Monday, November 10, 2008

For Me and My Gal - 1942

For the monumental occurrence that happened 90 years ago in 1918 on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, we have an unlikely but not I hope inappropriate tribute in “For Me and My Gal” (1942). Like “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, made in the same year, (see blog post here) the movie combines the world of vaudeville with a world at war. The loss of innocence comes wrapped in spats over high button shoes, song and dance, and the sudden interruption of violent reality.

Judy Garland stars, with Gene Kelly in his first film, and George Murphy. Directed by Busby Berkeley, this film, also like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” presents its musical numbers as performances on stage, and not the unreal bursting into song in everyday settings as is common in most musicals. It helps that there appears to be a piano in just about every room.

Judy Garland, despite the turmoil of her private life, presents here her unique and irresistible confidence as a person with more talent than she can possibly contain. Mr. Murphy is her stage partner, a nice fellow who gives her up to the rakish Gene Kelly so that she gets to be a vaudeville star. Mr. Kelly is fresh as paint and full of applesauce. An arrogant opportunist, he sucks up to an operatic headliner with her own railroad car. No private Lear jets these days, just private railroad cars. Conveniently, there is a piano here, too. Judy knows Kelly is no good, but falls in love with the cad anyway.

We have the traditional vaudevillian mélange of acts, the whistle stops in small towns across the country, uncomfortable train upper berths, and the ever-constant desire to headline at New York City’s Palace Theater. It’s a rough and ready world, the chosen way of life of special people.

We see World War I has broken out from the angry headlines on the newspapers the uninterested Gene Kelly tosses aside. When Miss Garland’s kid brother is killed in battle, she leaves Kelly and the act, and their troubled romance, to go to France and perform for the troops. Kelly, who has kept himself out of the Army with a rather rash “accident”, sinks as low as he finally can in her eyes. To redeem himself, he hops over to France as well to perform, and ends up being a hero, which is fortunate for Mr. Kelly’s future acting career.

World War I is significant for the backdrop of a movie about vaudeville, as it was probably the first war that professional entertainers joined together in a voluntary troupe, sort of quasi-official units, to visit the troops. They also sold Liberty Bonds and raised money for Red Cross and other various charity drives. This would all be repeated, of course, on a grander scale for World War II.

At first, Gene Kelly balks at joining them, “You don’t think I’m going over there and sing a bunch of silly songs while all those guys are getting their heads shot off?” But he changes his mind, becomes a hero and finds redemption. Even if he had not become a hero, he still would have been doing his part. The silly songs somehow helped. And somehow got to define a war that has, perhaps more than any other, come to represent lost innocence.

World War I carried something that World War II did not in terms of a kind of folklore of lost innocence. Though the seeds of that war had been present for more than a generation in the form of social unrest, nationalism among disparate European ethnic groups and class turmoil, the war really erupted in an accidental and unintended snowball effect after the tragic 1914 assassination which set everything in motion. It was not many months into the war before generals and politicians alike realized with horror that what they had created to be a limited war was utterly beyond their control to stop. The best hope was that it would somehow burn itself out.

It did, but not before millions of deaths due to battle, disease, and famine.

Ernest Hemingway wrote in “A Farewell to Arms” that “Perhaps wars weren’t won anymore. Maybe they went on forever. Maybe it was another Hundred Years War.”

The other tragedy of World War I was, obviously, its legacy of an imperfect peace that led to World War II.

But another curious aspect to that war so tragic, was the ironic ebullience with which a generation approached it. Even these recruiting posters pictured here do not have that grim, us or them, kill or be killed message. One shows a man quietly examining his conscience as an army of his brothers marches outside the window, and the other shows a group of soldiers on a train gesturing towards the viewer to join them, as if they are happily taking a chartered excursion to a football game.

This ebullience is so marked that when one thinks of that war, one of the first things that comes to mind are the popular songs of the day. So much a part of that war, that the landmark CBS documentary series “World War I” (1964) set aside an entire episode called “Tipperary and All the Jazz” just for the songs the soldiers sang. There was no narration, just song after song played over poignant newsreel footage.

Some of these same songs are performed in “For Me and My Gal” by Judy Garland, et. al., and we are lucky enough to have a front row seat. Because of these funny, raucous, keep-your-chin-up songs, one might think the American Army marched late to the war like party crashers. That is only partly Hollywood; part of it is true. There was an especially hopeful, and for today, an almost unbelievably joyous element in going to war for that generation. “Let’s put on a show” became “Lafayette, we are here!”

It was noted by our allies. British nurse Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War I, “A Testament of Youth” (rpt. Virago Ltd., 1978) notes after three weary years of a war that would not end, “They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the under-sized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed…I wondered, watching them move with such rhythm, such dignity, such serene consciousness of self-respect…Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of Sisters behind me.
‘Look! Look! Here are the Americans!’
I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the War, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army…The coming of relief made me realise all at once how long and how intolerable had been the tension, and with the knowledge that we were not, after all, defeated, I found myself beginning to cry.”

One moment in the movie is particularly sober, and its sentiment particularly true, despite the theatrical setting. Judy’s brother, in uniform, finds her at a party with only enough time to say goodbye. His unit is going overseas. The song “Till We Meet Again” is struck up and everybody sings. It is a sad, sweet waltz,

“Smile a while, and kiss me sad adieu.”

We may think of songs like “George M. Cohan’s “Over There” when we think of World War I, but “Till We Meet Again” was the big song of that era. It is not very vaudevillian, at least not as much as the song one of their vaudeville troopers sings with lyrics like, “We’ll crack the Kaiser with a bottle of Budweiser!” It’s more of a front parlor song, the kind of song people sang together when they didn’t feel so brave.

Just that song was the beginning perhaps, of the loss of innocence. After all the song and dance, though the war was won, the generation that won it, particularly its chroniclers in prose and poetry, art and music, would forever be known as The Lost Generation.

The movie gives us some newsreel footage of General Pershing and the victory parades. Judy and Gene are reunited at the end, at the Palace Theater at a servicemen’s show, both of them in uniform. “For Me and My Gal” just ends with boy getting girl, and an audience made entirely of soldiers cheering them on, like those fellows in the poster marching past the window to some unforeseeable future.

Just like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” there are subtle reminders that there is another war going on outside the movie theater in real time, and some not so subtle ones. After “the end” we have “America Needs Your Money. Buy War Bonds and Stamps at this Theatre.”

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