Thanks to its incredible roster of musical talent, MGM leads the pack of WWII all-star musicals with its offering Thousands Cheer (1943). But for me it’s probably my least favorite title of this select group. Oh, it’s not a bad film by any means, and it’s often quite enjoyable. A couple of the tunes are quite good. For instance, Lena Horne singing “Honeysuckle Rose” with the Benny Carter Band is terrific (and was featured in the first That’s Entertainment movie). But too many of the numbers are only average, and there are some painfully unfunny comedy sketches. Not to mention that the final song — composed by Dmitri Shostakovich, no less — is cringe-inducing in the worst way.
There isn’t much story in Thousands Cheer, but that’s OK, since most of these all-star musicals aren’t known for their scripts. In only his fourth film, Gene Kelly plays Private Eddie Marsh who falls in love with Kathryn Jones (Kathryn Grayson), a singer who is responsible for providing entertainment for the soldiers. She’s also the daughter of Marsh’s commanding officer (John Boles). Kathryn tries to re-connect her divorced parents (mom is Mary Astor) while trying to knock Eddie’s chip off his soldier. She’s also responsible for putting on a big show at the local army camp, which just so happens to house all the talent contracted to MGM at the time.
The best song in the film is a dance number Kelly does with a mop. The aforementioned Lena Horne classic is great, and there’s an infectious gem called “I Dug a Ditch” which is performed several times throughout the movie, most notably by the Kay Kyser Band.
For me, though, the music throughout the film is pretty banal, a surprise given that the film was from MGM. Judy Garland does “The Joint is Really Jumping Down at Carnegie Hall”, and it will never make any Garland highlight reels.
The final number is a prescient tribute about a United Nations, with Grayson singing about “making a new way for tomorrow” accompanied by male choruses representing different Allied countries. (Since the real United Nations was not formed until after WWII, the song can be seen as a preview of what everyone wanted the world to look like once the war was over).
Shostakovich is credited for the song in the opening credits, but surely he wasn’t commissioned by MGM for the song. Did Stalin even let his prized composer leave the country, during a time of war no less? A quick check on the Internet shows the song was originally called “Song of the Counterplan” for a 1932 Soviet film called Counterplan. Even with new lyrics, it sounds exactly like one of those pieces Shostakovich wrote to placate and keep Stalin happy, and since it kept Shostakovich alive, I guess I can’t complain too much about the song. Uncle Joe was no doubt pleased…the rest of us less so.
For me, I’ll take the finale to Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), with Bing Crosby singing “Old Glory.” Star Spangled Rhythm boasts everything lacking in Thousands Cheer- breeziness, no attempts at faux-culture, a great song score (“That Old Black Magic and “Time to Hit the Road to Dreamland”) and good comedy.
I also prefer the two Warner Bros. entries, Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) and Hollywood Canteen (1944). They’re much livelier and engaging. Universal had a good one in Follow the Boys (1944) and United Artists produced Stage Door Canteen (1943), which was an East Coast version of the Hollywood Canteen. Frank Borzage directed the latter, and it’s quite an affecting movie. Unfortunately it has fallen into the public domain and is now available in copies of varying quality. I hope a pristine version shows up somewhere.
Fox and Columbia did not produce any all-star musicals, though Fox came close with Four Jills in a Jeep (1944), a highly fictionalized look at a traveling USO show.
The one all-star musical title that remains maddingly elusive is Paramount’s Duffy’s Tavern (1945). I can’t remember this ever showing up on TV, and has not been made available on VHS or DVD. I’m hoping it turns up on TCM one day. I would love to see it.
Kevin Deany is a lifelong movie buff residing in Chicago’s western suburbs. When not watching and writing about movies, he works as an account supervisor for a public relations agency in Chicago. For more information, visit Kevin’s Movie Corner.