Irving Berlin: This Is the Army, Part 2
Summer 1996, Vol. 28, No. 2
By Laurence Bergreen
© 1996 by Laurence Bergreen
|Irving Berlin and director Michael Curtiz discuss the filming of the movie version of This Is the Army, which raised nearly ten million dollars for Army Emergency Relief. (NARA, 208-PU-17L-6)|
Opening night, July 4, brought together Broadway excitement and war fever. Today, the stage production of This Is the Army is recalled as a blur of synchronized khaki uniforms and hundreds of soldiers singing patriotic slogans and indulging in innocent horseplay. Much of the revue did function on that simple level, but there was more to it than simple morale boosting. Through his songs, Berlin managed to inject human touches that made life in the armed services comprehensible to civilian audiences. Nowhere did he accomplish this goal more adroitly than in the title song, "This Is the Army, Mr. Jones," in which hapless inductees described how the war had altered their lives.
The show was a great success, but success had a way of generating more controversy for Berlin and his revue. The Broadway Theatre, where This Is the Army played to packed houses every night, was managed by the Shubert brothers, Lee and J. J., who were as contemptuous of Berlin in war as they had been in peace. When the brothers realized they had to live with Berlin's achievement for the rest of the summer, they hastily attempted to cash in on the show's popularity by demanding a weekly theater rental of three thousand dollars a week. Berlin was incensed. At that figure, he calculated, the Shuberts would be making a 100-percent profit, while he and the rest of the company were donating their services. On July 11 he made a counter offer of two thousand dollars a week, which would still leave the Shuberts a modest profit. He then enraged the brothers by threatening to inform the War Department of their excessive demands, warning them: "Please do not take advantage of this hit."
Berlin got his way concerning the rental of the Broadway Theatre, but the Shuberts remained spiteful. On August 21 Lee dictated a memorandum for his brother, J. J., reviling their theater's revered tenant: "As far as Irving Berlin is concerned, I would certainly make him pay for everything and not give him any concessions whatsoever. He always was a dirty little rat. He forgets that we gave him his first chance—did everything for him."
Berlin's insistence on donating the proceeds of the sheet music sales to the army upset his financial manager, Saul Bornstein, who gasped at the vast amounts of money the songwriter gave away. In a characteristic ploy, Bornstein tried to influence Bob Lissauer, the young soldier in charge of the show's music publishing division, to alter the policy without Berlin's knowledge. Bornstein summoned the young man and invited him to sit down in front of an enormous desk. "Bob," he said in his best confiding tone, extending his arms to the end of his desk, "I want you to know this desk does not belong to Saul Bornstein. I want you to know that in my heart this belongs to the Army of the United States of America. My heart knows the wonderful things that you fellows are doing, and the sacrifices that you're making."
Lissauer had one reaction to Bornstein's oration: "Bullshit."
By summer's end, it was apparent that This Is the Army had taken on a life of its own. Originally, Berlin had expected the revue to play four weeks on Broadway. Then, in the first flush of its success, he agreed to extend the run until September 26. At the same time, he found himself negotiating the sale of movie rights to Warner Brothers. And finally, the army was making plans to send the show on a national tour. It appeared that the show would go on—and on. This Is the Army had now consumed the better part of his energies for the year, but Irving believed he had a mission to fulfill as long as the war lasted.
|Crowds gather for the Washington, D.C., premiere of the film This Is the Army at Warner's Earle Theater in Washington, D.C., on August 12, 1943. (NARA, 111-SC-176981)|
The national tour had come about in part because of the enthusiasm of Eleanor Roosevelt. She had loved the show—loved it enough to have seen it three times and she wanted her husband to have the same pleasure. Since the President was unable to travel to New York to watch the revue at the Broadway Theatre, it was only natural that This Is the Army come to him. It was an honor that Berlin readily accepted.
The cast, however, soon discovered they would have to blunt some of the revue's rough-and-ready humor for the special matinee performance, scheduled for October 8 at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. Ezra Stone was approached by a representative of White House security who was anxious about a sketch concerning KP duty. In it, Hank Henry, a big, burly comic, appeared on stage wielding a meat cleaver.
"How well do you know Hank Henry?" the security agent asked Stone.
"Oh, very well," Stone told him. "I knew him before the war."
"Has he ever said anything against the President?"
"What's your problem?" Stone demanded.
"Well," the agent said, "you've got him there stage right, and the President's sitting in his box fifteen feet away, and Henry's swinging a meat cleaver."
"No problem. There won't be a meat cleaver," Stone assured him.
"Why don't we have him come out chewing on a turkey wing?"
Stone agreed to the suggestion, and he later made one other critical alteration of his own: "I staged all the bows in military fashion. We'd present arms instead of bowing, and then I would give the left face command, and Irving Berlin would come in from the stage left wing. The spotlight would hit him, and we'd present arms to Mr. Berlin." But for the presidential performance, Stone conceded, "I made an error. I knew that we should acknowledge the President of the United States, so my first command was 'Right face.' And Mr. Berlin came in from the other side. He thought I had deliberately insulted him."
In other words, what the audience—and President Roosevelt—saw was the cast saluting Roosevelt while turning their backs on Irving Berlin. The thin-skinned songwriter never forgave Stone for staging what seemed to be a public humiliation in front of the President of the United States of America.
For the moment, there were congratulations all around and a show of unity before President Roosevelt. The day after the command performance, the entire cast and crew was invited to the White House to meet the President. "It was a night none us will ever forget," cast member Alan Manson said. "Roosevelt, crippled as he was, stayed up until 1:30 in the morning, shaking hands with all 359 men in the company. Mrs. Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins were there. No one could go to sleep after that. We just sat up talking about it."
On December 14 This Is the Army opened at the Municipal Auditorium in St. Louis, and the feud between Berlin and Stone finally erupted into the open. After a performance, Berlin called a meeting in his dressing room. Alan Anderson, the company's first sergeant; Milton Rosenstock, the show's conductor; and Ezra Stone were in attendance. When they had assembled, Berlin declared that there were, as Stone heard it, "too many Jews in the show and too many of Ezra Stone's friends." Everyone present was astounded. Could Irving Berlin, the son of a cantor, actually be saying this?
Stone retorted, "What about your friends? You've got everybody from the music publishing business." Rosenstock protested that there were more actually more Italians than Jews in the show, if anyone cared to count.
Berlin could not be dissuaded. He explained that he wanted to avoid the appearance that the cast of This Is the Army seemed to consist mainly of Jews trying to avoid combat duty by appearing in a morale-boosting show, but in the process he insulted everyone in the room. The cast did contain a number of Jews, but so did civilian show business. Furthermore, Berlin had approved everyone in the cast, so he had only himself to blame if he was unhappy with its ethnic composition.
Stone, meanwhile, was thinking of a spread on Berlin that had just come out in the glossy pages of Life magazine, trumpeting the official version of the songwriter's legend. Yet here he was complaining about the number of Jews in the cast. "Publicity—that's all you're interested in," Stone said to Berlin. "You'd sell your grandmother for publicity."
Berlin then insisted on reconsidering every member of the company. The decree sent shockwaves through the troupe; for them, leaving the company could well be a matter of life and death. Alan Manson told me, "I was always running into guys I had been at Camp Upton with, and I'd say, 'What about So-and-so?' And they'd say, 'He got killed.'"
It would be several months before Berlin carried out his threat, however. As the national tour worked its way west, Manson, Stone, and the rest of the company remained in a state of suspense about their future. The national tour of the revue ended in San Francisco on February 13, 1943. By that time, it had earned $2 million for the Army Emergency Relief Fund.