A note on Michael Curtiz’ direction of ‘Irving Berlin’s This is the Army’ (1943)

 

According to Thomas Schatz in Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s, ‘While musicals made up a fairly limited proportion of Hollywood’s overall output, they generated a sizeable share of its income. Twenty-five of the Seventy wartime releases earning $3 million or more at the box office were musicals, including three of the top ten (This Is The Army, Meet Me in St. Louis and Yankee Doodle Dandy)’(p.225).
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Of these Michael Curtiz directed the first and the third. Indeed Curtiz directed many musicals,  several with Doris Day, including her first, Romance on the High Seas (1948), huge hits such as White Christmas (1954, and arguably Elvis Presley’s best film, King Creole (1958).  But he is not considered one of the great directors of the genre and seeing Irving Berlin’s This is the Army one easily understands why.
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Irving Berlin’s This is the Army (1943) was the highest-grossing musical of WWII. It was part of a cycle of all-star musicals — Thank Your Lucky Stars (David Butler, 1943); Hollywood Canteen (Delmer Daves, 1944) are other examples from Warner Brothers — designed to raise morale and aid the war effort. Seen today, its popularity is understandable: It’s propaganda everyone at the time must have supported and with a cause — propping-up the war effort –most everyone would have wanted to contribute to. But it’s a dreary musical. Even the hit numbers, such as Kate Smith singing ‘God Bless America,’ seem drab and insipid, particularly if one isn’t an American. The flag-waving fervour of others rarely comes across as anything but scary or dull and distancing. This falls into the latter category.

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My favourite number is Irving Berlin himself singing ‘Oh how I hate to get up in the morning’ with that weak but engaging voice of his. It’s supposed to be all-star but none of the stars are known to us today except Ronald Reagan and perhaps George Murphy. Certainly all the stage stars imitated in one of the drag number — Jane Cowl, Lynn Fontanne — will be remembered only by Broadway enthusiasts. There are in fact many numbers in drag which are meant to be funny but now come across as the equivalent of blackface, a combination of desire for and condescension to that which they are imitating. Straight drag — unlike most gay drag –seems to poke fun and laugh at femininity. The film does have a pleasing inclusiveness of ethnicity and race; the former one of the most recurrent and attractive traits of American cinema; the latter relatively rare, indeed almost a structuring absence,  a stain and limit to the much-vaunted claims of democracy in America.  I found it all a bore, underlining how emotionally crude Curtiz could be — note how mothers pack off their sons to war — but also once again demonstrating his eye for visuals and his skill with a camera.

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As you can see in the clip above in the short clip, which is just an announcement that the President and high officials are arriving to see the show. There are 19 shots, each with a different and striking composition, shot from a variety of angles but with a certain rhyming quality: if a the characters in a shot look to the right for example, in the next cut they will look to the left (the four images above after the clip are from consecutive shots). There are high angles looking down and low angles looking up. There are crowd shots and there’s individual inserts with bits of dialogue from the audience. The shots are put together rhythmically, in line with the music, but also with cuts on action. It all culminates with the camera dollying in to the character announcing the President’s in the audience. The technique on display is dazzling; the use it’s put to is not. This seems a recurring curse for Curtiz.

 

José Arroyo

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