The most tiresome parts of old school Hollywood musicals were always the threadbare narratives strung between the song-and-dance sequences. No matter how light and fluffy the shenanigans between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, no matter how glowing the chemistry between Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, eventually we just wanted the stars to shut up and perform. David Butler’s Thank Your Lucky Stars has no shortage of singing and dancing. Neither does it lack in star power: a World War Two fundraiser where the cast members “donated” their $50,000 appearance fee to the Hollywood Canteen—a club designed to entertain U.S. servicemen before being shipped overseas—the film is a veritable who’s who of Warner Brothers talent.
But it also isn’t short on an overarching narrative. As was common of musicals from the era, it involves two young entertainers, a handsome young man and a beautiful young woman, who fall in love, join a show, and make it big. But uncommonly for such films, this narrative is actually quite entertaining in its own right. Largely credible to the presence of Eddie Cantor playing dual roles, an over-exaggerated version of himself and a nebbish actor-cum-tour-bus-driver named Joe Simpson, these sequences have a comedic vivacity and energy. At times the antics approach Marx Brothers levels of ridiculousness—“Eddie Cantor” gets kidnapped by Native Americans, tortured via maple syrup and stray dogs, and nearly lobotomized after being mistaken for a mental patient—but they never get too out of hand.
But what of the stars? Their appearances range from outstanding to mediocre to downright puzzling. At the top of the bunch is a surprisingly hilarious song-and-strangle number by John Garfield where he hits all the right wrong notes, a wonderfully fresh vaudevillian tribute by Jack Carson and Alan Hale, Sr., an early appearance by Spike Jones & His City Slickers where they make music in a Hooverville made from abandoned Hollywood sets, and a jumpin’ jitterbug populated with black actors led by Willie Best and Hattie McDaniel. This last segment is one of the most fascinating from a historical standpoint since, unlike other black musical numbers from movies like Sam Wood’s A Day at the Races (1937) and H. C. Potter’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941), the black performers here are shown to be ostensibly middle to upper class citizens, not slum-dwellers or servants.
Ann Sheridan hits her mark in a sweetly sinful song about female sexuality (“For you’ll never remain/On the gentleman’s brain/Till you’re on the gentleman’s lap”) while Errol Flynn good-naturedly flounders his way through a miscalculated musical number about military braggadocio where he sings in an unfortunate quasi-British accent and almost moves his arms and legs enough for it to be considered dancing. The film’s nadir comes in the form of two segments, the first featuring a visibly uninterested Bette Davis sing-talking while sounding strangely like Marlene Dietrich, the second a bizarro ménage à trois of Olivia De Havilland, Ida Lupino, and George Tobias singing mush-mouthed gibberish while dressed like Minnie Mouse by way of Carmen Miranda. Maybe this last scene would have made more sense if they had let Lupino direct it, but even that seems unlikely.
Thank Your Lucky Stars was recently released on Blu-ray as part of the Warner Archive Collection. Their edition is simply outstanding. Not only is the print of the film in outstanding quality, but the Blu-ray is packed with a number of special features worth the market price alone. As a Millennial raised on Cartoon Network, my favorite special features were easily the two Bugs Bunny cartoons, Bob Clampett’s Falling Hare (1943) and I. Freleng’s Little Red Riding Rabbit (1944). While both of them are worthy curios of World War Two era Merrie Melodies packed with historical jokes I didn’t pick up on as a child—in the latter cartoon the Big Bad Wolf discovers that Little Red Riding Hood’s granny isn’t at home because she’s working the swing shift at Lockheed—my favorite is easily Falling Hare since it features one of the only characters who ever truly posed a legitimate threat to Bugs: a tiny “gremlin” hell-bent on sabotaging a military plane. But film buffs will also get a kick over the inclusion of three short films by none other than Jean Negulesco. Keep an eye out for Three Cheers for the Girls (1943), a showcase of six musical numbers from various Hollywood productions featuring the choreography of Busby Berkeley!
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