Thursday, December 31, 2015

Four Jills in a Jeep (20th Century-Fox, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the last item we hadn’t watched on the Alice Faye Collection, Volume 2 boxed set: Four Jills in a Jeep, an odd item to appear on an Alice Faye box because she only appears for one song, a modern-dress version of “You’ll Never Know” from her big film Hello, Frisco, Hello which somehow seems to be more moving here, shorn of the period trappings of Hello, Frisco, Hello and in mellow black-and-white instead of Technicolor, even though she may have sung here to the same pre-recording she made for the earlier film. Four Jills in a Jeep (a title which for years I got confused with another wartime musical, Four Jacks and a Jill, which was made by RKO and was yet the third recycling of the Street Girl/That Girl from Paris plot line) actually began life when the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941 and, by executive order, President Franklin Roosevelt created the United Services Organization (USO) to provide entertainment to the troops both at training camps in the U.S. and overseas, including in actual combat zones. Among the big-name celebrities who made the trips were Kay Francis, Martha Raye, Carole Landis and Mitzi Mayfair, who isn’t as well known as the other three because she was a well-known dancer on stage and made a number of those charming vest-pocket musical shorts for Warners/Vitaphone in New York with Hal LeRoy but did only one feature film, this one. Carole Landis — who’s probably best known today for playing Betty Grable’s ill-fated sister in the 1941 mystery I Wake Up Screaming (she’s killed early on and Grable teams with her boyfriend, Victor Mature, to solve the crime) and for her bizarre suicide on July 4, 1948 at age 29. She’d already been married and divorced four times (her third marriage, to a servicemember she met on a USO tour, is dramatized in this film) when she started an affair with actor Rex Harrison even though he was still married to German expat actress Lilli Palmer. When Harrison ended their affair and went back to his wife, a despondent Landis, who even before had been prone to fits of depression, took her own life — and Harrison became persona non grata in Hollywood and didn’t make a U.S. comeback until his stage triumph in the 1956 musical My Fair Lady.

Anyway, the USO tour Francis, Raye, Landis and Mayfair made took them to London and then to the combat zone in North Africa — and Landis wrote (or someone ghost-wrote for her, or she and a ghost writer collaborated) a book about their experiences which she (or someone) called Four Jills in a Jeep. According to a documentary featurette included with the DVD, Landis was the only Hollywood star who wrote a memoir about their USO experiences. So 20th Century-Fox, the studio which had Landis under contract (the other three were all free-lancing by then), decided to develop a film based on their real-life experiences in which the four stars would play themselves, and while the movie (written by Robert Ellis, Helen Logan and someone or something called Snag Werris from a story by Froma Sand and Fred Niblo, Jr., and directed by William A. Seiter at least marginally better than Irving Cummings or Walter Lang helmed the usual generic Fox musicals). They built it around the real-life Armed Forces Radio Service program Command Performance, which was advertised as being built entirely from songs and sketches requested by American servicemembers writing in from combat zones (ironically the German government was producing exactly the same sort of show for their troops; it was called Wunschkonzert, which literally means “Wish Concert” but is usually translated as “Request Concert”), and Command Performance was the working title for the film. But eventually Fox decided to go with the title of Landis’s book and release the movie as Four Jills in a Jeep even though, predictably, the story in the movie didn’t have that much to do with the real-life tale in the book. What they came up with was an interesting, entertaining and blessedly short (91 minutes — one advantage of the older films is they don’t suffer from the narrative bloat of all too many present-day releases, at least partly because in the 1940’s you often got a feature, a “B,” several cartoons and one or two shorts in a movie program instead of the billed feature being the only thing you got to watch, the way it is now) mixture of musical, comedy and war movie, in which the girls (that’s the word that would have been used then!) get to go in the first place because Raye says they’d serve abroad if they could, and later they get to North Africa because Landis issues a similar dare that they’d go to a combat zone if only they were allowed to.

I was a bit disturbed by the fact that the final scene, supposedly taking place as an impromptu show in a North African building while it’s being shelled by the enemy, is accompanied (like all the other performances in the movie) by Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra — he was one of the guest stars called in to bolster the film’s appeal and, even though he’s playing himself, he probably had more dialogue in this movie than in any other he made (and it was ironic, after listening to his early performances on “Cornfed” and “Mean Dog Blues” from 1927 with Red Nichols on Albert Haim’s latest WBIX online radio program, to be watching and hearing him at the peak of his career in this film) — instead of being backed only by the ratty old piano that would likely have been the only instrument available in that environment. The guest stars include Faye, Carmen Miranda (who’s shown singing “I-I-I-I I Like You Very Much,” not one of her stronger songs, and Miranda lost a lot every time she was filmed in black-and-white; she really needed color to shine) and Betty Grable (singing “Cuddle Up a Little Closer,” one of the many ancient songs she had to perform in all the period musicals 20th Century-Fox kept assigning her). Dick Haymes is also in it, making his film debut (a special credit tells us that, though he was already a “name” in the music industry — he’d followed Frank Sinatra in the bands of both Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, and for good measure he’d stopped into Benny Goodman’s as well, and had just signed a solo recording contract with Decca in 1943; given how opposed Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was to his stars making records — instead of promoting the films, he thought records of his stars singing songs from their movies would lead people to buy the records instead of paying to see the films — he must really have wanted Haymes to take him when he already had a record contract) and actually playing an acting role as Lieutenant Dick Ryan. Of course, he’s mainly there to sing, and he does that well enough, singing the haunting ballad “How Blue the Night” (written, like most of the new songs in the film, by Jimmy McHugh, composer, and Harold Adamson, lyrics), and an O.K. song called “You Send Me.” Haymes came out at about the same time as Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, and though he lacked both Sinatra’s eloquent phrasing and Como’s fabled smoothness, he was a quite interesting singer who was briefly successful but never really achieved superstardom or lasting fame.

What’s good about Four Jills in a Jeep is the wartime urgency of it all — though the North African war was pretty much over by the time it was made, the war overall was still going on and the parts about the women saying they want to fight and would do so if only they were allowed to “play” quite differently now that the U.S. has finally got rid of the ban on women servicemembers in combat. Though quite obviously shot on the 20th Century-Fox backlot, the North Africa scenes are quite credible at creating the illusion of combat conditions and providing a powerful and surprisingly dramatic ending to a film that for the most part was an un-serious morale-booster. Four Jills in a Jeep is an engaging film, even though the writing committee is quite obviously shoehorning the real story of the four female stars’ actual USO trip into the well-honed and hardend conventions of movie clichés — and it seems an odd choice for a boxed set honoring Alice Faye, since she’s only shown for about five minutes doing one sing that was already part of her repertoire. Week-End in Havana, the superb tropical musical from 1941 would have made a better fit in either of the Faye boxed sets, or the Carmen Miranda box for that matter, since they’re both in it and they have major roles. Incidentally, the DVD of Four Jills in a Jeep also includes three of the five songs that were deleted from the movie before release — Martha Raye in a surprisingly restrained (especially for her!) version of “Coming In on a Wing and a Prayer,” Kay Francis half-singing and half-rapping her way through a new Kelser-Adamson song called “It’s the Old Army Game” and a definitely pre-pubescent kid dueting with Sebastian on the dance floor before Francis herself calls a halt to the proceedings, reminding us that in 1936 she was playing the mother and Deanna Durbin her wayward daughter; and Carmen Miranda doing the Brazilian song “Mamae Yo Quero” (which I first heard in Spanish, as “Mama Yo Quiero,” on a record by Xavier Cugat), which shows her off a lot better than “I-I-I-I I Like You Very Much.”