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Warner Bros. produced the 1951 musical Starlift to support the troops involved in the Korean Conflict and to raise awareness regarding their service. During World War II, the studio had initiated the cavalcade-style of film designed as a cinematic substitute for an actual USO show or a visit to the Hollywood Canteen. Films such as Thank Your Lucky Stars , Hollywood Canteen , and Stage Door Canteen  featured a multitude of stars in a variety-show format, often with a threadbare romantic subplot to add structure to the narrative. Musical stars sang and danced, while dramatic stars interacted with the soldiers in cameos. The Korean Conflict prompted the studio to resurrect this mini-genre spotlighting a new slate of stars for a new generation.
Starring Doris Day and Ruth Roman as themselves and young Janice Rule as fictional actress Nell Wayne, Starlift opens at a bond rally in San Francisco. After appearing at the rally, the trio meets two airmen who talk the actresses into driving them back to Travis Field before they are shipped out. Sergeant Mike Nolan, played by comic actor Dick Wesson, is the archetypal schemer who thinks he is shrewder than he is, while his buddy, Corporal Rick Williams, played by Ron Hagerthy, is as sincere and shy as Nolan is conniving and cunning. As it turns out, Nell and Rick hail from the same small hometown and have much in common. The slight premise launches a story about patriotic stars who want to boost the morale of the troops and a sweet romance between a starlet and a soldier.
Once Day and Roman see the nervous young troops waiting to board planes to Korea, they devise a plan to bring their Hollywood peers to Travis Field to entertain outgoing and incoming soldiers in a show called Operation Starlift. In the meantime, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, who appears as herself, finds out about Nell and Rick, and she dubs them the Starlift Lovers. The two play along for the sake of the show, but Rick is angry at Nell because he believes she is using him for publicity, while Nell feels taken advantage of after learning that Mike and Rick are not being shipped to Korea. Instead, their duties are non-combatant: They fly recruits to and from Honolulu.
As Rick and Nell settle their differences, Operation Starlift concludes in a big show featuring songs, dances, and skits with some of Warners' major stars. Gary Cooper and Frank Lovejoy mug their way through a western skit; Gordon MacRae croons a few tunes, including a duet with Day; comic Phil Harris belts out a saloon song; Virginia Mayo performs an exotic tropical number; and Gene Nelson steals the show with his lively choreography and dancing.
Starlift was intended to support the real Operation Starlift program created by the Special Service Officers and the Hollywood Coordinating Committee. The program was originally designed to fly movie stars to Travis Field to entertain the wounded returning from Korea. Focusing on injured soldiers would have made for a downbeat musical, so the plight of the wounded is downplayed in the film though not completely eliminated. In one extended sequence, Day and Roman visit wounded soldiers in the base hospital. One of the troops poignantly remarks that he is "waiting to get home--the longest wait."
Ruth Roman had been instrumental in launching Operation Starlift, which accounts for her starring role in the film. However, the actress could neither sing nor dance, so devising a showcase scene for her was not as easy as it was for Day, who sings for the bedridden soldiers in the hospital. In Roman's odd solo scene, she shaves a wounded soldier in her extravagant evening gown and fur coat.
Most of the stars who contributed to the film Starlift were under contract to Warner Bros., but some of Hollywood's biggest entertainers participated in the real Operation Starlift, including Bob Hope, Debbie Reynolds, Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, Alan Ladd, Shelley Winters, Shirley Temple, and Jane Russell, among others. Every Saturday night, a group of stars flew to Travis Field, entertained departing soldiers in a big show in the Passenger Terminal Building, performed later in the hospital auditorium, and then returned to Hollywood the next day. Unfortunately, about a month before the film opened, Operation Starlift ended, reportedly from a lack of funds.
In addition to supporting the war effort and boosting morale, Starlift offered Warner Bros. an opportunity to promote its stable of stars. In 1951, the film industry was still fueled by the star system. Audiences attended movies based on the stars, and consequently, studios promoted their films via the stars. Stars, who were under long-term contracts to studios, were groomed by the studios. A star image was established for a performer, then roles carefully selected to support that image. Promotion and publicity were carefully crafted by a studio's public relations department to construct, reinforce, or sustain the designated image.
Not every entertainer or film actor in Starlift was under contract to Warner Bros., but the three principal stars certainly were. Janice Rule had just signed with Warners in 1951, the year the film was released, and her casting in the ingénue role as the fictional character Nell Wayne reflects the studio's efforts to introduce her. A slight role with little coloring, Nell Wayne is little more than the sweet love interest, but Rule is billed on the third title card in the credits, just after the film's title, which is enough to draw attention to her name. As the only female character involved in a romance, her performance was sure to be reviewed by critics, garnering attention for the actress in the press.
By 1951, Warner Bros. had already established Doris Day and Ruth Roman as movie stars. Roman, who had been signed in 1949, was known for her roles as the cool, mature leading lady in dramas and melodramas. She had just costarred in what would be her only bona fide classic, Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951), and her casting in Starlift was designed to milk that recent success. Starlift also allowed Roman to exhibit a warmth and friendliness generally lacking in most of her roles.
From the standpoint of supporting her screen persona, Day probably benefitted the most from the exposure in Starlift. She had signed with Warners in 1948 and had already made nine films by the time production began. Her participation served as a showcase for her singing talents while reminding audiences of her previous films and her screen persona as a wholesome every-girl who is optimistic, funny, and warm-hearted. Her duet with Gordon MacRae, "You're Gonna Lose Your Gal," recalls their teaming in two previous Warners musicals, Tea for Two (1950) and the popular On Moonlight Bay (1951). The latter helped Day win the Photoplay Gold Medal for the favorite female star performance of 1951. Day also sings "S'Wonderful" to a group of new troops waiting in a holding area to depart for Korea, and "You Oughta Be in Pictures" to the wounded in the hospital, underscoring her all-American appeal. A comic interlude to brighten what might have been a disturbing or depressing scene involves Day and a young soldier who is talking to his brother by phone. It seems the brother doesn't believe that Doris Day is singing to his sibling, so the actress takes the phone and sets him straight by crooning a few bars of "Lullaby of Broadway" from her film of the same name released in March of that year.
Starlift was not well reviewed upon release: Bosley Crowther of The New York Times noted, "The acts are unspeakably slapdash and the romance is painful beyond words." However, it was one of several films that helped to land Day in the list of Top 10 box-office draws for 1951 by the trade publication Motion Picture Herald. For today's viewers, Starlift may seem corny and artificial, but it offers a snapshot of popular entertainment, circa 1950, when Hollywood still depended on the star system to fuel the industry. Within a few months, the system and the industry would undergo a series of changes that rendered films like Starlift a relic of the past.
Producer: Robert Arthur for Warner Bros.
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay: Karl Kamb and John D. Klorer
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Editor: William Ziegler
Art Director: Charles H. Clarke
Music: Ray Heindorf
Choreography: LeRoy Prinz
Costume Designer: Leah Rhodes
Cast: Herself (Doris Day), Herself (Ruth Roman), Nell Wayne (Janice Rule), Himself (Gordon MacRae), Sergeant Mike Nolan (Dick Wesson), Corporal Rick Williams (Ron Hagerthy), Colonel Callan (Richard Webb), Chaplain (Hayden Rorke), Turner (Tommy Farrell), James Cagney, Phil Harris, Frank Lovejoy, Lucille Norman, Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, Jane Wyman, Patrice Wymore, Peter Marshall, and Louella Parsons (Guest Stars).
by Susan Doll