Sunday, May 24, 2015

THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1943) Warner Archive

Warner publicity heralded David Butler’s Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) as “a million shows in one and one show in a million.” Unhappy chance, for posterity the finished film is more a compendium of outtakes and experiments than one cohesive ‘hey kids, let’s put on a show!’; an embarrassment of riches from the Warner Bros. stable squandered as they are unceremoniously thrust together in an undernourished claptrap written by Norman Panama, Melvin Frank, James V. Kern, itself based on an ‘original’ story idea by Everett Freeman and Arthur Schwartz. I’ve placed ‘original’ in parentheses because there is virtually nothing ‘original’ about the scenario being marketed herein. Virtually every studio in Hollywood made all-star tributes to the gristmill in wartime propaganda: MGM with the lavishly appointed, Thousands Cheer, and Warner with a reworking of Irving Berlin’s galvanic WWI stage smash, This Is The Army (both released the same year as Thank Your Lucky Stars) and Warner, again, in 1944 with Hollywood Canteen – arguably, the best of the lot. On this outing, Jack L. Warner has trucked in a satchel full of his top-notch talent for a tired ole yarn that any rudimentary scriptwriter could have cobbled together while sitting on the loo: unknown singer, desperate to make good, becomes famous. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Thank Your Lucky Stars is a warhorse in the truest sense of that word. Long before it became fashionable a la a Michael Todd to give high-priced talent ‘cameos’ in a big-budgeted extravaganza, Thank Your Lucky Stars derives an almost fiendish pleasure from forcing its celebrity entourage to act and behave as they never have before. Ergo, we get Errol Flynn doing a cockney pub crawl buck n’ wing and Bette Davis croaking a minor Arthur Schwartz/Frank Loesser ditty, ‘They’re Either Too Young or Too Old’. In this topsy-turvy milieu anything is possible. Tough guy, Humphrey Bogart, playing a derivative of his ‘murderer’s row’ rogue’s gallery of thugs (that made him the most dispensable ‘meanie’ in the studio’s series of gangster flicks throughout the 1930s), has his wings clipped by the comic relief, Dr. Schlenna (S.Z. Sakall), who promptly gives him a stern dressing down. Hattie McDaniel screams ‘Ice Cold Katy’ with raw, impassioned heat that is truly grating on the acoustic nerve, and, Jack Carson and Alan Hale make mincemeat of ‘Way Up North’ – a polar-themed ‘specialty’ putting the freeze on entertainment value with its crudely executed emphasis on bombast.
Thank Your Lucky Stars is not so much a movie as a musical revue and at least in this regard the film is on very solid ground. No less than 27 songs are sandwiched into 127 minutes of screen time; a goodly sum, including the regal ‘Good Night, Good Neighbor’, made melodic and satisfying by our aspiring ‘star’ - Tommy Randolph (played with congenial charm by Dennis Morgan). Morgan is one of those underrated talents from Hollywood’s golden age, possessing all of the accoutrements one could possibly hope for in a leading man (looks, intelligence, charm and talent) yet, somehow, never quite going beyond the ‘second string’ in popularity. When Morgan sings, it is with a smoothly assured yet unassuming lithe charisma – more energetic than say, Perry Como. He and Joan Leslie (the latter dubbed by Sally Sweetland) acquit themselves nicely of a trio of light-hearted ‘boy meets girl’ melodies. But Morgan is far better than this material and it shows. He ought to have had a bigger singing and movie career. The other musical talents on tap in Thank Your Lucky Stars range from oddities to pros; Eddie Cantor, attacking the infectious and bouncy, ‘We’re Staying Home Tonight’ with all the knock-down/drag-out verve of a seasoned Vaudevillian, while Dinah Shore trills with silken smoothness the movie’s love ballad, ‘How Sweet You Are’ and also introduces us to the effervescent title tune; sung as a radio broadcast number at the start of the picture.
I suspect the joy in seeing Thank Your Lucky Stars today derives from its quaintness for picture-making from another time when the cultural mindset was desperately craving escapism from the perils of the European conflict and Hollywood was as determined to throw everything it had at the paying customer except the proverbial ‘kitchen sink’ to ensure good box office. To be sure, there are nuggets of pleasure still to be mined from this experience, and the movie is hardly a washout.  For me, the tragedy of it is that it never settles on telling its story; the two principles, Tommy and his fresh-faced Suzy Cream Cheese – Pat Dixon (Joan Leslie) simply used as dialogue filler between the comedy skits and litany of songs paraded across the screen. The inspiration for this pairing is so obviously transparent and heavily borrowing from MGM’s spate of Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland ‘barn yard’ musicals, except without the Rooney/Garland chemistry or the clever writing to integrate plot and songs into a singularly appealing entertainment. It’s as though the screenwriters have gathered together Schwartz and Loesser’s sheet music and methodically plotted exactly how many words of exposition will get them from one song to the next. Tommy and Pat’s lines are strictly by the numbers ‘darling, I love you/me too’ playbook exchanges torn from the first act of the ‘boy meets girl’ tradition. It’s more than a little difficult to get one’s knickers in a ball for this sort of ‘love interest’. Worse, the wordsmiths responsible for this scenario seem to have forgotten to build a dramatic arc for our hero and heroine to ascend. There is never any doubt this will end happily and very few complications or road blocks set up for Tommy to overcome on his rise to fame.    
The plot, such as it is, begins during a radio broadcast; Dinah Shore emoting ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’. Afterward, M.C. Eddie Cantor has to fend off a half serious/half punchy John Garfield, lampooning one of his film noir tough guys. In the audience, observing this program are theatrical producer, Farnsworth (Edward Everett Horton) and musical conductor, Dr. Schlenna (S.Z. Sakall), who concur Shore would be ideal for the debut of their ‘Cavalcade of Stars’ live show. One problem; to get Shore, the duo has to first engage Cantor with whom she has an exclusive five year contract. Convincing Cantor to loan out Dinah isn’t the problem. Compelling Cantor to butt out is! Soon, the bombastic impresario is commanding the rehearsals and making impossible demands on Schlenna and Farnsworth; also, the show’s cast and crew, writing changes into the script and rearranging everything to turn their endeavor into his comeback special. Meanwhile, in another part of this megawatt starry-eyed Hollywood land of make-believe, unknown song writer, Pat Dixon (Joan Leslie) is desperately trying to pitch her new tune, ‘Moon Dust’ to unknown singer, Tommy Randolph (Dennis Morgan) and Joe, a tour bus driver (played by Cantor, again). She is, of course, initially unsuccessful, but quickly relegates her own dreams to embrace Tommy’s chances to perform in the Cavalcade of Stars. Together, this trio concocts a plan to kidnap Cantor and replace him with Joe, who is, of course, a dead ringer. Without too many complications, the ploy works. Cantor disappears and Tommy gets the opportunity to perform; becoming (wait for it) the big new discovery of the show.
It is usually customary for the finale of such musical revues to be a showcase for glamorous stars doing what they do best. In Thank Your Lucky Stars case, the finale is a grand experiment, placing most of Warner’s backlog of talent on very shaky ground, presumably to provide them with the opportunity to expand their range as performers. This enterprise is only marginally successful. Hattie McDaniel – as example – is no singer and proves it. Ditto for Bette Davis, who barely hits the right – and frequently teeters on some very sour – notes while lumbering through, ‘They’re Either Too Young or Too Old’.  The most impressive of this ‘fish out of waterlogged’ lot is Errol Flynn singing ‘That’s What You Jolly Well Get’ as a playfully obnoxious, booze hound cockney. Not only is Flynn in good voice, he displays superb fluidity in his dancing. Flynn really was far more than the swashbuckling he-man he portrayed throughout the late 30’s and early 40’s. It is a pity Jack Warner never bothered to capitalize on his formidable array of talents by offering him a big budget musical of his own as the studio did with another of its tough guys, James Cagney.
The misfires in Thank Your Lucky Stars are truly cringe-worthy; especially Ann Sheridan’s wickedly atrocious Mae West lampoon; ‘Love Isn’t Born, It’s Made’; cavorting with a hip-swiveling tease, belied by Sheridan’s even more uncomfortably classy façade. Olivia DeHavilland and Ida Lupino, flanked by George Tobias, drown in their mercilessly bad jive routine. The corn is brutally deep in Jack Carson and Alan Hale’s ‘Way Up North’. Interestingly, Humphrey Bogart is top billed amongst this compendium of famous faces, even though he has but six lines in the entire movie; appearing unshaven and suggestively down on his luck. He accosts Schlenna back stage and is quickly – and quite idiotically – demolished by our portly impresario before turning to the camera and muttering, “Gee, I hope my fans don’t find out about this”; a rather telling sentiment. We go from bad to worse in the picture’s finale, Anton Grot and Leo K. Kuter’s art direction placing this glittering entourage of stars in gondola-styled astrological signs, sailing around on their bottoms or clinging to planets while performing reprises of their painful routines.
Not everything is terrible, but so much of Thank Your Lucky Stars just seems to have been culled from a bunch of bad to downright idiotic ideas slapped together with a little greasepaint and duct tape that the results don’t really prove thrilling so much as they sink like the proverbial stone to the bottom of some nondescript artistic dreck. Undeniably, Dennis Morgan emerges from this mire the winner. Either crooning ‘I’m Ridin’ For A Fall’ to Joan Leslie or observing as a pair of Latin Lotharios frenetically toss glamor queen, Alexis Smith around a tropical backdrop while Morgan coos, ‘Good Night, Good Neighbor’, here is a guy who ought to have been a big star; in fine voice and possessing an enigmatic – if congenial – screen personality. There’s no edge to Morgan, but he doesn’t really need it. He’s good to look at and, like Cary Grant, makes the most of his physicality by downplaying the fact he was the studio’s idea of their hunk du jour.  But Morgan is hampered in having Joan Leslie as his co-star and romantic interest. She is too plucky and trying much too hard to find reasons to want to see him – either naked or succeed. The arc of their ‘romance’ is fairly impossible to detect. Tommy and Pat are immediately drawn to one another and never experience the standardized pre-marital hiccups every movie-land couple goes through before saying ‘I do’. As there is virtually no excitement to this ‘happy coupling’ and no challenges for them to overcome, we pin our hats and our focus on the movie’s plot. Oh right, there isn’t any. So, the onus is on the musical program to carry the load. It does, but just barely; the audience suffering through the oddities to get to the cream.   
Eddie Cantor manages to insert every wise crack and lowbrow pithy retort in his formidable back catalog of Vaudevillian tricks, most holding up quite nicely. Dinah Shore’s stand out moment comes late in this caravan; bedecked and bejeweled as a southern belle, twittering the melodic, ‘How Sweet You Are’ – the grandest of the production numbers, and oozing the appropriate amount of stardust and ornamental magic. And then, of course, there is S.Z. Sakall – one of filmdom’s most unique and endearing treasures. He is marvelous as the harried conductor. After an uncooperative elephant turns his back to Schlenna and Farnsworth, the latter angrily declares, “This is the end!” the nonchalant and self-effacing Sakall glibly replies, “Yes, I can see that.” In the final analysis, I suppose we should all ‘thank our lucky stars’ this sort of thrown together entertainment is a thing of the past. The talent is undeniably present and accounted for, but the material they are given makes the least of their appearances and opportunities to shine.
There is nothing second rate about Thank Your Lucky Stars on Blu-ray. Frankly, I am astonished this title has found its way to hi-def ahead of the other wartime musical revues mentioned elsewhere in this review. It is to the Warner Archive’s (WAC) credit that, once again, we have a vintage catalog title looking immaculate and sparkling on home video. My admiration for the archive has grown exponentially with each of their hi-def releases. Clearly, a lot of work has gone into remastering all of the movies in this archive. Alas, I suspect the archive is being hampered in its procurement of more worthy back catalog by Warner Home Video proper; eager to hang on to the ‘bigger’ titles for their own widespread release at some later date. I’ll simply state the obvious and be done with it: first, I cannot imagine a massive interest – even from die hard collectors – for Thank Your Lucky Stars, the sales from this disc likely not to surpass the formidable cost incurred to make this 1080p transfer look this good. Second, unless WAC begins to release some higher priority titles soon, they may be in danger of losing their market share. Is it really too much to ask WHV to release to its own archive some better classics that would likely sell like hotcakes given half the chance?
I can start a list of them right now off the top of my head: Marie Antoinette, Random Harvest, The Yearling, Romeo & Juliet, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), Pride and Prejudice, The White Cliffs of Dover, The Bad and the Beautiful, Executive Suite, Mrs. Parkington, The Student Prince, This is the Army, National Velvet, Mildred Pierce, The Damned Don’t Cry, Humoresque, A Woman’s Face, Flamingo Road, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, High Society, Brigadoon, Weekend At the Waldorf, The Valley of Decision, The Brothers Karamazov, The Goodbye Girl, A Touch of Class and on and on. The focus of the archive ought to be on making such first tier classics shine. Third tier classics like Thank Your Lucky Stars can also be given such consideration, but not at the expense of making us wait for movies that would satisfy collectors more and fill the Warner coffers as did the WAC release of Out of the Past. Now, give us Murder My Sweet, Side Street, Mystery Street, They Drive By Night, etc. et al.     
How does Thank Your Lucky Stars look on Blu-ray. Perfect. Warner’s old DVD was very solid but this new 1080p rendering blows it out of the water. The B&W elements have been nicely cleaned up and fully restored. Contrast levels are superbly balanced. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are bright, though never blooming. The image is razor sharp with good solid grain and virtually NO age-related artifacts to distract. Again, perfection itself! The audio has been given no less consideration. This is a reference quality disc, but of a very mediocre movie.  If WAC was heaven-bent on releasing a war-themed musical as part of their 2015 slate, they had better contenders in their hopper than this!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



David M. said...

It's pretty clear that Warner Archive is using a dartboard to choose titles to restore for their spectacular new Blu-Rays. That's some dartboard; I just wish they threw more darts.

Nick Zegarac said...

Dear David:

Restorations take time and I sincerely suspect the Warner Archive is basically at the mercy of Warner Home Video, granted permission to release only the lesser titles WHV does not believe will sell any other way. That said, I don't think WHV believes Irving Berlin's This Is The Army, Hollywood Canteen or Thousands Cheer will be viable mainstream releases either. Why WAC chose Thank Your Lucky Stars over any of these aforementioned titles is something of a mystery...unless, of course, the other titles were in a more perilous state of disrepair, requiring more costly restorations to ready them for hi-def. But yes, I agree: the archive should be allowed first crack at some bigger catalog releases or face the possibility their releases won't be selling as well as expected.