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Thank Your Lucky Stars

Thank Your Lucky Stars

1943
Warner Brothers. Directed by David Butler; written by Norman Panama & Melvin Frank and James V. Kern. With Eddie Cantor, Joan Leslie, Dennis Morgan, S. Z. Sakall, Edward Everett Horton, and many guest stars.


It's not that unusual for a director to turn up on-camera in his own movie, but when the producer makes an appearance you know you've really gone behind the scenes. In Thank Your Lucky Stars, director David Butler and producer Mark Hellinger stroll past a Hollywood street corner and stop to chat with a couple of aspiring performers (that's Hollywood for you). Guest appearance? Inside joke? Actual plot-advancing role? This movie is full of performances that are odd combinations of all three, as you'd expect in a story about Hollywood stars putting on a wartime charity benefit.

A few of the actors play actual fictional characters (kids trying to break into show business, etc.). Many others show up in the "Cavalcade of Stars" benefit show in a sketch or song. And some—this is the interesting part—play a kind of odd variation of "themselves"—acting, clearly, but under their own names.

About the actors who play characters (Joan Leslie and Dennis Morgan as kids trying to break into show business, Edward Everett Horton and S. Z. Sakall as impressarios, etc.) there's not much to say. The stars who perform in the show—the second category—are rather charming. Most of them sing, and pretty badly. Hattie McDaniel leads a huge Harlem number, Olivia de Havilland and Ida Lupino try scat-singing and jitterbugging, Errol Flynn does a sailor's chanty, and Bette Davis tries hard with "They're Either Too Young or Too Old" (about available men during the war). None of these people has any noticeable vocal talent. These are stars who usually come to us finally polished, and it's endearing to see them gamely showing their limitations like any amateur in a variety show. That uncomfortable woman who can't stay on pitch may be as close to the "real" Ann Sheridan as has ever appeared on screen.

Now for the third category. Dinah Shore, Spike Jones, Humphrey Bogart and some others appear "as themselves," but delivering scripted lines and presenting, to a greater or lesser degree, their public personas. The most notable is Eddie Cantor. He plays both "Eddie Cantor" and an actor named "Joe Simpson" who can't get work because he looks too much like Eddie Cantor. Not only does Joe Simpson rail against "that bum, Eddie Cantor" every chance he gets, it's a foundation of the plot that Eddie Cantor is a cowardly, ugly, power-hungry egomaniac with stale material and a terrible singing voice and that everybody in Hollywood hates him. One has to ask, why would Eddie Cantor go along with this? Was he so beloved by then that he could afford this steady stream of jokes at his own expense? Was his egomania, etc., the equivalent of Jack Benny's stinginess, a shtick that everybody knew was only pretend? Or did the guy really need the work?

Appearances like this can shed an interesting light on the nature of stardom and performance. There seems to be a level of personal appearance that falls between playing a role and being one's private-life self, a kind of public persona that stars trotted out for premieres, USO shows, magazine interviews, awards ceremonies, and, most popularly, on the radio. Thank Your Lucky Stars makes an important connection between "revues"-style movies and radio; it opens during Eddie Cantor's radio show where guest John Garfield does a routine spoofing his own tough-guy reputation. Radio in the 30s and 40s, I believe, provided an environment where stars could show their versatility and good sportsmanship. Listeners probably felt they were "getting to know" John Garfield, et. al., there in their living rooms.

Thank Your Lucky Stars and the other Hollywood revue movies are the precursors of television in the way they reveal/conceal things about the performers behind the characters we see at the movies. There's a kind of intimacy to the proceedings. You tend to forget that Humphrey Bogart (he's trying to get a part in the "Cavalcade of Stars") is here as carefully scripted, shot and edited as in High Sierra or In A Lonely Place.

Thank Your Lucky Stars is the best of these kinds of films that I've seen. It's way too long, but the script is clever and sometimes really funny. The songs are by Frank Loesser and Arthur Schwartz. The whole thing has a wised-up, fairly adult tone. For example, Eddie Cantor sings a song about giving up nightclubbing to help the war effort; the chorus goes: "We're staying home tonight, my baby and me, doing the (leer) patriotic thing."

A final note: According to this movie, there's a sort of pastoral encampment of unemployed performers called "Gower Gulch," built from old sets and props scrounged from the studios (well, from Warner Brothers, to be strictly accurate). Joe lives in a cell from The Roaring Twenties. There's a bench where, we're told, "Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino played a terrific love scene." Furniture of all periods lies around. What a lovely, odd vision of marginal movie people living among the discards of countless fictitious worlds.

(4/18/95)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein