19
Dec
21

100 Movie Musicals #17: This Is The Army (1943)

Bizarro historical novelty, a backstage musical that serves as a filmed version of a hugely popular WW2 military musical revue by Irving Berlin that is firmly of the more is more school: endless musical numbers, blackface, drag, acrobatics, stage magic, and Joe Louis.

buy war bonds, citizen!

We watched this movie because I read Coming Out Under Fire, a fascinating book about queer soldiers during WW2, and the traveling show of This Is The Army, an all-male variety show written and directed by Irving Berlin that served as a refuge for a wide variety of queer soldiers; the movie of the show, rushed into theaters to support the war effort, was the highest grossing musical for over a decade until White Christmas beat its box office record in 1954. The company of soldiers that performed the road show was also the only integrated unit in the US military during WW2, though notably white and Black performers were only integrated off-stage; the musical numbers and skits on stage remained segregated.

In that regard, the movie is actually substantially more regressive than the live show — Berlin had initially wanted to start the theatrical production with an extended blackface bit, until the director talked him out of it, arguing that minstrel shows were out of favor and incredibly old-fashioned, and that logistically it wouldn’t be possible to get white performers in and out of blackface in the tight timeline. The movie retains Berlin’s replacement, “What The Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear,” a showcase of Black soliders including boxing superstar Joe Louis, but also adds a minstrel performance, and even explicitly calls out the style as backwards and unfashionable, with only the Berlin stand-in pushing to include it.

some well-dressed men

There’s also a ton of drag in this, itself a bit of a throwback, since while female impersonation had a long and lucrative history in the US toward the end of the 19th century, it faced a intense nationwide crackdown following the first World War. That crackdown was specifically aimed at dismantling gay hangouts and enforcing cisheterosexuality during the backlash years of the 1920s; WW2 army brass went back and forth a ton on whether drag was better than allowing female actors and ultimately decided that GIs in drag were less dangerous than WACs on stage.

the ladies of the chorus

The theatrical production was a smash hit in several countries as it toured with drag performers, across both European and Pacific theaters of operation. The movie retains the drag performances, including a yearning love song where a soldier sings passionately about falling in love with the drag queens, but also wraps everything in a frame story where a marriage-averse Ronald Reagan (fuck that dude) eventually marries his (female!) girlfriend before shipping out at the end of the movie, presumably to reassert its heterosexual bona fides.

i left my heart at the stage door canteen

This is the Army is surprisingly apolitical for a flick that was produced as a way to raise money for the war effort; the revue focuses on the details of army life, complaints about living in single-sex arrangements or getting up early, rather than the geopolitics of the war. No one punches out Hitler at any point, say, unlike the similar scenes in Captain America.

sir not appearing in this film

That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t still a horrifying celebration of militarism and war — the Army Air Corps (not yet the Air Force) comes in to sing “With My Head In The Clouds,” a grim combination of love song and paean to saturation bombing. It’s a weird movie, and you can see why it hasn’t had much of a life outside of the war and its immediate aftermath, but it also captures a lot of wild racial, sexual, and gender tensions that the war brought to the surface and that would bubble over in the following decades. The pre-Stonewall gay rights movements were heavily dominated by the experiences of gay, lesbian, and trans soldiers that served in the military during WW2, for example, and multiple gay communities, including San Francisco, formed around contingents of soldiers that were discharged for homosexuality.


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