Happy Fourth of July, all!
During World War Two, there was no shortage of entertainment that encouraged audiences to do their part and help the servicepeople. Movies, radio, magazines, Broadway…every platform was used to the fullest. Sometimes the results came off better than others, of course, and one example of the “others” is Something For the Boys.
Featuring music by Cole Porter and a book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, Something For the Boys premiered on Broadway in January of 1943 and had a healthy 422 performances, ending in January of 1944. In March of the following year, it premiered in London’s West End, and ran until May of that year. While the public’s reaction was enthusiastic, people in the entertainment industry could see that Cole Porter’s abilities as a songwriter were declining, and even today Boys is considered to be one of his more peripheral works.
The plot of Boys is easily summed up: Three cousins, Blossom Hart, Chiquita Hart, and Harry Hart, who have never met, find they are the heirs to four thousand acres and a broken-down mansion in Texas. Since the property is close to an Army base, they decide to fix it up as a boardinghouse for soldiers’ wives. They get help from one of the soldiers, Rocky Fulton, who also happens to be a famous bandleader, and who isn’t married, although he has a hanger-on named Melanie. To Melanie’s chagrin, Rocky and Blossom begin dating. To add to the intrigue, there are those who think the Hart boardinghouse is really a bordello. As if that weren’t enough, Chiquita can pick up radio signals via a tooth filling that has carborundum on it.
Ethel Merman played Blossom, and she was the biggest draw of the show. With a voice like hers, it was pretty hard not to be:
Even though Something For the Boys wasn’t Porter’s best work, leave it to Hollywood to buy the rights to the story anyway. And, as was typical of Hollywood at the time, change most of the songs. Twentieth-Century Fox were the ones to do it in this case, and they elected Cole Porter to write the new material.
Heh. You would think Porter would have used the opportunity to improve on his stage numbers, but no. The film music is just as mediocre as the stage music.
The plot wasn’t changed one whit, except that the setting was moved to Georgia instead of Texas for some reason. Also, everyone’s occupations were shuffled. Instead of being a carnival barker, Harry (Phil Silvers) is a street hustler selling leg makeup to the ladies. Blossom (Vivian Blaine) is a stage star instead of working in the War Department. Chiquita (Carmen Miranda) works in a munitions factory instead of on the stage, which explains where the carborandum came from. The only other element that was changed is that the Harts’ boardinghouse is accused of being an underground gambling ring, because a bordello was less Production Code-friendly.
Speaking of less, let’s get one thing out of the way right now: There was quite a bit of skimping that went on in the making of this movie, not the least of which are the costumes. Oh, the costumes. The designers either phoned it in, or late wartime shortages must have really been felt over at Twentieth Century Fox. Things aren’t so bad when it comes to the street clothes, but the show outfits are something to wince at. In one of the first scenes, the showgirls’ costumes are striped on the butt. Yeah, the butt. The whole outfits are red, white, and blue, so they’re presumably supposed to be patriotic, but the stripes just make these womens’ hineys look like sparkly beach balls. Ugh. That’s not the half of things, though. Later on, the showgirls dance in what amount to aprons. Pink, ruffly aprons with giant black polka-dots. With pink bows in their hair. Good. Grief. Charlie. Brown. You have to see this movie to believe how hideous the costumes are. There’s also a Carmen Miranda number called “The Samba Boogie,” and the guys who are dancing with Miranda have bongo drums on their hips. Yipe.
Despite the fair to icky elements, Something For the Boys has its moments. There’s a scene when Blossom and Chiquita show Melanie the kitchen that’s pretty satisfying, and the actors do what they can with what they’ve got to work with. Phil Silvers is hilarious as usual, although the schtick gets a wee bit dated. As in, getting his face pushed into the sooty fireplace and breaking into “Short’nin’ Bread” kind of dated. Still, it’s trademark Silvers fun and craziness, and that’s never a bad thing.
Getting back to the music, though, there were some decent but forgettable numbers in the film. One of the cuter tunes is “80 Miles Outside of Atlanta,” featuring Vivian Blaine, but unfortunately that’s when the chorus girls wear those frightful pink aprons. Perry Como plays one of the soldiers who comes to visit his wife at the Hart boardinghouse, and he sings two songs, “I’m In the Middle of Nowhere” and “I Wish We Didn’t Have To Say Goodbye.” I’m pretty sure the songs didn’t have much of a life beyond this film, but the producers obviously had an inkling that Como would be a star and the rest could just coast.
I have to agree with Todd at Forgotten Films that the film feels disjointed. In the second half, the house becomes a stakeout location for the nearby fort’s wargames, and it’s pretty cringeworthy. Rocky, who’s on the Blue Team, comes to smooth things over with Blossom, only to have ceramics thrown at him for his pains. He gets taken prisoner by the Red Team, who hold him hostage at the house. Blossom, Chiquita, and Harry cook up a scheme to get the Blue Team there, hoping to clear their reputation and put the house back on-limits for the soldiers. They and the wives wine and dine the Red Team, complete with impromptu entertainment by Harry. Naturally, Chiquita’s carborandum mouth figures into the plan.
Something For the Boys may not be the best or most popular movie of the World War Two period, but there’s something oddly appealing about films that aren’t as well-remembered by people who didn’t live in that time. They provide another glimpse into what people of the nineteen-forties were talking about and seeing, even if they don’t get a mention in film studies books or history texts. The phrase, “time capsule” gets bandied about a lot when it comes to a movie like Something For the Boys, and it’s an apt descriptor.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Again, happy Independence and Canada Day to all my American and Canadian readers, and see you Friday for Maddy’s Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon!
This film is available on Amazon.