Friday, January 1, 2010

THOUSANDS CHEER (MGM 1943) Warner Archive Collection

In a decade dedicated to bolstering the war effort on the home front, MGM launched into their elephantine offering in support with George Sidney's Thousands Cheer (1943) - a gargantuan, star packed musical extravaganza that regrettably shows signs of creakiness throughout its rather threadbare plot. No fault can be placed on screenwriters, Paul Jarrico and Richard Collins, who first envisioned the project as a modest non-musical entitled Private Miss Jones.

The casting of MGM's leading soprano Kathryn Grayson and dancer Gene Kelly in the leads necessitated revamping the film to include several songs and dances. However, upon viewing the finished footage, L.B. Mayer decided that what was really required was a show of force - literally - a glittering star packed zeitgeist of songs and dances haphazardly thrown together; not only to support the selling of war bonds but more to the point to celebrate MGM's supremacy in the realm of musical entertainment.

Since the modest tale of a female army recruit falling in love with a private left little room to establish such a show of shows, the last third of Thousands Cheer is reserved for an all out interruption of the story in favor of a cavalcade of showmanship mercilessly paraded before the spectator's eye, though bypassing the heart entirely.

The film opens with Kathryn Jones (Grayson) announcing her retirement from the New York Symphony conducted by Jose Iturbi to join the army as a morale booster, as well as to reunite with her estranged father, Colonel Bill Jones (John Boles). Kathryn's mother, Hyllary (Mary Astor) approves - but only superficially. She and Bill have been divorced for many years and Hyllary still holds Bill's love of serving his country - at the expense of being a full time father - against him.

On the train bound for the recruitment camp, Kathryn meets Private Eddie Marsh (Gene Kelly). Brash and holding women in low regard, Eddie's nose is tweaked by Bill while his heart is strained by Kathryn's romantic overtures. Eventually, Eddie confides in Kathryn that he always believed his true calling was in the Air Force, having been an aerialist for many years with a travelling circus troop.

Kathryn and Eddie's romance blossoms despite adversity - to the point where Eddie is set to forgo his plans of joining the U.S. flyers. However, Hyllary has other plans entirely, thwarting her daughter's romance by having Eddie thrown in the guard house under the mistaken belief that nothing good can ever come from falling in love with a soldier.

From here, the narrative becomes frozen in time in favor of a grand display of MGM star power who descend on the military camp to entertain the troops. With Mickey Rooney as the show's M.C., the finale to Thousands Cheer disintegrates into a bizarre claptrap of musical outtakes and comedy skits featuring the likes of Eleanor Powell, Red Skelton, Margaret O'Brien, Frank Morgan, Lucille Ball and other such luminaries - most, utterly wasted in all too brief appearances that are neither memorable or career defining.

Standouts are present - including Bob Crosby and his orchestra introducing June Allyson, Gloria DeHaven and Virginia O'Brien singing 'In A Little Spanish Town'. Lena Horne's 'Honeysuckle Rose' with Benny Carter and his band also makes for quite a show, as does Judy Garland's 'The Joint Is Really Jumpin' Down At Carnegie Hall' - accompanied by Jose Iturbi.

Arguably, the best musical offerings in the film have nothing to do with this grand finale. From Kathryn Grayson's magnificently operatic 'Sempre Libera' and poignant 'Three Letters in A Mailbox', to Gene Kelly's mop dance performed to the tune of 'Let Me Call You Sweetheart', to the climactic 'United Nations on the March' finale that closes the film - Thousands Cheer is a musical that would have done better to remain modest and cloying rather than boisterous and brazen.

The Warner Archive edition of Thousands Cheer represents a film in crisis. The Technicolor elements are hanging on by a thread with glaring mis-registration and a barrage of age related artifacts that make the film appear much older than it is when directly compared to other films from this vintage. There is even a brief insert of a train travelling at night that is almost B&W in its appearance - the emulsion from the Technicolor negative - that ought to have rendered it in tones of deep blue - having completely worn off.

As with other titles in the Warner Archive - the quality of the transfer represents the ravages of the years without the benefit of any restoration work having been done. But this is one film that desperately needs such efforts employed to save it from disappearing forever and altogether. Remarkably, the audio fairs considerably better than the video. It is very crisp and clean with only minor hiss and pop detected.

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



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