Ronald Reagan Appears as Johnny Jones in "This is the Army"
The splashy, star-studded This is the Army is based on the Irving Berlin Broadway musical of the same name, which in turn was a reworking of Berlin's WW1 "barracks musical" Yip Yip Yaphank.
In both instances, the cast was largely comprised of genuine servicemen, many of them either recently returned from fighting or on the verge of heading off to war. The Hollywood-imposed storyline concerns Jerry Jones (George Murphy), a member of the original 1918 Yip Yip Yaphank cast.
This Is the Army is a 1943 American motion picture produced by Hal B. Wallis and Jack L. Warner, and directed by Michael Curtiz, and a wartime musical designed to boost morale in the U.S. during World War II, directed by Sgt. Ezra Stone. The screenplay by Casey Robinson and Claude Binyon was based on the 1942 Broadway musical by Irving Berlin, who also composed the film's 19 songs. The movie features a large ensemble cast, including George Murphy, Joan Leslie, Alan Hale, and Lt. Ronald Reagan, while both the stage play and film included soldiers of the U.S. Army that were actors and performers in civilian life.
In May 1941, ex-Sergeant Irving Berlin was on tour at Camp Upton, his old base in Yaphank, New York. There he spoke with the commanding officers, including Capt. A.H. Rankin of Special Services, about restaging his original Army play, Yip, Yip Yaphank. Gen. George Marshall approved a Broadway production of a wartime, morale boosting musical for the army, allowing for Berlin to conduct the arrangements and rehearsals at Camp Upton much like he had done so during WWI. Sgt. Ezra Stone was selected as director for the new contemporary play, and the two set up on base during the weekdays to put together the story and crew. Insisting on integration, Berlin was granted the chance to add African Americans into this play, which he was not allowed to do in "Yip, Yip Yaphank." This would not be unconventional for Berlin, but it would be for the United States Army—no whites and African Americans would appear on stage simultaneously. Though progressive in that regard, Berlin was still planning on opening with a minstrel skit. Ezra Stone told his civilian boss that it would be impossible to get 110 men out of black-face in time for the next number. It would be a saving grace for an admired songwriter who was stuck on old ideas. Casting aside his minstrel show, Berlin instead wrote a "new" Puttin' on the Ritz, calling it That's What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear.
The retooled play ran on Broadway, at the Broadway Theatre from July 4, 1942 to September 26, 1942. The show was directed by Sgt. Ezra Stone, choreographed by Cpl. Nelson Barclift and Sgt. Robert Sidney.
The show was such a success that it went on the road. The national tour of the revue ended in San Francisco on February 13, 1943. By that time, it had earned $2 million ($23 million in 2006 dollars) for the Army Emergency Relief Fund. The company of men that staged the play were the only Army outfit to be fully integrated, but only behind the scenes.
The story follows the life of Jerry Jones (Murphy) and his son Johnny (Reagan) over the course of two wars. In the beginning of the movie, Jones is a professional dancer drafted into the Army during World War I. At the request of his commanding officer, and against the grudging opposition of his cantankerous drill instructor Sgt. McGee (Hale), Jones produces a patriotic musical revue called Yip Yip Yaphank with music by Irving Berlin. The second part of the movie follows his son (Reagan) who is charged with undertaking a similar but grander production to inspire troops in World War II. The explicitly stated message of the movie is that the purpose of United States involvement in World War II is to fulfill the unfinished result of the previous war. The title of the movie is from the well-known Berlin song that is featured in the movie, which is also the title of the musical-within-a-movie staged by the younger Jones.
The movie features appearances by Irving Berlin, Kate Smith, Frances Langford and Joe Louis as themselves. Smith's full-length rendition of Berlin's "God Bless America" is arguably the most famous cinematic rendition of the piece. Louis appears in a revue piece called "The Well-Dressed Man in Harlem" with other black entertainers, the only revue piece that includes African-Americans (the U.S. armed forces were segregated during World War II).
One of the film's highlights is Irving Berlin himself singing his song "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." Berlin's natural singing voice was so soft that the recording volume had to be increased significantly in order to record acceptably:
Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning
Oh how I'd love to remain in bed...
. . .
Someday I'm going to murder the bugler
Someday they're going to find him dead...
The celebrity impersonation "hamburger" sequence includes accurate spoofs of Broadway stars Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt and Ethel Barrymore, and film stars Charles Boyer and Herbert Marshall.
The revue pieces also include acrobat routines, several comedy pieces, including one with Hale in drag, a minstrel show sketch, and tributes to the Navy and the Air Corps.
The movie can be viewed in many ways as a forerunner of the 1954 movie White Christmas, which also used Berlin's music and featured many similar sketches and scenes, including songs praising Army life and the dramatic marching of soldiers through a theater.
Although the core of the movie consists of the musical numbers, the movie also contains a veneer of a plot involving the wartime love interests of both the father and the son.
In World War I, the musical Yip Yip Yaphank is a rousing success. During the show, it is learned that the troop has received its orders to ship off to France, and thus the end number is changed so that the soldiers march through the theater with their rifles and gear and out into the waiting convoy of trucks. Jones kisses his new bride on the way down the aisle.
In the war, several of the soldiers in the production are killed. Jerry Jones is wounded in France, by shrapnel during a German artillery barrage. He loses the full use of one of his legs, ending his career as a dancer and must walk with a cane. Nevertheless he is resolved to find something useful to do. Sgt. McKee and the bugler also survive.
Twenty-five years later, with World War II raging in Europe, Jones' son Johnny is drafted into the war. He tells his sweetheart that they cannot marry until he returns, since he doesn't want to make her a widow. He grudgingly accepts the order to stage another musical, just as his father did. The show goes on tour around the United States and eventually plays in front of President Roosevelt (Jack Young) in Washington, D.C.. During the show, it is announced that the Washington, D.C. performance will be the last night, and that afterwards the soldiers in the production will be ordered back to their combat units.
Johnny's erstwhile fiancée, who has since joined the Red Cross auxiliary, appears at the show. During a break in the show, she brings a minister and convinces them that they should marry - which they do, in the alley behind the theater, with their fathers as witnesses.
After the curtain
The ending of the war saw the ending of the road show, the last performance being on Maui, Hawaii October 22, 1945 with Irving Berlin once again singing his "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." The Army Emergency Relief Fund collected millions of dollars, but the total amount was never accounted, nor released to the public. By the mid-'70s, the movie itself fell into the public domain, occasionally airing on television to a new generation of viewers. Renewed interest in some of the actors helped those players that might have been considered down-and-out, most notably Stump and Stumpy's Jimmy Cross and Harold Cromer.
George Murphy and Ronald Reagan would run for public office in California. George Murphy served one term, (1965-1971) in the U.S. Senate. Ronald Reagan served two terms as Governor of California (1967-1975) and then President of the United States (1981-1989), with both contributing to each other's Republican campaigns.
Many of the soldiers who had participated in the show held reunions every five years after the end of WWII. Their 50th and final reunion (1992) was held in New York's Theater District.
* If Washington, D.C. officials did not like the idea of a musical/revue about the Army, playwright Irving Berlin was ready to call it This Is the Navy, or This Is the Air Corps.
* In the film, the Washington performance is attended by President Roosevelt, played by Jack Young, who had a history of playing the part, e.g. in Yankee Doodle Dandy. The President is joined by stand-ins representing Gen. Marshall and the Secretary of State. Roosevelt is inaccurately shown as walking and standing without support because at the time it was not known to the public he was paralyzed.