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A unique product of a unique time, This Is the Army (1943) was meaningful and popular to its World War II-era audience in ways that are impossible to fully comprehend or overstate today. Its thin plot serves as a thread on which to hang a musical revue sung and danced by real American soldiers, with seventeen Irving Berlin songs providing the score. (Berlin even pops up to sing one of them himself.) The picture was made by Warner Brothers by special arrangement with the War Department purely as a morale booster, and as a way to raise money to help soldiers and their families. By these two measures, the movie was a grand success.
This Is the Army began as a 1942 Broadway musical, but its origins reach back much further. When the United States entered World War II, Irving Berlin decided to mount an updated version of his World War I stage hit Yip Yip Yaphank, an all-soldier revue that had elevated public morale in its own time. For This Is the Army, Berlin basically followed his own model, updating it with new songs and a reworked plot. Like Yip Yip Yaphank, the new production concerned a Broadway producer putting on a variety show enacted by soldiers who march off to war at the show's conclusion.
This Is the Army, which opened on Broadway on July 4, 1942, employed a cast of over 300 actual soldiers who formed a real Army unit, and all ticket sales were donated to Army Emergency Relief, an organization established by the Secretary of War to aid soldiers and their dependents. It proved so successful on Broadway that a national road show was quickly organized. Little did Berlin realize that This Is the Army was about to take up three full years of his life.
The road show began in Washington, DC, and traveled west, ending in Los Angeles. By that time, Berlin had sold the movie rights to Jack Warner for $250,000, with that money, too, going to Army Emergency Relief. The soldier cast set up a military barracks near the Burbank studio, and they marched to work in formation every morning at 6 a.m. Strict military discipline was enforced at all times; the men were not allowed to interact with actresses, for instance, and when they weren't filming, they performed military drills, ran obstacle courses, practiced target shooting and the like. They earned standard military pay of $250 per month. On set, director Michael Curtiz would issue orders to his assistant directors, and they in turn would relay them to non-commissioned officers who would bark orders at the soldiers.
Joining the military cast were stars George Murphy and Ronald Reagan, both of whom had big futures in American politics. At this time, Reagan was an Army lieutenant, and he was specifically ordered to return to Hollywood to appear in this film, which he enjoyed greatly. The two stars play father and son in a story that links Berlin's two stage shows: Murphy is the Broadway-performer father who originally puts on Yip Yip Yaphank before marching off to WWI, and years later his son Reagan, another performer, works with his father to put on This Is the Army before marching off to WWII. Joan Leslie is on hand as Reagan's love interest.
Appearing as themselves in the picture are singers Frances Langford and Kate Smith, boxer Joe Louis, and Irving Berlin himself, who sings a song he composed for Yip Yip Yaphank entitled "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." Berlin also sang this song in the stage version of This Is the Army. Kate Smith performs "God Bless America," her signature song, which Berlin originally wrote in 1918 but which only made its public debut in 1938 on Kate Smith's radio program. For the movie, Smith recreates her famous introduction to the song.
Also in the cast is actress Dolores Costello, who had been a major silent movie star and had appeared one year earlier in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). This Is the Army was her final film. She took an early retirement after this due to a deteriorating skin condition caused by years of harsh studio makeup.
For the film's final number, "This Time Is the Last Time," Warner Brothers constructed its largest stage ever. Two hundred arclights were required to light it, three times more than had ever been used previously. The sequence took three weeks to rehearse and five days to shoot, with an enormous number of men choreographed at once on the set. One section of the song's lyrics had to be changed by Berlin after some public outrage. Originally the lyrics went: "Dressed up to kill/We're dressed up to kill/Dressed up for victory/Oh, we don't like killing/But we won't stop killing/Till the world is free." A string of public attacks from religious groups decrying the bloodthirstiness of these lines prompted Jack Warner and Irving Berlin to bow to pressure and change the words. Berlin changed "kill" to "win" and adjusted the middle lines to: "We are just beginning/And we won't stop winning."
This Is the Army was in production three months, ending in May 1943, and the movie was then rushed through post-production to open that August. Its reception was enormous. Critics praised the film, with The New York Times calling it "rousing, buoyant, captivating, as American as hot dogs or the Bill of Rights... A warmly reassuring document on the state of the nation... From beginning to end, a great show." Audiences ate it up, and the movie and stage show combined to bring in nearly $10 million for Army Emergency Relief. (Warner Brothers was allowed to recoup its cost.) In fact, This Is the Army became by far the highest-grossing movie of the year and was even honored with three Oscar® nominations, winning for Best Score. (The other nominations were for Best Sound and Best Art Direction.)
The movie was not the end of the show, however. After production, the Army again took the stage show on the road, touring England and then the battlefronts of North Africa, Italy, the Middle East, and the Pacific Theater, with stops in New Guinea, the Philippines, Okinawa and Iwo Jima. The final stop was Hawaii, and the final performance was on Maui on October 22, 1945. Berlin accompanied the show on this world tour, continuing to sing his song on stage at every performance. In the end, This Is the Army was seen by some 2.5 million soldiers.
Producers: Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Capt. Claude Binyon, Casey Robinson; Irving Berlin (play, uncredited)
Cinematography: Bert Glennon, Sol Polito
Art Direction: John Hughes, John Koenig
Music: Ray Heindorf, Max Steiner (both uncredited)
Film Editing: George Amy
Cast: George Murphy (Jerry Jones), Joan Leslie (Eileen Dibble), George Tobias (Maxie Twardofsky), Alan Hale (Sgt. McGee), Charles Butterworth (Eddie Dibble), Dolores Costello (Mrs. Davidson), Una Merkel (Rose Dibble), Stanley Ridges (Maj. John B. Davidson), Rosemary DeCamp (Ethel), Ruth Donnelly (Mrs. O'Brien), Dorothy Peterson (Mrs. Nelson), Frances Langford (Frances Langford).
By Jeremy Arnold