This is the Army, Mister Jones. No private rooms or telephones. You had your breakfast in bed before, but you won’t have it there anymore. (Irving Berlin, “This Is the Army,” 1942.)
Happy New Year! Welcome to the wild and wacky world of the Irving Berlin Wartime Musical. Nothing like starting off 2020 with a mix of patriotism and weirdness. I’m referring, of course, to the 1942 tour-de-force, This Is the Army, a whirwind of close-order choreography, guys in drag, and crazy acrobatics.
First, though, we have to go back in time to World War One, when Berlin was drafted into the United States Army. He was assigned to the Twentieth Infantry, 152nd Brigade, stationed at Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island, and right off the bat, Berlin hated being in the military. He hated the hours. He hated the boredom. He hated the regimentation. Most of all, he hated reveille.
Berlin entered the Armed Forces in the spring of 1918, so late in the war that he likely wouldn’t be sent overseas. To his mind, this meant that he was training for nothing. Berlin lived for his weekend leave when he could retreat to his New York apartment, and the constant back-and-forth did little to help him assimilate into Army life. However, he wanted to be a good soldier while at camp, so he gamely dragged himself out of bed every morning when the bugler blew the wake-up call.
Berlin channeled his dislike into a song, “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In the Morning,” in which he fantasized about murdering the bugler. The tune’s winking irony caught on immediately with his fellow soldiers and the American public, causing his Army experience to change. When Berlin’s company went to France, Berlin stayed behind, getting promoted to sergeant.
Historians are divided about what happened next. Some say Berlin’s commanding officer asked him to write a musical to raise money for a new building at the Upton base; others say Berlin pestered the brass so much about putting together a show that they finally relented. Either way, Yip Yip, Yaphank premiered at Camp Upton’s Liberty Theatre on August 19, 1918, playing to a packed house that included Al Jolson, George M. Cohan, and Fanny Bryce. Berlin’s mother, Lena Baline, came as well.
The show ran for eight performances at Camp Upton before moving to Broadway for another thirty-two. It was full of humorous looks at Army life–everything from KP duty to military police to writing home got the Berlin treatment. It was a variety show more than a conventional plotted musical and had a boxing demonstration, dancing, juggling, acrobatics, and comedy sketches. One of the highlights was the classic song, “Mandy,” which, while unfortunately being presented in a minstrel style with men in blackface, did feature an actual black woman at the end. Still weird and inappropriate, though. The show’s big finale was “We’re On Our Way To France,” which had the men marching out of the theater as if they really were going.
Overall, Yaphank got positive reviews from critics, giving Berlin’s reputation as a versatile songwriter even more cred. The building the show was raising funds for never materialized because of the Armistice, so who knows what happened to the money.
The First World War might have been over, but Yip, Yip Yaphank wasn’t. Kinda sorta, anyway. On November 10, 1938, “God Bless America” made its debut, introduced to the public by Kate Smith. The song had been cut from Yaphank because Berlin thought it was too derivative. Now that a new conflict was approaching, Berlin dusted off the twenty-year old tune:
In 1941, the United States entered the Second World War, and Berlin decided early on that a new show was in order. He even knew the title: This Is the Army. The new war was bigger than the last one, and the new show would be too. This time, all money raised from the show would go to the Army Relief Fund. It only took a phone call to the Chief of Staff General George Marshall to get the ball rolling, and Berlin had the score written in a month. Like Yaphank, Army is full of humor mixed with longing for home and loved ones, as well as “Over There”-type sentiments. Berlin also included his previous hit, “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In the Morning,” which he would perform with some of his fellow Yip, Yip, Yaphank cast members.
This Is the Army showed how much America had changed in the twenty-five years since Yip, Yip Yaphank, albeit in a step-forward-step-back kind of way. The show featured real black singers and dancers, and yes, some of them dressed in drag, too. Berlin campaigned heavily for another minstral show, but his producer, Sergeant Ezra Stone talked him out of it because the logistics of getting over a hundred guys out of blackface would have been enormous. That, and a lot of people in the nineteen-forties found blackface offensive.
The most far-reaching change was that the company of This Is the Army became the Armed Forces’ first integrated unit, although an unofficial one. Even though Army regulations prohibited black and white performers from sharing numbers, the company became very all-for-one-and-one-for-all. If the black members of the troupe were barred from parties or events because of their race, the white performers would also bow out.
Opening on Broadway July 4, 1942, the show ran for one-hundred-thirteen performances total, closing on September 26. It also toured the country, including a command performance in Washington, D.C. with President Roosevelt in attendance.
Berlin wanted his show to be a film as well, and after the tour wrapped in February of 1943, Warner Bros. agreed to take on This Is the Army. However, all proceeds still went to Army Relief. Warner Bros. wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of no money, so they didn’t put much effort into the film. Still, appearances had to be kept up, and the movie was shot in Technicolor with some reasonably prestigious celebs sprinkled throughout the stage company, including George Murphy, Joan Leslie, Una Merkel, George Tobias, Frances Langford, Joe Louis, and one Ronald Reagan. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film has a vigorous feel and looks like a million bucks.
To be sure, there were changes made. The humor of the stage show was on the bawdy side, which the Production Code precluded, and one song, “Dressed Up To Kill” was changed to “Dressed Up To Win,” because the former felt a little too aggressive. The jettisoned minstral show, “Mandy,” was reinserted. Groan. Other than that, it was a pretty straightforward portrayal of the stage show.
The movie opens with the First World War, when vaudevillian Jerry Jones (George Murphy) gets drafted into the United States Army. Jerry is loosely based on Berlin, as he’s the one who hates reveille, kids around with the top sergeant, and writes Yip, Yip, Yaphank. Appropriately enough, Jerry’s first morning in camp shows someone throwing a shoe at the bugler. Unlike Berlin, however, Jerry goes overseas, where he’s injured by an exploding shell and can never dance again.
Jerry meets his friends and fellow Yaphanks in a pub right after the war ends, where they toast going home and Jerry’s new son, John Jay Pershing Jones. “Here’s to a great show. May there never be another one,” Jerry says before throwing his glass into the fire.
Famous last words, of course.
The years go by. The film shows a map of Poland burning, symbolizing Hitler’s territorial ambitions, and then we see a recreation of Kate Smith introducing “God Bless America.” All of the former Yip, Yip Yaphank! perfomers are seen glancing at their coming-of-age offspring with melancholy eyes, because they have an idea of what’s ahead.
Like many World War Two-era movies, This Is the Army includes a brief shot of the attack on Pearl Harbor, where Blake, a friend of Jerry’s now-grown son, Johnny (Ronald Reagan) is killed. Blake leaves behind a wife and child, which gets Johnny thinking. He decides not to marry his longtime girlfriend, Eileen (Joan Leslie) before he goes overseas because there’s a chance she could end up a widow. Eileen is less than happy about this.
Meanwhile, Jerry and his buddies from Yip, Yip Yaphank have a reunion at Camp Upton and spontaneously plan another show. All of their sons are going to be in on it, natch, including Johnny, who is installed as stage manager. The guys put on their show, they go on tour, and that’s pretty much the entire plot. Things may or may not be over with Eileen, though, so there’s that.
While the company was making This Is the Army, they lived in heated tents and drilled when they weren’t filming. Since Warner Bros. was making nothing from the movie, the soldiers kept on receiving their usual Army wages. Even though they were working in Hollywood, they weren’t, so it was an unusual kind of limbo.
The movie is a lot of fun and crammed with Berlin numbers, even outside of the show sequences. It’s also dated, as the majority of the songs have life only in the movie, and again, the blackface thing is there, although it’s not the dominating element. Oh, no, that distinction goes to the dozens of guys in drag doing fair and weirdly hilarious sendups of women, including some pretty dead-on impressions of Lynn Fontanne and Jane Cowl. None of it is meant in a sexual way, although the stage show was racier, but back then guys in drag was seen as a stage convention and no one thought twice. It was probably because these fellas still very much looked like guys even though they were wearing dresses and lipstick. Still, they were convincing enough that some audiences thought they really were women.
Personally, I like that This Is the Army is dated, even if it is strange. It’s one of those movies the public would have been very conscious of during the World War Two period but it doesn’t get a lot of attention nowadays. In fact, the first time I learned about it is when I found a public domain copy on DVD at a dollar store. I hate to use the phrase, “time capsule,” but it’s unavoidable. The first time I watched it, I spotted a lady with the exact same hairstyle my paternal grandma wore during the war. It was kind of odd to see something familiar, but it felt like connecting with her as she was back then, even in a small way.
After the movie wrapped, there was a gala carnival at the premiere, which Berlin avoided because artist fatigue, and then more touring for the company, this time overseas entertaining military personnel. Ever adaptable, Berlin added and tweaked songs to fit the history of the company and the audience they were playing to. TCM noted that the show was seen by some two and a half million soldiers, with the last performance given in Maui on October 22, 1945.
Naturally, the Army’s efforts were a huge success. According to IMDb, This Is the Army was 1943’s top film, grossing $9.5M, or about $139M in today’s money. Between the stage and film versions, the show brought in massive amounts of money for Army Relief, although no one knows the final tally.
Once This Is the Army closed for good, Berlin hoped he would never have to write any more war songs, and he never did. His two soldier shows remain an interesting part of his repertoire, though, when his music filled a specific need for a very specific crowd, and shows how much of a chameleon Berlin could be.
Another review is on the way next Friday, followed by our first blogathon of the year. Thanks for reading, all, and see you in about a week!
This Is the Army is available on DVD from Amazon.
Bergreen, Laurence. As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin. New York: Viking Press, 1990.
The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin. Edited by Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet. New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 2001.