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Star-Spangled Rhythm

1942. Paramount. Directed by George Marshall. With Eddie Bracken, Betty Hutton, Victor Moore, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray, Dorothy Lamour, Paulette Goddard, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Katherine Dunham


"If you've been looking," says the video cover, "for the opportunity to see mobs of Hollywood's biggest stars together in a musical comedy smash that will keep you oohing and aahing all the way through, then this is it!"

What this is, actually, is yet another studio tribute to its own patriotism. Still, I'm glad I stumbled across Star Spangled Rhythm.

Here, as usual, a bunch of servicemen on shore leave are rattling around LA. Of course they decide to visit a movie studio.This gives them a chance to chat about recent Paramount releases and express adoration for Paramount contract players like Betty Rhodes. At the end, Paramount stars put on a show for the whole destroyer crew; as the climactic "Old Glory" number winds up, word comes that the boys are shipping out, and as Bing Crosby sings they file out of the theater and off to the Pacific.

There is a plot here. It seems that the father (Victor Moore) of one of the sailors (Eddie Bracken) has been writing to his son about his great job as the head of production at Paramount. In fact, he's just a guard at the front gate. When Eddie and his buddies show up at the studio to visit Dad--well, you can imagine. The many plot complications allow room for a studio tour, peeks at upcoming features, footage of players Paramount wanted to promote, walk-ons by many stars, and appearances by directors Cecil B. De Mille, Preston Sturges, and Ralph Murray (he directed Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch).

The villain is the nasty, paranoid Vice President in Charge of Production, and you have to wonder how the actual, real-life Vice President in Charge of Production at Paramount felt about this. It's that odd situation where some actors play characters, some actors make appearances, some non-actors make appearances. Though the story is clearly fictitious it hooks into the "real world" at so many points that the status of any given element in the story tends to be ambiguous.

One moment is, I think, a classic. It involves Bob Hope, who is turning out to have been quite the post-modern comedian. It's a sketch in which Hope, as himself, is seen in a bathtub in his hotel suite. An air-raid warden rushes in and tells him to get out of the tub and into a shelter immediately. Now, the prospect of nudity, at least until recently, is always a mini-crisis for the filmmaker-viewer collaboration. No matter how involving the story is, it's impossible to think of anything other than "How are they going to handle this?" Will they cut in for the from-the-waist-up shot? Will the warden hold a big bath towel between Hope and the camera? Maybe a close-up of the other actor until Hope is safely wrapped up? In this case, Hope shrugs and stands up, revealing garish swimming trunks. He stands there with white bubbles clinging to his dark trunks and gives the audience a "What did you expect?" look. Boom! One of those tacit agreements on which the classical cinema rested has been acknowledged and subverted. We know, Hope knows, and the laugh's on the Production Code.

By the way, this movie includes the famous George S. Kaufman sketch "If Men Played Cards as Women Do," a Vera Zorina ballet (bad) choreographed by Georges Ballanchine, a great number where Eddie "Rochester" Anderson sings and dances with modern dance great Katherine Dunham, impressive work by William Bendix in a skit where he takes a shower without noticing that Bob Hope is hiding in the same shower stall, and a very funny drag act that has Arthur Treacher, Walter Catlett and Sterling Holloway as the alter-egos of Paulette Goddard, Dorothy Lamour and Veronica Lake. If you rent the video, you can fast-forward through the dull parts and still enjoy a good hour's worth of fun.

(6/28/96)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein