be the chair of the benefit committee, whereupon he makes himself utterly hated by everyone else involved — and when, seven hours before the benefit is supposed to start, he brings in a small menagerie of zoo animals (including an elephant, a camel and a zebra) and announces they’re going to be used in a number that until then no one else connected with the show had the slightest idea even existed, the producers have had enough. Meanwhile, the ingénue leads — aspiring singers Tommy Randolph (Dennis Morgan) and Pat Nixon (Joan Leslie) — have been trying to get jobs, and Randolph’s fly-by-night agent has tricked Cantor into signing a contract to use Randolph on his show by making it look like he was simply asking for Cantor’s autograph.

There’s a charming scene in “Gower Gulch” — actually the part of Hollywood where the cheapest studios were located (including the companies that made Westerns exclusively because they could be shot entirely outdoors and therefore they didn’t need the expense of renting lights) but in this film depicted as a residential community whose down-and-out denizens have built themselves al fresco homes out of bits of old movie sets — where Randolph and Nixon sing a duet and hold their own against the comedic holocaust of Spike Jones and His City Slickers. There’s a third person in Randolph’s and Nixon’s circle, Joe Simpson (Eddie Cantor), a bus driver who does tours of the movie stars’ homes; he came to Hollywood to be a serious dramatic actor but no one takes him seriously because of his strong resemblance to Eddie Cantor. When Cantor (the real one) refuses to let Randolph sing at the benefit, he, Nixon and Simpson hatch a plot to kidnap him — executed by three Gower Gulch residents dressed as Indians — and have Simpson impersonate him at the benefit. The benefit goes on as scheduled and without Cantor’s unwanted changes, and the sequences of the big Warners stars performing at it are intercut with some quite funny slapstick scenes involving Cantor, the Indians, some dogs, maple syrup (he’s tied to a see-saw and the maple syrup is poured accidentally on his shoes, and the dogs lick them off to eat the syrup) and, when he escapes that peril, a psych ward in which he ends up in which cold water hoses are turned on him (the “water cure” was a common treatment for mental illness in 1943) and he’s prepped for a lobotomy.

When I first saw this one the most attractive bits were the two songs by Warners’ superstars who otherwise never made musicals — Bette Davis’s jitterbug number “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” (lamenting that all the men her age were serving in the war and all she had left to date were teenagers or senior citizens — not surprisingly, Kitty Kallen sang this better on Jimmy Dorsey’s hit record than Davis did this in the movie but her game willingness to be flung around the set by real-life jitterbug champion Conrad Wiedell is engaging; according to, she really hurt her knee doing the number and the limp and look of pain she gives as she exits the set and leans on a lamppost to finish the number were for real) and Errol Flynn’s marvelous pub number “That’s What You Jolly Well Get” (he’s supposed to be playing a Cockney but his accent sounded more Aussie to me — Flynn was actually Australian but he usually affected a quite convincing British accent in his films and only rarely, as here, do his true origins come through) — though this time the songs by people with reputations as singers seemed at least as good. Dinah Shore gets to sing the title song in the opening of the film (depicting a typical Cantor radio broadcast) and an even better one called “The Dreamer” later on (both composed by Arthur Schwartz with lyrics by Frank Loesser — and while Loesser’s output improved in quality when he started writing both music and words, these are still excellent songs of the period). Ida Lupino’s appearance is as part of a trio doing a parody version of “The Dreamer” later on — she’s co-starred with Olivia de Havilland (whose vocal is dubbed by Lynn Martin, though Lupino did her own singing) and George Tobias, and the best part of the number is the energetic dancing (sort of) these three do to the song.

But the musical highlight of the movie is an elaborate number supposedly set in Harlem (in a set built with so many angles and forced perspective that Charles and I had the same thought at once: “The Harlem of Dr. Caligari!”) called “Ice Cold Katy,” about an African-American woman being pushed to hurry up and marry her servicemember boyfriend already before he ships out; besides all the acrobatic dancing and a surprisingly non-stupid role for Willie Best, it’s noteworthy particularly for Hattie McDaniel’s booming vocal. (She hardly ever got to sing in her films — though she was good enough to hold her own with Paul Robeson in the duet “Ah Still Suits Me” in the 1936 Show Boat, and before she went to Hollywood she’d toured on T.O.B.A. Black vaudeville bills with Bessie Smith — and I still think a Bessie Smith biopic starring McDaniel is one of the great might-have-beens of cinema history.) Other Warners’ stars who appear in the film include John Garfield (in the opening Cantor broadcast, in which he nearly strangles Cantor twice while narrating his criminal career to a parody version of “Blues in the Night” — in which the punchline is that, while recalling what his mamma done tol’ him, he recalls that she’s the one who turned him in to the cops!) and Humphrey Bogart, who actually got top billing (they were going alphabetically rather than by role importance) but just did one scene, in which he turns up in his Duke Mantee makeup, complete with three days’ growth of beard, and tries to intimidate S. Z. Sakall with his best “tough guy” manner — and can’t. “I hope my movie fans don’t find out about this!” Bogie says as he exits — and I couldn’t help but joke, “I had a really weird dream! I was making a picture about a guy who ran a bar in North Africa — and that guy was playing my bartender!” Lasting a bit over two hours, Thank Your Lucky Stars is a bit on the long side but is also quite charming, and the three elements — the all-star numbers, Eddie Cantor’s comeuppance (the fact that Cantor allowed himself to be cast under his own name as such an S.O.B. is pretty remarkable in and of itself!) and the love story — manage to mesh instead of clash.