Saturday, November 15, 2008

Irving Berlin's THIS IS THE ARMY (Warner Bros. 1943) Warner Home Video

Irving Berlin’s This Is The Army (1943) is perhaps the most patriotic grand salute to the American Armed Forces ever attempted on film. An adopted son, Irving Berlin never forgot that his overwhelming critical and financial success came at the behest of a compassionate nation. Until his dying day, he remained eternally grateful for the opportunities he had been afforded and consistently endeavored to express that personal love of the United States through his own innate God-given talents as a composer of popular music.

This Is The Army was a highly successful stage show long before it became a movie, and there is something genuinely endearing – rather than static – about the care that director Michael Curtiz has given to retaining both the look and feel of that original theatrical presentation, while adding minor cinematic touches to freshen up the action for the big screen.

The plot is superficial at best. During World War I, song and dance man Jerry Jones (George Murphy) stages a magnificent ‘all soldier’ Broadway revue called ‘Yip Yip Yaphank’, before being conscripted into service.

Wounded in body, though not in spirit on the battlefield, Jerry returns home to convalesce and become a successful Broadway impresario and music publishing mogul. Together with his partner, Maxie Twardofsky (George Tobias), the men decide that with the looming crisis in Europe, the time is ripe for another all out tribute to America’s valiant men in arms.

The film fast tracks to the advent of the Second World War, where Jerry’s son, Johnny (Ronald Reagan) has become something of a silent, though conscientious objector to the conflict. After Johnny is enlisted and decides to stage a grand revival, ‘This Is The Army’ in support of the war bond effort, along with his buddy Sgt. McGee (Alan Hale), he runs into ghosts from his past, including the loss of a brother in the air force. These memories impact Johnny’s current relationship with Red Cross nurse and fiancée, Eileen Dibble (Joan Leslie).

The show – an assemblage of genuine enlisted men from America’s Armed Forces - goes on the road, touring all the major U.S. cities. It is a resounding smash. However, as the threat of real combat looms precariously in the background, Johnny’s fear over possibly making a widow out of Eileen get the better of him. He postpones their engagement indefinitely.

There’s really not much more to the story than this. What sets This Is The Army apart from other war time musical entertainment is its exemplary collection of Irving Berlin tunes; a finer, more rousing and patriotic set of songs arguably does not exist! The film’s title track is a loving lampoon of the separation between civilian and military life for incoming recruits.

Other songs celebrate the American solider at war; the U.S.’s supremacy in the sky; ‘American Eagles’ and on the sea; ‘How About A Cheer For The Navy.’ Gertrude Nielsen’s rendition of ‘Your Country and My Country’ gets the musical program off to a rousing start, as does Richard Crane’s poignant ‘I Left My Heart At The Stage Door Canteen.'

The film ends on a magnificent proclamation of selfless servitude and commitment to peace with ‘This Time Is The Last Time’; a staggering display of military maneuvers set against the backdrop of an art deco Uncle Sam and American Eagle, with the flags of friendly nations lining the left and right of the stage.

But perhaps the two best remembered musical moments in the film belong to radio singer Kate Smith and composer Irving Berlin. Smith introduces ‘God Bless America’ in a moment excised from real life; her rich bravado raising the American call to arms to new heights through Berlin’s lyrics, even as the tone of underscoring hints at some remnant sadness and pending gloom of conflict.

The other great moment belongs to Berlin, reprising for the film as he did on the stage, a cameo performance as a soldier begrudgingly adverse to revelry at the crack of dawn, with ‘Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning.’ Berlin, who was hardly a singer in great voice, nevertheless manages to convey his own sense of undying passion for the nation that made him a success.

As a result, This Is The Army achieves a crescendo of old fashion patriotism run amuck, the likes of which has not been seen in some time on the big screen. The film is an experience and faithful adaptation of Berlin’s stage spectacular rather than an outright cinematic reworking of the material.

Naysay pundits will suggest that there’s too little subtext and far too much schmaltz to make the film a hit with contemporary audiences. This critic will simply reply, ‘What in the world is wrong with that?’

So long as there are soldiers at war and families at home desperately awaiting their safe return, love of country will always be fashionable. In the final analysis, Berlin’s music makes audiences proud to be American – even if you were not born one. How many new Hollywood movies can claim as much?

After decades of having to contend with the worst possible image quality made readily available to home viewing audiences with, in some cases, missing frames and jump cuts, Warner Home Video has at long last rescued This Is The Army from public domain hell to produce a definitive DVD transfer worthy of the film itself.

Color fidelity, while perhaps not quite as refined as one might expect, is light years ahead of anything consumers have seen in a long while. Flesh tones retain a tad pasty quality, but reds are blood red and blacks deep, rich and solid. Occasionally, the image can appear slightly clumpy with a loss of fine details. There are also moments where age related artifacts become quite obvious. On the whole, however, the film looks beautiful.

The mono audio is a tad strident but, owing to the quality of existing prints, has been cleaned up rather nicely. In addition to the inclusion of the film’s original road show’s overture and exit music (not heard since the original premiere); this disc contains a fairly comprehensive documentary on Warner Bros. war movies narrated by Steven Spielberg. There’s also the usual Warner Night at the Movies extras (shorts, cartoons and theatrical trailer) as well as a fascinating commentary that includes thoughts from Joan Leslie. Highly recommended!

*Please note: currently this disc has only been made available as part of the Warner Home Front Collection: a three disc set that also includes Thank Your Lucky Stars and Hollywood Canteen.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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