Here in razor-sharp high-definition Blu-ray is Thank Your Lucky Stars, an entertaining time capsule from WWII. The film is a featherweight all-star revue that refers lightly to the war while corralling a group of dramatic stars to do unlikely things like sing and dance. We’re tempted to quip that never have so many given so little for so much, but the movie was a very successful fundraiser for the Hollywood Canteen founded by Bette Davis and John Garfield, which is why they’re in the picture and got so many of their colleagues to appear.
Eddie Cantor plays a dual role, as himself (caricatured as an obnoxious egotist who can’t help taking over the show while telling bad jokes) and an ordinary guy cursed with the misfortune of looking like him. His self-spoofery and the things he’s subjected to make him the best sport in the picture, and some of his dinosaur jokes are still funny. His central plot is a wisp of air about giving a break to a talented tenor (Dennis Morgan) and his instant girlfriend (Joan Leslie), while the producers (Edward Everett Horton and S.Z. Sakall, spouting malapropisms) vent their frustration.
At least one singer, Dinah Shore, has business opening her mouth, and the wacky musical destruction of Spike Jones and His City Slickers is in fine form. There’s also a lively Harlem highlight, “Ice Cold Katie”, a musical showcase for Hattie McDaniel and Willie Best in an operetta about getting a soldier married. In this vision of a black community, the viewer must simultaneously register the stereotypes and the joyful artistry, for you couldn’t get one without the other, as we’re once again reminded of how much African-American talent was frittered away in the studio era. In general, black numbers were isolated from the white performers in this era, but McDaniel re-appears at the end with Cantor and shares the stage with other stars.
Beyond this, the songs are talk-sung by stars who demonstrate why they didn’t do this more often, or ever, but they have two secret weapons. The first is that they sing only comic songs, cleverly created by Frank Loesser and Arthur Schwartz, and these depend more on timing and gesture than holding a note. The second is that good actors can act as if they’re singing, if you don’t listen too closely.
Thus, Bette Davis pronounces her way through “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” and pulls off a genuine highlight in a comic jitterbug. John Garfield patters his way through a parodic “Blues in the Night” with Cantor. Ann Sheridan struts and winks that “Love Isn’t Born, It’s Made”, surrounded by college girls in pajamas. Errol Flynn adopts a quasi-Cockney accent and jumps all over the stage for “That’s What You Jolly Well Get”, supported by a helpful chorus.
Olivia DeHavilland and Ida Lupino throw themselves into hepcat zoot-zooting on either side of George Tobias (a character actor who, according to the American Film Institute, replaced an undanceable Paul Henreid). Humprey Bogart, wisely, doesn’t sing a note. Neither does Alexis Smith, who gets swung around fetchingly between two handsome dancers. Showing off excellent timing, Jack Carson and Alan Hale mug through an old-timey vaudeville-style number. Mike Mazurki, Noble Johnson and Ruth Donnelly have comic roles, while producer Mark Hellinger and director David Butler appear as themselves. The script is the product of hardy comic duo Norman Panama and Melvin Frank along with future TV director James V. Kern.
Extras on the disc include two classic Bugs Bunny cartoons, Falling Hare (Bugs vs. gremlin) and the brusque burlesque of Little Red Riding Rabbit. They look great in HD, as does a patriotic short directed by Negulesco, Food and Magic, with Jack Carson lecturing about rationing and waste. Negulesco also directed the musical shorts (in poorer shape) Three Cheers for the Girls (an anthology of Busby Berkeley clips) and The United States Army Band (performance and newsreel). There’s a soundtrack-less newsreel clip of the Hollywood Canteen, a trailer for this feature and the Bette Davis drama Watch on the Rhine, and a radio version of Thank Your Lucky Stars with some of the same cast.