Irving Berlin: This Is the Army, Part 3
Summer 1996, Vol. 28, No. 2
By Laurence Bergreen
© 1996 by Laurence Bergreen
After the national tour ended, Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers Studio, offered $250,000 for the film rights and, as Berlin specified, donated the money to the army. In addition, he promised to forward all profits from the motion picture to the same cause. A fresh series of censorship disputes flared up. Warner Brothers complained that the female impersonators, who were an important element in the show's tone and content, would prevent the movie from being released overseas. "Female impersonators do not exist in Latin America," explained one misinformed studio memorandum to Jack Warner. The author insisted the impersonators were "highly insulting and revolting to Latin sensibilities and censors. Even could the film be exported, United States soldiers cavorting in dresses would represent ammunition to the enemy's propagandists." So the studio reduced, though it did not entirely eliminate, the roles played by female impersonators, losing a good deal of the show's peculiar charm in the process.
Finally, Ezra Stone challenged Berlin on the issue of lyrics. By the time the film went before the camera, Berlin and he were no longer on speaking terms--as every man in the company was acutely aware. The dispute polarized the troupe into factions. Stone sensed his days with This Is the Army were numbered; he had fulfilled his role as stage director and was now dispensable. Berlin insisted on a new ending for the movie, the jubilantly bloodthirsty "Dressed Up to Kill." Upset, Stone and another soldier approached various church organizations to try to enlist their support against the song. Stone perceived his crusade in purely moral terms, but it appeared to others in the company that he took a certain satisfaction in having at last found an issue he could use against Berlin, and even subvert him.
For Irving, music could be as much an incitement to make war as to make love. He understood that war was, in the last analysis, not about singing or joking or fellowship, but about killing, and in "Dressed up to Kill," he gave vent to the animal energy released in combat.
Dressed up to kill,
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.
Fired by Stone, religious groups went after Berlin and Warner Brothers with righteous glee, and by July the studio was awash with letters and telegrams criticizing the song. Warner proposed that Berlin substitute "Dressed Up to Win" for the original lyrics. Fearing bad press above all else, Berlin took Jack Warner's suggestion, and although the new lyrics made little sense, the soldiers singing them were still poised with bayonets at the ready, and they created just the same bloodthirsty impression that the song's critics tried to avoid.
As Berlin fought these myriad backstage battles, the 359 members of the show's cast and crew journeyed to Hollywood under military auspices. Classified as a "troop movement," their presence in the film capital was, officially at any rate, a secret. As such, the company's status ranked among the worst-kept confidences of the war. Their arrival by train on February 14, 1943, was greeted with Hollywood-style hoopla. When they reached Warner Brothers, they were amazed to find the streets packed with cheering civilians, all of them studio employees.
The soldier-actors occupied a sprawling, ten-acre camp site close to the studio. Now that they had made it to Hollywood, their lives became a bizarre amalgam of Hollywood razzle-dazzle and military rigor. In the camp, the men lived in heated, electrified tents constructed by the studio's prop department. They ran obstacle courses and performed drills. Under orders from the War Department, they marched in formation to the studio each day through a special entrance and reported for duty to their assigned sound stages. They were not allowed to roam freely, nor were they permitted to approach any actresses at the studio. (Off duty, at the Hollywood Canteen, their conduct was another matter.) After completing their scenes, the men marched back to camp.
|Cast members, led by a weaponless Ezra Stone, perform daily regulation drills, a duty from which they were not exempted. (NARA, 208-N-3742)|
To relieve overcrowding in their tent city, some of the soldiers found sleeping quarters in private residences. Most moved to humble rooming houses, but at least one found himself assigned to Cole Porter's Bel Air mansion. Once they began to mingle with the stars, they realized they had made it to Hollywood, after all. Alan Manson experienced the joy of hitchhiking with Ingrid Bergman each day to the room he rented in Hollywood for five dollars a week.
The only real Hollywood star that most of the members of the company came to know was a Warner Brothers contract player named Ronald Reagan. Now a lieutenant, he occasionally talked with Berlin during the making of the picture, but the distracted and frantic songwriter could never quite place Ronald Reagan. Was he a soldier, nonprofessional actor, or movie star? "The first several days I was introduced to Irving Berlin," said the future President, "he'd say, 'Glad to meet you!' and I couldn't understand why. But what really surprised me was that afterward he sought me out on the set, and he said, 'Listen, you've got a few things to correct: a little huskiness in the voice and so forth could be improved. But listen! You ought to give this business some thought! When you get out, you could have a future!'"
Along with the other cast members who were in uniform, Reagan earned military pay, about $250 a month, for his services in the movie. But civilians in the cast were able to command commercial fees. George Murphy, for instance, who played Reagan's father, was paid over $28,000.
Filming proceeded quickly until the day Berlin was scheduled to sing "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" before the cameras; suddenly, he found himself at the center of a humiliating ordeal. The famous scene in Yip! Yip! Yaphank in which he was dragged from his tent was recreated with painstaking care for the cameras. Of course, Irving was now twenty-five years older. He was still as lean as a whippet, his hair still jet black, but his face was lined and clearly showed the strain of the months of touring with his show. And his voice, on which the success of the entire scene--the high point of the movie--depended, was weaker than ever: high and nasal, and yet at the same time muffled. Noted one brutally honest Warner Brothers memorandum, "As more than a million persons who saw the show from Manhattan to San Francisco know, Irving Berlin is no singer." As he neared the end of the song, his voice faltered so badly that a grip complained, "If the fellow who wrote this song could hear this guy sing it, he'd roll over in his grave!"
The opening of the filmed version of This Is the Army prompted a lavish military carnival. The mayor of Los Angeles declared "This Is the Army Day," and not to be outdone, the governor of California promptly declared "This Is the Army Week." The movie was given simultaneous premiers in three movie theaters. Ten thousand people saw the film at a time. At each location, stars, military bands, and military hardware such as Sherman tanks, jeeps, and four-thousand-pound "Block Buster" bombs were on display.
Amid the excitement, there was one missing element: Irving Berlin, who had taken refuge in New York with his family. Succumbing to his familiar opening-night shyness, he chose to stay away from the great event he had labored to create and publicize. This peculiar behavior was pure Berlin, another demonstration of the paradox he had become. Berlin was everywhere; Berlin was nowhere.
|Irving Berlin meets the king and queen of England after a London performance in November 1943. (NARA, 111-SC-431708)|
At worst an embarrassment, and at best a colossal curiosity by contemporary standards, This Is the Army did accomplish the task Berlin, the army, and Warner Brothers set for it: raising money. Throughout the summer and fall its popularity held, and it earned $9,555,586.44--a sum that Jack Warner proudly, if a trifle reluctantly, donated to Army Emergency Relief.
Before the foreign tour, Berlin finally carried out his longstanding threat to purge the company of undesirables, reducing the cast to 150 men. Once the selection process was completed, Alan Manson, Milton Rosenstock, and Alan Anderson all remained with the company and would go abroad with Berlin. Ezra Stone, of course, was left behind.
The plan, at first, was for the company to play throughout England for three months, after which This Is the Army would be disbanded for good. The company reassembled at Camp Upton on September 5, 1943. Their soldiering, too, remained important, as the men received carbines and took target practice in and around their tap dance and minstrel routines.
|Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.|