Swingtime in the Movies: The Musicals of the War Years

Who knew a World War could be so entertaining?

As the 1940s got underway, the Swing Era in music was, shall we say, in full swing. Once America entered the war in retaliation for the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941 (keeping in mind that the war had already been raging in Europe for two full years by that point), the entertainment industry in Hollywood reacted in a number ways—not the least of which included frequent air raid drills for coastal cities, blackouts, war bond drives, and USO shows and tours featuring the biggest stars of the day.

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Another reaction came with the proliferation of a new sub-genre of films: patriotic musical comedies designed to help keep the nation upbeat as America made its way through the conflicts overseas. With big band swing at its peak and FDR’s fireside chats to keep the nation informed and determined to achieve victory, audiences in movie theatres across the country enjoyed films that served the hyper-patriotism of the day with both comic relief and the most popular swing music of the day.

And the trend began with none other than the Abbott & Costello comedy Buck Privates.

Publicity still from Universal’s Buck Privates (1940) with (from left): Lou Costello,
Maxene Andrews, Patty Andrews, LaVerne Andrews, and Bud Abbott)

It may come as a surprise that filming for Buck Privates began in late 1940, taking advantage of the nation’s preoccupation with the newly instituted draft. Hitler’s armies had been trampling across Europe and already at war with Britain and France, and by early 1941, it appeared inevitable that America would enter the conflict at some point. Buck Privates served as the first—and arguably best—of Hollywood’s many pep rally-style musical extravaganzas, with the laughs supplied by Abbott & Costello (the nation’s most popular comedy team at the time), interspersed with musical numbers by the Andrews Sisters.

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Released in January of 1941, Buck Privates had quite a head start on the wartime musical comedies that followed, considering that America would not officially enter the war for nearly another year. But by then, Bud and Lou had already made and released their military follow-ups to Buck Privates, continuing with In The Navy (with its musical refrain “We’re in the Navy/Watchdogs of liberty…”) and Keep ’Em Flying which were filmed and released in quick order.

As a side note, the second picture the team actually filmed in ’41, Hold That Ghost—with the Andrews Sisters singing “Aurora” accompanied by Ted Lewis and his band—had its release date delayed, allowing In the Navy to serve as a more suitable follow-up release to Buck Privates.

As for the sisters’ contributions to Buck Privates, their songs served the film perfectly, and remained popular for many years after. “You’re A Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith” sets the stage in the opening minutes, as draftees march and sing through a train terminal on their way to boot camp. “Apple Blossom Time” and, of course “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (the Decca recording of which reach #6 on the US pop singles chart in the spring) are the two stand-out numbers, while the rousing “Bounce Me Brother with a Solid Four” ignites some swinging Lindy hop dancing at the camp’s canteen. None of the subsequent Abbott & Costello films boasted as impressive and enjoyable set of songs, all written for the film by Don Raye and Hughie Prince.

The reviews were enthusiastic upon the film’s release on January 31, 1941. The New York Times declared that “any foolish notions that training for war is basically a grim business have been largely dispelled. If the real thing is at all like this preview of Army life—with the Messrs. A & C dropping gags once a minute and the Andrews Sisters crooning patriotic boogie-woogie airs—well, it’s going to be a merry war, folks. For Buck Privates is an hour and a half of uproarious monkeyshines.”

In a bit of irony, the ceremony in which Bud and Lou placed their hand and footprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre took place on December 8, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack.

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In The Navy saw the return of the Andrews Sisters, this time playing a bigger part in the story with Bud and Lou and singing a handful of songs (by Don Raye and Gene DePaul), including “You’re Off to See the World” and “Give Me Some Skin, My Friend,” but they failed to make as strong a mark in popularity of those in Buck Privates.

The rest of Hollywood didn’t begin cranking out most of its major patriotic-themed productions, or “service musicals,” until mid-1942, with Universal’s Private Buckaroo, starring Dick Foran and featuring a cast of comic actors—as well as, yes, the Andrews Sisters, plus Harry James & his Music Makers. It was released in late May of ’42.

The film opens in a nightclub, with Helen Forrest singing “You Made Me Love You,” and Foran later offering the title number, “Private Buckaroo.” In the plot, Harry James as a popular bandleader is drafted, prompting his pal Foran to attempt to enlist (alas, he’s a 4F, in one foot). James has a small, sporadic speaking role. And as an actor, he’s an excellent trumpeter.

Of the dozen songs scattered throughout, the Andrews Sisters sing “Three Little Sisters,” “Six Jerks in a Jeep,” “That’s the Moon, My Son,” while comedian Joe E. Lewis takes on “I Love the South.” Sharp-eyed viewers will spot a young Donald O’Connor in a small role, as well as comics

Shemp Howard, Mary Wickes, Huntz Hall, and dancer/comedian Peggy Ryan. A scene at a USO show features James and band swinging an instrumental number, followed by the Andrews Sisters offering the popular “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” The musical finale, “Johnny Get Your Gun Again – We’ve Got a War to be Won” provides the predictable, flag-waving send-off.

May of 1942 also saw the release of M-G-M’s Ship Ahoy, starring Red Skelton and Eleanor Powell, and includes appearances by Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra, with Frank Sinatra singing “Poor You” and “Last Call for Love.” Viewers will also spot trumpeter Ziggy Elman and drummer Buddy Rich taking solos. Bert Lahr and the always wonderful Virginia O’Brien are on hand for music and laughs as well.

In September of that year, Glenn Miller and his band returned to the screen for Orchestra Wives, a 20th Century Fox picture that was actually about a swing band—more or less. Miller plays Gene Morrison (the same initials allowed him to keep the “G.M.” on the band’s music stands). The plot involves one of his trumpeters—a brash, rather unlikeable ladies’ man (George Montgomery) who gets himself tangled up in a love triangle, while the fictional orchestra wives themselves are depicted as catty and back-stabbing as they trudge along with their husbands on endless tours. The cast also includes Caesar Romero, a young Jackie Gleason, Lynn Bari, and Ann Rutherford. Miller himself has a fairly substantial speaking part, and holds his own (although most of the bandleaders in these films all look stiff and uncomfortable when required to “act”—the exception being Kay Kyser).

Sheet music cover for “Kalamazoo” (1942)

The Mack Gordon-Harry Warren songs include “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” sung by Tex Beneke and the Modernaires (with Marion Hutton making all sorts of grimaces and gestures meant for laughs, but she really overdoes it here), “Serenade in Blue,” “People Like You and Me,” and “At Last,” which would much later receive its legendary, bluesy rendition by Etta James in 1960.

Miller volunteered to join the military in 1942 to entertain the troops. As a member of the Army Air Force (before the Air Force became a separate entity), he toured with his band, adding a string section. The band was transferred to England in June of 1944, playing for American troops in a variety of venues, and on hundreds of radio broadcasts.

Newspaper ad for Reveille with Beverly (1943)

The big bands have a significant presence in Columbia’s Reveille with Beverly, released in February of 1943. Starring Ann Miller as a popular radio DJ with the troops in her listening audience, the film cleverly begins each musical number by a shot of a spinning record dissolving into a set performance by each band. Count Basie and his band treat us to “One O’clock Jump,” Duke Ellington offers “Take the A- Train,” a young. lanky Sinatra croons “Night and Day,” the Mills Brothers harmonize on “Sweet Lucy Brown,” and Ann Miller herself dances up a storm for the big finale, “Thumbs Up and V For Victory.”

One of the most famous movies of this ilk, Stage Door Canteen, released in June of 1943, is crammed with cameos by dozens of stars, while the bands providing the swing include Count Basie, Xavier Cugat (playing “The Bombshell from Brooklyn”), Kay Kyser, Guy Lombardo (with Kenny Baker crooning “Goodnight, Sweetheart”), Freddie Martin, and Benny Goodman (with Peggy Lee). Goodman’s band plays the rousing “Bugle Call Rag” was well.

The film opens on an army train enroute to training camp. Once the recruits are given 24-hour leave in New York, they make a beeline to the Stage Door Canteen for entertainment, food, and girls. Once there, we catch glimpses of Gypsy Rose Lee, Ralph Bellamy, Ed Wynn, Bill Stern, George Raft, William Demarest, Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy, Ray Bolger, Ethel Merman, George Jessel (performing his famous “Hello, Mama” telephone routine), and dozens more performers. There’s even room for the Marine song “Halls of Montezuma,” in case any viewer might mistake the intentions of the picture.

Warner Brothers’ This is the Army, based on the Broadway production, also premiered in movie theatres in 1943. Directed by Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, This is the Army is noted for its opulent musical numbers, especially for Kate Smith’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Berlin himself appears to warble another of the nineteen songs he wrote for the film, “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”

There were still more service musicals to come in 1943. A pair of Kay Kyser vehicles, Thousands Cheer, and Around the World, fictionalizing the exploits of Kyser’s band on its tour for the troops, remind us of how Kyser’s sense of fun could be counted on for laughs in between the bands swing numbers. His goofy sidekick/cornetist Ish Kabibble (Merwyn Bogue) also provides silliness along with the music.

Tommy Dorsey and Eleanor Powell in a still from MGM’s Ship Ahoy (1942)

The year concluded with the Christmas Eve release of The Gang’s All Here, from 20th Century Fox, starring Alice Faye, Phil Baker, Eugene Pallette, and Carmen Miranda, with Benny Goodman and his band. Director Busby Berkeley wasn’t shy to give the Technicolor production his unmistakable touch when it came to lavish dance numbers, filming his famous choreography style with kaleidoscope-like overhead shots. The songs were provided by Leo Robin and Harry Warren.

It’s no surprise that The Gang’s All Here includes scenes at a fictional Broadway Canteen, crammed with G.I.s and Lindy hoppers enjoying Goodman and his band. What is shocking, perhaps is the sight and sound of Goodman himself singing “Minnie’s in the Money.” The focus then shifts to the more elegant Club New Yorker for a few of Miranda’s numbers with over-the-top effects involving countless giant bananas held a waist height by the chorus girls (which reportedly met with dropped jaws by the censors at the Hays Office).

Sheet music cover for “No Love, No Nuthin’” (1943)

Goodman and the band return in a rehearsal scene that leads into Alice Faye lamenting “No Love, No Nuthin’” while a later scene at a war bond party on the grounds of a mansion offers us yet another rare vocal by Benny on “Paducah.”

One film, which might be considered the runt of the litter among the major studio wartime musicals is the low-budget 1944 release Swing Hostess, produced by PRC Pictures. It’s notable mostly for placing former Goodman vocalist Martha Tilton in the starring role—and she does a decent job, truth be told. Six songs by Jay Livingston & Ray Evans and Lewis Bellin include what was obviously meant to be the picture’s featured number, “Let’s Capture This Moment” (Tilton would have greater success that year with the wartime ballad “I’ll Walk Alone,” which reached #4 on the charts that year).

But not every musical film featuring a swing band during the war years focused on the war effort itself. Sun Valley Serenade, released in 1941 by 20th Century Fox, stars John Payne, Milton Berle, Lynn Bari, Glenn Miller as bandleader Phil Corey, and the vivacious Olympic champion skater Sonja Henie, with Glenn Miller and his orchestra, and songs by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren. In the story, Henie plays Norwegian refugee Payne, as one of the band’s musicians, had agreed to sponsor and provide a home for, thinking she would be a child and not a full-grown adult!

Viewers get a few brief excerpts here of “Moonlight Serenade,” “In the Mood,” and in an extended rehearsal scene, “Chattanooga Choo Choo, with Tex Beneke and the Modernaires on vocals. The song reached #1 on the Billboard charts and received a Gold Record for over one million copies sold. The Miller band’s treatment segues into the Nicholas Brothers and Dorothy Dandrige picking up the song, with the tap-dancing brothers performing another of their typically superhuman routines. Tommy Dorsey and his band feature prominently in the 1943 M-G-M musical DuBarry Was a Lady, starring Red Skelton and Lucille Ball, based on the Broadway show. Most of the songs were Cole Porter numbers, and the Musical sequences often turned the spotlight on Buddy Rich, Ziggy Elman, Dick Haymes, Jo Stafford, and the Pied Pipers. Also appearing for numbers were Virginia O’Brien, and Gene Kelly.

Then, of course, there were the film biographies of the bandleaders themselves, each offering varying degrees of historical accuracy, but chocked full of their most famous arrangements, and with many of the original musicians from their bands taking part: The Fabulous Dorseys, with Tommy and Jimmy playing themselves, was released in 1947. The Glenn Miller Story, starring Jimmy Stewart as Miller, opened in 1954 (of course, this film carried with it an added element of tragedy, as Miller went Missing In Action on December 15, 1944, on a flight over the English Channel. His plane was never found, and one year later, he was officially declared dead by the military).

In 1956, Steve Allen starred in The Benny Goodman Story, while in 1959 Sal Mineo played Gene Krupa in The Gene Krupa Story.

Coming full circle, while Buck Privates started the service musical trend back in 1941, it arguably also completed the trend, with the 1947 sequel, Buck Privates Come Home, in which Bud & Lou attempt to adopt an orphaned French girl and hide her (at her request) on their way back home after the war. The film includes a sequence in which a transport ship carrying soldiers returns to New York from Europe as they sing “Going Home” in unison upon disembarking from the ship (although there are no further musical numbers in the film).

Many more musical comedies, set either during or after the war, were still to follow, and we’ve only scratched the surface here among dozens of films featuring the swing bands of the era. But as the horrors of war raged on two fronts half a world away from each other, the most popular big bands and their singers, as well as dancers and comedians, offered movie audiences escapism on a regular basis, helping Americans cheer, laugh, and even dance their way—if only for ninety minutes at a time—through what has been called our last “noble” war.

For over twenty years, Garry Berman has written books and articles related to pop culture and entertainment history. He has contributed articles to Beatlefan magazineNostalgia Digest, and History magazine. In addition to his non-fiction work, he also writes comic novels and screenplays. He is also co-administrator of the Facebook group page Friends of Sant Andreu Jazz Band. Visit him online at www.GarryBerman.com.

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