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On the eve of America's involvement in World War II and with the draft now firmly in place, Warner Brothers, like many studios, was churning out films about various branches of the armed services. One of these films was a musical called Navy Blues (1941) which is notable today as the film debut of Jackie Gleason.
Filmed at the San Diego naval base during a quick shoot from April to June 1941, the film was budgeted at $1.2 million, a fairly high amount for such a picture. The answer most likely lies in star Jack Oakie's salary, having been nominated for an Academy Award the previous year as Best Supporting Actor for his role as Napaloni in Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940). Navy Blues, a fluff piece about the mishaps of two Navy men, also co-starred Jack Haley (best known as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz ), and the up and coming Jack Carson. The female roles were taken by Ann Sheridan and Martha Raye. In a smaller role was Gleason as a sailor named Tubby. The six women who appeared as the Navy Blues Sextet in the film were actually chosen by servicemen who were asked to select the six most beautiful women out of 150. Those chosen were Georgia Carroll, future star Alexis Smith, Loraine Gettman (later known as Leslie Brooks), Kay Aldridge, Marguerite Chapman and Peggy Diggins. Smith was later given a role in Dive Bomber (1941) and was replaced by Claire James.
Although Gleason was a newcomer, he found acceptance and life-long friendship from the other Jacks, despite their star status. They became drinking buddies known as "The Four Jacks". Gleason remembered in a 1985 article, "I never expected anything from Hollywood. I had no idea of becoming a big star, having a big picture career. I was a kid, I was having a lot of fun, and they were paying me $250 a week in the Depression! Not bad. [Navy Blues] had Jack Oakie, Jack Haley, Jack Carson, me, and Ann Sheridan, some of the worst drinkers in the history of show business. Now, across the street from Warners was a joint called My Blue Heaven. And every day when they wrapped, there was a stampede across the street. I mean a stampede! I mean, these were drinkers."
Gleason considered Jack Oakie "my personal Knute Rockne" as Oakie was supportive of the younger man who had long admired him; and more than one critic accused Gleason of stealing parts of Oakie's shtick most notably his double-take, for which he was famous. Another of the Jacks, Jack Haley, would become Gleason's best friend in Hollywood, despite their nineteen-year age difference. Haley's wife, Flo, remembered Gleason's reaction to seeing himself in the film. "My husband didn't particularly care for Navy Blues and wouldn't go to the big Hollywood preview. Gleason said, 'Well, I never made one of these before and I am going,' so my husband said 'Call me and tell me how it was.' When Jackie rang up, he said, 'Never mind how it was. I can guess. How were you?' And Gleason said to my Jack, 'I look like a guy standing on the street corner watching it being made.'"
Allen Wolf, in his book, The Hollywood Musical Goes to War makes the claim that Navy Blues and You're in the Army Now (1941), both Warner Brothers, are essentially the same film. "Both attempted to capitalize on the new interest in war-theme films. They were actually the same musical, only the cut and color of the uniforms were different. Both concerned two hapless dupes drafted into the armed forces, and the troubles they caused their superior officers. Although ostensibly comic in form, each film displayed a few moments of serious intent. In Navy Blues, Ann Sheridan explains to a naval gunner that it is unpatriotic for him to give up the navy in order to return to his farm in Iowa. You're in the Army Now also allows [Jimmy] Durante and [Phil] Silvers to explain the importance of the newly enacted selective service laws in song. [...] They were the last films at Warners to make light of the armed forces."
Bosley Crowther was less than impressed in his New York Times review of the film when it was released on September 13, 1941, writing, "For a picture about the Navy and sea-dogs, there is an uncommon amount of horseplay in the Warners' Navy Blues, which was warped into the Strand yesterday. But that's about what you would expect from a musical monkeyshine which harbors Jack Oakie, Jack Haley, Martha Raye and Ann Sheridan in its cast and which gets along without benefit of any strong assistance from its script. So you who are not averse to a lot of broad and unrestrained mugging-to a generous display of the Messrs. Oakie and Haley working harder for laughs than a bum vaudeville team in Omaha-and for those who like your musical shows noisy, this one should be all right."
While Navy Blues didn't particularly help Gleason's career, it did get him out of a financial jam. In the days before credit cards, Gleason found himself stuck in Arizona without money for a train ticket back to New York. Since no one would take personal checks from out of town, Gleason tried several stores before he was able to convince a hardware store owner to cash it. The solution: he took the owner to see Navy Blues, which was playing in town, and was able to prove to him that the check would be good.
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Richard Macaulay, Sam Perrin, Jerry Wald; Arthur T. Horman (story and screenplay)
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio; James Wong Howe, Sol Polito (dance sequences)
Art Direction: Robert Haas
Music: Heinz Roemheld (music cues, uncredited)
Film Editing: Rudi Fehr
Cast: Ann Sheridan (Marge 'Margie' Jordan), Jack Oakie (Cake O'Hara), Martha Raye (Lilibelle Bolton), Jack Haley (Powerhouse Bolton), Herbert Anderson (Homer Matthews), Jack Carson ('Buttons' Johnson), Jackie C. Gleason (Tubby), William T. Orr (Mac), Richard Lane ('Rocky' Anderson), John Ridgely (Jersey), Navy Blues Sextette (Musical Sextette).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Take it from the Big Mouth: The Life of Martha Raye by Jean Maddern Pitrone
New York Magazine article, Gleason's Second Honey: Still the Greatest by Pete Hamill, September 23, 1985
The Great Clowns of American Television by Karin Adir
The Great One by William A. Henry III
The New York Times film review by Bosley Crowther, September 13, 1941
The Internet Movie Database