This Is the Army Reviews
My Grade for the film: C+
The action unfolds in New York City in 1917 as dancer Jerry Jones (George Murphy) receives his draft notice. Jones marries his sweetheart Ethel (Rosemary DeCamp) and then reports for duty. At boot camp, Jerry struggles to make the transition from dancer to foot soldier. He makes his drill instructor, Sergeant McGee (Alan Hale, Sr.), painfully aware of his problem with regimentation. When Sergeant McGee talks about Jerry's problem to the camp commandant, Major John B. Davidson (Stanley Ridges), the commander decides that Jerry's talents may be put to better use on a morale boosting play. Jerry produces and stages "Yip, Yip, Yaphank," a show about Army life. As the show draws to a finish, the doughboys march off the stage in full fighting gear, down the aisles, and head for their transport ship. Jerry sees action somewhere in France, and comes home a cripple. He walks with a slight limp, but his handicap does not restrict him from his first love‚"the stage. He opens a theatrical talent agency.
The film leaps from 1918 to 1941, and Jerry's son, Johnny (Ronald Reagan), enlists in the Army to fight World War II. Johnny's sweetheart Eileen Dibble (Joan Leslie) wants to marry him before he leaves, but he refuses to exchange vows. Meanwhile, Jerry gets together with Major Davidson, and they arrange for Jerry to produce another morale boosting musical. Reluctantly, Johnny helps out his father. Unlike "Yip, Yip, Yaphank," the new show incorporates African-Americans in the cast, most prominently boxing champion Sergeant Joe Louis (the actual Joe Lewis), and features an all black musical number "That's What The Well-Dressed Man in Harlem" will wear‚"army khakis. As the soldiers are about to perform their final number, Ethel persuades Johnny to marry her. In the closing number, Johnny and the troops march off to World War II singing "This Time Is The Last Time." No sooner had Warner Brothers prepared to go into production on "This Is The Army" than an issue arose involving overseas distribution and the Office of Censorship. Warner sent a memo to Hal Wallis about the matter dated December 28, 1942, that Allison Durland, an unofficial adviser to the OOC who handled Latin American affairs for the PCA, said, "regardless of extenuating circumstances he does not believe export license would be granted because of female impersonators." As Warner Brothers would learn to their surprise, Central and Latin American countries considered men dressing up as women as repugnant and immoral. That American soldiers would be impersonating females did not go over well either.
Although Warner Brothers released This Is The Army to domestic theaters on August 14, 1943, the studio had to confront the unexpected crisis over female impersonators, a predicament unique to this movie, because they produced no other films during the war that created so much controversy over something that everybody involved in deemed more amusing than offensive. Warner Brothers foreign distribution executive Carl Schaefer sent a memo to Warner on December 17, 1943, after he had conferred with Rothacker. Schaefer told Warner that he had "been advised unofficially we will be denied export license for This Is The Army if men play chorus girls as in the stage production." At length, Schaefer explained the rationale to Warner, "Female impersonators do not exist in Latin America: men in women's clothing are highly insulting and revolting to Latin American sensibilities and censors. Even could the film be exported, United States soldiers cavorting in dresses would represent ammunition to the enemy's propagandists. The Universal Pictures film "Argentina Nights" (1940) proved this point.
"This Is The Army" is a blast to watch.
One of the side effects of this project is that I tend to be about the only person on Rotten Tomatoes to have seen some of the movies. (Yes, this is library, not Netflix--it appears in their catalog as [i]Irving Berlin's This Is the Army[/i].) Sometimes, this is not necessarily a bad thing. This movie was not terrible, though it's World War II propaganda at its finest. With a little residual World War I propaganda thrown in for variety's sake. It also features some wildly dated material--and the worst bit of it even has someone saying that it isn't dated and is always in good fun. Times were different then, of course, but there's a reason there's a disclaimer at the beginning of the film about how certain of the bits of the movie are perhaps not in the best taste, for all they're a thing that happened then.
First, it is World War I. In order to improve morale, a bunch of guys are allowed to put on a show, which they take on tour. And then, they're pretty much marched offstage and onto ships to take them overseas. Some of them die, and the lead of the show, Jerry Jones (George Murphy), gets seriously wounded and ends up with a gimpy leg. Obviously, he has to give up his career as a hoofer, but he becomes a show promoter instead. So that's all right. But then World War II rolls around, and we start by pretending we cared that the Germans invaded Poland. And the sons of the men who were in the first show go off and join the military and end up in a second show. Jerry's son Johnny (Ronald Reagan!) is one of them. He's also refusing to marry his childhood sweetheart (I didn't catch her name), because he doesn't think it will do her any good. Because he's stupid.
That whole subplot really bothered me. He was himself a war baby. His mother was a war bride. Theoretically, his parents should be able to tell him that there are, actually, substantive benefits to getting married before the man goes away to war. Heck, I considered it myself, though the benefits would go away when he came back, so we didn't do that. However, we have special circumstances. We don't count. Ronald Reagan's stance here doesn't make any sense, and I really wanted someone other than the girl to tell him so. She could be seen to be biased. His dad or his sergeant or his dad's sergeant could have set him straight on that, but it doesn't seem as though anyone even tried.
So that offensive stuff? Yeah, blackface. And that was bad enough. What's even worse is that some of the men in blackface are also in drag. Indeed, there's an awful lot of drag in the movie. It's kind of alarming. They kind of use it as a punishment for one of the characters at one point, but that doesn't seem to be the case for the other twenty or so people. If I remember correctly, it's all in the World War II show, too. It's not as though there aren't women in auxiliary capacities in the military by that point. Heck, Ronald Reagan's girlfriend, there, shows up in a uniform toward the end of the picture. Yeah, okay, Red Cross uniform. But still. And hell, there are actual black people in the show, including Sergeant Joe Louis. Sure, the sergeant, there, is stiff as hell, but doubtless there were other black soldiers who wouldn't be. Ditto actual women. I guess people thought this was funnier.
I've seen some good World War II propaganda. This isn't the worst of it, but it certainly isn't the best. Reagan is, as always, a bit on the stiff side, which is odd, given his later fame as--let's be honest with ourselves--a public performer. (Great Communicator my eye--great speech reader.) The odd thing is that the characters and so forth do not seem to have learned a lesson from the War to End All Wars. Once again, these men are being marched off the stage and onto transports, or at any rate back to their units. This should be familiar to everyone. The really heartbreaking part is that the finale is them singing about how they're going to go off to Europe and do it right this time. So it won't ever happen again.
Overall, it's a great movie. Highly recommended!