So many of the early stars got their start on the stage, such as on Broadway or in vaudeville, and June Allyson was no different. She went from working in Vitaphone shorts and in the choruses of various Broadway shows to her first lead in the successful 1941 musical, Best Foot Forward. M-G-M soon bought the rights to the show, and signed June Allyson in the process, bringing her out to Culver City to recreate her stage performance for the screen. What really did it for June, though, was the film she made immediately following Best Foot Forward: 1944’s Two Girls And A Sailor, which also starred Gloria DeHaven, Van Johnson and Tom Drake.
The Deyo sisters, Patsy (Allyson) and Jean (DeHaven) were born in the proverbial trunk, playing in rooms backstage while their vaudevillian parents perform. The film starts out with Patsy as a three-year old and Jean as a baby in a dressing room. Patsy is reading Variety and Jean is in her crib (an empty trunk, of course) sucking her thumb. Pat calmly walks over and pulls Jean’s thumb out of her mouth, but it doesn’t stay that way for long.
Fast-forward a few years, when Jean is two. Their mother has died, and they still have the run of backstage while their dad’s onstage. Jean has a doll that looks just like the biggest star in their show, Billy Kipp, and she toddles down the hall to where the real Billy Kipp (Jimmy Durante) is asleep on the sofa in his dressing room. Jean shoves her doll into the crook of Billy’s arm, which of course wakes him up. “I just became a mother,” he says, in that inimitable Durante style. Patsy and Jean become fast friends with Billy before he has to go sing. “Good luck, Deyo Sisters,” he says.
Fast-forward a few more years, and then a few years more than that. Pat and Jean make the rounds of the vaudeville circuits. By 1943 they are installed at the Club Florian in New York City, where Harry James and Xavier Cugat are booked with their orchestras, as well as Carlos Ramirez. Pat still mothers Jean, who’s a handful. She’s a flirty type and men of all shapes, sizes, and ages make eyes at her every night. Pat pinches her whenever she gets too friendly with them, which frustrates Jean, but Pat doesn’t want her sister mixed up with a loser.
Lately, Jean’s been getting orchids with cards signed “Somebody”, and the girls are baffled as to who it could be. They surreptitiously check out the guys in the audience, with no luck, although there are lots of attentive men, of course.
There’s a war on, though, so finding “Somebody” can wait. The girls host a canteen at their apartment every night, and there are dozens of servicemen roaming around, so they have no trouble packing them in. This time the crowd includes a sailor (Van Johnson), a soldier (Tom Drake) and a Marine (Frank Sully) who are not only glad to come over, but who make themselves useful. There are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be made, and Cokes to put out, and these guys even help clean up afterwards. Harry James is also on hand with some of his band members to provide live music.
Jean confesses to the sailor, whose name is Johnny, that she wishes they had more space for their canteen, and shows him an old abandoned warehouse from their kitchen window. Predictably, he leans too close to her, but before things can get steamy, Jean goes out to the living room.
Weirdly enough (or not), the girls are woken up the next day by a solicitor (Donald Meek) knocking on the door, presenting them with the deed to the warehouse Jean showed Johnny. Again, the note says it’s from the mysterious “Somebody.” The girls go over to check out their new property, and find that it’s not only been closed for over twenty years, but is a theatrical warehouse. Pat and Jean poke around the place, sifting through cobwebs, and just in case things aren’t creepy enough for them, they hear someone playing a piano and singing. Lo and behold, it’s Billy Kipp, who had walked away from his vaudeville career one day years before, and no one knew where he went to.
Pat and Jean tell Billy their strange tale, and they invite him to live in the warehouse as a caretaker. They’re just wishing they could to fix up their new canteen when a bunch of workmen start pouring in with mops, buckets, and all kinds of cleaning accoutrements. Billy wishes they could have a new piano. A big baby grand. With a bench. Or a stool. Billy barely finishes his wish when the new piano is being carefully carried onto the floor. You would think it would be better to wait until all the cobwebs and junk were cleaned out before installing an expensive instrument, but it’s Hollywood. Wishes must be granted.
“Somebody” is sure prescient. The canteen is open for business in no time, and is supplied with sandwiches and donuts every hour, as well as plenty of Cokes. The servicemen show up in droves to dance with the showgirls who come in between performances. Harry James and Xavier Cugat are regulars, along with Jose Iturbi, Helen Forrest, Lena Horne, and Gracie Allen, among others (On a side note, Ava Gardner has a cameo in one of her first movies ever, and she and Frank Sully enjoy napping on each other’s shoulders).
It all seems like it would be perfect, but Pat and Jean have a problem: They’re both getting more and more enamoured with Johnny. On the periphery is the soldier, Frank, who cuts in on Jean and Johnny as much as possible. Of course, the girls are still on the lookout for “Somebody,” but in the meantime, the triangle’s getting more and more angular. Pat even has a dream about Johnny, where they get ready for their wedding, and she has her pick of the latest fashions. Unfortunately, Jean shows up at the tail end in a bridal gown, and she and Pat have a slap fight. Awkward.
The music in Two Girls and A Sailor is fabulous, going between Latin and swing and classical. One of the songs, “A Love Like Ours” became immensely popular with G.I.s in particular and was featured on the September 13, 1944 episode of the Armed Forces Radio Service program, Command Performance (The relevant part begins at 1:55):
How does it all turn out? And who is “Somebody”? It’s not a huge surprise when the truth finally does surface, but it’s still worth it. June’s performance is superb–she’s sunny and sassy, playing her mama hen role to the hilt. She and Gloria were very believable as sisters, and their duets really had a great sound, as June’s husky alto made a nice contrast with Gloria’s sweet soprano. There’s a lot of humor and fun in the film as well, and it must have been a satisfying diversion for wartime audiences.
For more June Allyson, please head on over to Champagne For Lunch. Thanks, Simoa, for hosting–this was cool! And thanks, everyone for reading. There’ll be a new post on here next week, which just so happens to be Friday the thirteenth. Not that I’m superstitious or anything, but it just fits in with what’s coming up–it’s got a wee soupςon of Hitchcock. See you next time…
This film is available on Amazon.