Review: Entertaining the Troops
In June of this year, MVD Visual released to DVD a wonderful 1994 documentary entitled Entertaining the Troops—a ninety-minute special originally shown on PBS stations during their fundraising drives. (There’s even a plea to donate from the legendary Mel Blanc at the end of the documentary, allowing him to do some of the cartoon voices that made him famous.) Written, directed and produced by filmmaker Robert Mugge, Troops contains wonderful film highlights from Hollywood’s top stars as they “did their bit” – whether it was selling war bonds, boosting morale…or, in some cases, enlisting in the service.
Radio played a large role in World War II. Top comedy stars like Jack Benny and George Burns & Gracie Allen would often take their shows to bases to perform for those stationed there. The King of Going Overseas being Bob Hope, of course, and his name actually appears before “Entertaining the Troops” on the DVD’s box cover. The last half-hour of the presentation features “war stories” from the comedy legend as he’s reunited (in 1988) with several members of his “troupe”: vocalist-comedienne Frances Langford, dancer Patty Thomas and guitarist Tony Romano. Bob recalls the first time he was asked to do one of his radio broadcasts at a local military base; the comedian soon discovered he was playing to a more appreciative audience than the jaded throng who regularly attended his program. In between the group’s reminiscences, footage of Bob and the gang from their trips overseas is shown, with some hilarious interactions with Hope’s favorite stooge, “Professor” Jerry Colonna.
Hope’s old “Road” companion, Dorothy Lamour, is also present and accounted for on Entertaining the Troops. The “Bond Bombshell” describes how she earned that nickname by selling 300 million worth of war bonds, and tells a poignant story of how she suggested to the government that Carole Lombard would be the ideal actress to aid in the selling of same. (Lombard’s death in January of 1942 occurred as the result of a plane crash when she was returning home to husband Clark Gable after a successful bond rally.) Dottie is also featured in a clip from a 1944 movie short, Mail Call, singing I’m the Secretary to the Sultan. The Mail Call short was a visual tie-in to the popular Armed Forces Radio Service program and also features announcer Don Wilson, Cass Daley (crooning They’re Either Too Young or Too Old as only she can) and Abbott & Costello performing “Who’s on First?”
Generous portions of a 1944 short depicting a broadcast of G.I. Journal are also included in Troops, with Mel Blanc playing Private Sad Sack and joshing with the likes of Colonna, Kay Kyser, and Lucille Ball. (Mel also reminisces about his days as “Private Snafu,” the animated hero in a series of short instructional cartoons produced between 1943 and 1945 as part of the Army-Navy Screen Magazine series.) Another popular AFRS offering, Jubilee, is given a visual treatment. Ernest “Bubbles” Whitman trades quips with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, who then brings out Lena “Dish-a-licious” Horne. (I know that’s not a nickname for the divine Miss Lena—I just didn’t want her to feel left out.) Lena and Rochester duet on Life’s Full O’Consequence, a number they made popular in 1943’s Cabin in the Sky, and Lena solos on The Man I Love.
Maxene Andrews describes the experience of recording “V-discs,” a series of 12-inch, 78 rpm vinyl records that were specifically produced for the use of military personnel overseas…and as you would expect, there’s footage of her and sisters Patty and Laverne doing a sprightly version of their signature Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B. Old-time radio fans will love seeing performances from Red Skelton (“Guzzler’s Gin”), Jack Benny (with harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler) and Danny Kaye. Classic movie fans will thrill to clips featuring Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney (with Edward Arnold) and Bette Davis (the co-founder of the Hollywood Canteen, also featured in the documentary). My personal favorite is the tail end of a comedy sketch featuring Hope and William Bendix (Bob’s co-star in one of my favorite Hope vehicles, 1947’s Where There’s Life) that features an uproarious punchline from Professor Colonna himself.
Entertaining the Troops, available for purchase from Radio Spirits, is a delightful journey into the nostalgic past — when what Tom Brokaw once described as “The Greatest Generation” tackled the toughest of jobs with an assist from “more stars than there are in heaven.”