I'd known about this Universal musical for many years because it had a small appearance from Orson Welles. Indeed, a whole bunch of stars appear in it doing musical acts, but because it was Universal in the 40s the stars are pretty second tier: Ted Lewis, the Andrews Sisters, Turhan Bey. (The studio's big musical money makers however - Deanna Durbin, Abbott and Costello - aren't in it.)
This sort of movie was popular during the war, studios trotting out their talent roster in some quasi variety show plot - Warners did Thank Your Luck Stars, Paramount had Star Spangled Rhythm. Presumably performers donated their talents, or at least gave at discount rates.
I was surprised how much screen time was devoted to George Raft, who wasn't under contract to Universal. But he had just made Broadway for the studio - and had left Warner Bros, and seemed keen to re-launch himself as a musical star. Now Raft got his break as a dancer, and he can dance - but he's not a fantastic musical star. He doesn't really "sell" a dance number, at least not here (maybe he could have with more rigorous handling). His acting persona doesn't really suit musicals and/or patriotic domestic dramas either - too stiff and tough. Really, his natural milieu was thrillers and action films.
But his character drives the "book" of the film. The first half hour focuses around Raft, and his courtship of Vera Zorina (as stiff an actor as Raft but they dance nicely together). Then war comes and the film starts to focus on Raft organising shows for the troops and the stars appear and do their acts. Occasionally we go back to Raft and his dramas. The conflict in the second half is really contrived: Zorina falls pregnant but Raft is impatient organising a show and she doesn't get around to tell him so they wind up separated. She makes a crack about him not serving and he doesn't tell her he tried but got not back. It's a weak reason for a separation and is lazy writing. You wonder why they bothered - why not have them fall in love on the road and have some other fight? (Did Raft want to re-do his history-of-vaudeville schtick from Broadway?)
But the acts are interesting - there's something for everyone. You've got the Andrews Sisters singing twice - once in concert, one on a boat that is hit by a torpedo. Some old broad Sophie Tucker does a few numbers. That creepy Ted Lewis does a number. Donald O'Connor and Peggy Ryan do their cut-price-Mickey-and-Judy routine. Jeanette MacDonald came out of retirement (or whatever she was doing) to sing two songs. Dinah Shore sings a few songs, very well (she's pretty and likeable - I wonder why she wasn't more of a film star). Arthur Rubenstein plays on the piano. Louis Jordan, a black band leader, performs for the black troops (depicted a little child-like but at least they're in the film... there's a few black performers actually) - and then Raft does a Charleston for them in the rain to "Sweet Georgia Brown" which is fun. W.C Fields looks in terrible shape as he does a very unfunny comedy sketch involving a pool cue. There's an unexpectedly touching bit where Jeanette McDonald sings to some injured soldiers in hospital including one bloke who is blind. Some Latina type does a fantastic dance act.
Most of all there's Orson Welles doing a version of his Mercury Magic Show, which he performed during the war. Orson is handsome and charismatic and you wish he had the lead; he's clearly having fun, bantering with the audience and sawing Marlene Dietrich in half. (During this period Orson tried to set himself up as a sort of comedian - he had his own sitcom on radio and everything).
There's a meeting of a whole bunch of performers - Universal contract stars - being addressed by Raft and George Macready. They pan across the room and some people I recognise - Marlene Dietrich, Maria Montez, Orson Welles, Dinah Shore, Randolph Scott, Nigel Bruce, Donald O'Connor, Lon Chaney Jnr, and Andy Devine. Some people I didn't recognise at all. I think Susannah Foster was in there. But it's fun to see them all together.
The end is quite sweet when there's a speech (done in voice over - I'm not sure who by) about the importance of being a "soldier in greasepaint" - performing for the troops. It touches on the risks involved - Raft's character dies and at the end they go to the "honor roll" which lists Carole Lombard, Leslie Howard, Roy Rognan, Tamara, Charles King and Bob Ripa - killed performing for the troops. That's a good basis for a film - the camraderie, the risks. This isn't that film though - Raft feels a bit bad about being rejected for the army but most of the time is wasted on their dull marriage and contrived troubles.
It's frustrating because there's lots of good things about this movie - all the talent involved, the world of theatre performers in wartime. I loved the real footage of concerts, and servicemen in crowds, and little bits like a blonde girl swearing an oath promising she wouldn't divulge any military secrets. There's a great movie in here struggling to get out.
Aussie audiences will get a kick out of the Delta Rhythm Boys singing a song in New Guinea (on the backlot I presume). Also at the end Raft and his dad and sister travel to Brisbane when their ship is sunk. They don't get there unfortunately.
Grace McDonald is very pretty and lovely as Raft's picture but has nothing to do. George Macready pops up in a sympathetic role but is still creepy.
Lots of stars are mentioned who don't appear - John Wayne, Frederic March, Bob Hope, Cary Grant etc. They even show pictures of some of them at the end. Maybe they were sucking up.