Blame it on Paramount.
As the mobilization of private and corporate life in America in the first frenzied months of World War II mushroomed, and the message repeated that all members of U.S. society must pitch in together, the Movie Industry made this symbiotic call-to-arms concrete by having all stars under contract at each major studio work together on gargantuan, marginally narrative musicals, beginning with Paramount’s STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM. Probably a brainchild of Paramount’s then-new head of production, Broadway showman Buddy DeSylva, the movie was a gaudy string of performative baubles and geegaws: all-star comedy sketches, ambitious musical numbers (including musically non-gifted superstars taking a crack at a ditty or two), a Balanchine-choreographed dream ballet, and the de rigueur stellar patriotic tableau for the finale.
Despite its dubious merits of quality (a “bulky, all-star variety show” as the NYT’s Bosley Crowther wrote on its release), the flag-waving and cash-cow success of STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM brought a serious industry “double-dare-ya” to the other studios.
As the Top Dawg of the era, M-G-M cranked out the biggest brain candy of this flash-in-the-pan subgenre, THOUSANDS CHEER, the only one of these films in Technicolor, with a storyline that dramatized the concept of team spirit, the same idea that generated this run of films in the first place. A couple of L.A. suburbs away, in Burbank Warners persuaded Errol Flynn to have his way with a tune and Bette Davis to dance a jitterbug for THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS. Even the indies got into the act with United Artists’ production of STAGE DOOR CANTEEN, directed by Frank Borzage. As a cost-conscious independent production, the creators of STAGE DOOR CANTEEN had the brilliant idea of leaving Hollywood and shooting the film in New York with Manhattan-based actors and entertainers. In retrospect, the resulting film was an Alexandrian archive of legendary artists’ performances (albeit of second-rate material) whose work seldom made it to film, documenting a broad range of talent such from Helen Hayes and Tallulah Bankhead to Gypsy Rose Lee and the Count Basie Orchestra.
But even more meager than the indies were the budget and resources of (then) borderline poverty row Universal Studios. Their offering in this all-star musical fad, FOLLOW THE BOYS (not to be confused with a 1960s Connie Francis musical comedy of the same name), really put the ‘effort’ in the phrase “War Effort.”
Paramount commissioned Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer to pen a new tune for STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM; the result was the classic That Ol’ Black Magic. THOUSANDS CHEER featured luminaries such as Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. And even STAGE DOOR CANTEEN featured the classic jazz epiphany of Peggy Lee crooning Why Don’t You Do Right? backed by the Benny Goodman Orchestra.
Universal’s FOLLOW THE BOYS had a trained dog act.To be fair, the dog act was the nadir of the film’s content, yet as a gesture by a key player in the film community giving its all for the boys in uniform, that reeked of paucity. Yet what was a studio — whose primary cinema output was horror films, jungle dramas and low-brow comedies — to do? This dilemma of resources came to a head in the pivotal set-up and payoff sequence of FOLLOW THE BOYS: George Raft, as fictitious Hollywood leading man Tony West, proposed his concept of taking Hollywood stars on the road to entertain the troops in a town hall-type meeting full of movie stars and entertainers playing themselves. The reverse shot to Raft asking celebrities to pitch in is a graphically-correct, right-to-left dolly shot (delineating inclusion and coherence) across two rows of Universal contract players such as Evelyn Ankers (star of THE WOLF MAN and SON OF DRACULA), Susannah Foster (the chirping target of Claude Rains in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), Gale Sondergaard (who killed Bette Davis in THE LETTER and played the title role of THE SPIDER WOMAN) and “the Caribbean Cyclone” Maria Montez (COBRA WOMAN, WHITE SAVAGE). Sondergaard had won a Supporting Actress Oscar and there was a certain pop-hysteria about Montez, but this was hardly an A-List bunch. The sequence expanded into other corners of the meeting room as more stars chimed in, revealing shots of Turhan Bey, Randolph Scott, Andy Devine, and the ultimate “Strange Bedfellows” composition: Sophie Tucker with Lon Chaney, Jr.
(Surprisingly, Universal’s one superstar and number one money-maker, Deanna Durbin, was missing from the film, as were their top comedians, Abbott and Costello.)
Like unvarnished furniture, Universal product from the heyday of the studio era simultaneously supported a dream and exposed its illusion. This is perhaps best illustrated by Robert Parrish’s remembrance of being the assistant to Universal’s montage editor, Harry Kaufman.
According to his memoirs, Growing Up in Hollywood, the first day on the job Kaufman described the situation of Universal’s Montage Department to Parrish:
We’re supposed to make montages to plug up story holes and to add production value to low-budget pictures. Therefore we operate on a low budget. Vorkapitch at M-G-M and Don Siegel at Warner Brothers can spend more on one montage for one picture than we can spend all year. They have real departments, with art directors, writers, cameramen, et cetera. We have you and me and a lot of old stock film.
Kaufman asked Parrish if he went to the movies often. Parrish said he did, so Kaufman replied –
Good. Keep going as often as you can, but from now on watch out for montages, especially in M-G-M and Warner Brothers pictures. When you see a particularly good one, let me know and we’ll steal it…We borrow the print, clean it up, and knock off a dupe negative and put it in my library here.
Parrish asked if they could get away with that. Kaufman’s answer was…
When we come to the parts that might be recognized we cut them out or optically superimpose an oil gusher or a close-up of one of our actors, Rod Cameron or Bill Lundigan or somebody. Let me worry about that. You just keep going to movies and looking for montages, and when you see a good one let me know. OK?
There were plenty of montages in FOLLOW THE BOYS. For example, as Dinah Shore sang I’ll Walk Alone on a radio broadcast to the boys overseas, military stock footage — some of which looked as if it were left over from World War I — was slathered across her beguiling face like marmalade on a crumpet. Then, periodically superimposed over Dinah and the grainy, ancient footage, a world globe would gyrate at high speed (must have been some footage underneath the other studios would recognize).
Despite — or perhaps because of — the low budget, there is a workman-like charm in viewing this film today. Despite threadbare settings and situations, the musical performers elevate the scenes they’re in, bringing relief and pleasure to the viewer. Sophie Tucker belts out The Bigger the Army, The Better the Lovin’ Will Be. Donald O’Connor does an incendiary tap number with his favorite dance partner, the overlooked Peggy Ryan. (It’s also filmically interesting since it intercuts documentary longshots from a live performance before a sea of G.I.s and controlled studio shots of the dance.) The Andrews Sisters let loose with Shoo-Shoo Baby, while jazz bands led by Louis Jordan and Charlie Spivak get to burn up the screen for a few minutes too. Also, there’s some comedy relief when Orson Welles saws Marlene Dietrich in half and W. C. Fields works a pool table, doing tricks with his cue.
FOLLOW THE BOYS was an oxymoron: an All-Star movie from the studio with an empty cupboard of stars. Yet somehow it was a successful formula since they repeated the process later that year with the adorably lopsided BOWERY TO BROADWAY, with many of the same cast members.
That one’s another guilty pleasure I’ll have to tell you about someday.