In all the history of cinema, there few subgenres that I find delightfully weird and random than one that existed for only a few years, between 1942 and 1945, made a staggering quantity of money, and ceased to have any function after World War II ended. I don't even know if the style has a formal name, but they're big benefit musicals for and about military men, in which an exceedingly feeble plot is used to carry us between routines: some comedy, a hell of a lot of musical numbers, frequently performed by famous people gamely appearing for free to add marquee value to films that did double duty as fundraisers and portable USO shows. Most of the studios made their own contribution: Paramount had Star Spangled Rhythm; MGM had Thousands Cheer; Universal had Private Buckaroo; United Artists had Stage Door Canteen; Warner Bros. had a few, including Hollywood Canteen and the genre's standard-bearer, This Is the Army. The last of these was the most successful of a successful lot: it was the highest-grossing film of 1943, which absolutely boggles the mind; it's also the best, the most unified, and arguably the one with the most coherent, dramatically complex narrative, which says far more about the ad hoc, "just throw some songs together" nature of these films than it does about This Is the Army.

It originates in a pair of shows written a quarter of a century apart by Irving Berlin: 1918's Yip Yip Yaphank and 1942's This Is the Army, both of them plotless revues designed to be performed by an all-soldier cast. The film version, credited to Casey Robinson and Claude Binyon (the latter credited with his military rank of captain, as were all of the officers and enlisted men in the cast and crew), unifies the two shows and two wars around a pair of Army recruits: Jerry Jones (George Murphy), drafted right off the stage of his hit Broadway show in 1917, who stages the first production of Yip Yip Yaphank, and has his dancing career ended by shrapnel in the war; and his his son Johnny (Lt. Ronald Reagan), who just wants to fight and serve his country, but has to cope with the desire of his sweetheart, Eileen (Joan Leslie) to get married, and the desire of the U.S. Army that he should follow in his father's footsteps and stage another morale-boosting musical extravaganza to be performed by soldiers for civilians. Begrudingly, he does so, but he gets into it.

This has, I want to repeat, the most "dramatically complex narrative" of any of these films. And that with literally only a nineteen-minute window for virtually all of that drama - WWI ends at the 28 minute mark, and at the 47-minute mark, Johnny Jones's first number goes up. From that point onward, the film consists mostly of musical numbers and comedy routines, the former of which have aged with substantially more grace, or at least more legibility (a celebrity impression sketch that starts off by spoofing Lynn Fontanne isn't the sort of thing that most people in the 21st Century have the means to appreciate on anything but an abstract level). And occasionally, we get to see the next tiny nugget of info in Johnny's story, but if there are fifteen whole minutes of "plot" in the last hour of the film, I'd be more than a little bit surprised.

The purpose of this is simple enough: show civilians some real fighting men in a sweet and humanising light; give the soldiers oversees something frothy and fun with plenty of varied bits and pieces of entertainment; and above all, raise money for the Army Emergency Relief Fund, which it did in abundance - imagine the highest grossing film of this or any recent year having most, maybe all of its gross dedicated to a public service. Imagine the studios even tinkering with that idea. Studio charity in the 21st Century is Disney donating a fraction of the opening weekend gross of its nature documentaries to a wildlife fund. That's about as direct an example I can name of how zealously the Hollywood machine dedicated itself to advancing the War Effort, and whatever the reason - genuine patriotism, a decide to earn points with the government - it's also as direct a proof I can offer of just how different the culture was in those years. Not better, not worse - but different in ways that are hard to appreciate or fathom. This Is the Army, as both a movie and a cultural object, speaks to such a profoundly different way of being in the world, it's not even like a time capsule, more like a vivid hallucination of history.

Anyway, the thing itself, as a work to be appreciated on its own, lives and dies by the individual routines and Berlin songs. The whole thing is of such a rousing pitch, with nearly every song by necessity written with a fairly simple, easy-to-learn melody and lyrical content, that it starts to bleed together, and most of the standout moments don't do it for good reason: the single number performed by African-Americans, "That's What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear" is an awkward reminder that even as relatively progressive a movie as this - and in '43, a mainstream studio production slotting that much time for featured performances by African-Americans was, by all means, progressive - still feels cringingly like an ancient uncle who still says "coloreds" at family get-togethers: not necessarily hurtful at all, but committed to such a reductive vision of race (you know what black men like to do? They like to preen and wear fancy clothes!) that it's just not possible to watch it with any level of comfort. Then there's the actual blackface number, which wasn't only outdated in '43, the dialogue mentions how outdated it was: words to the effect (I didn't take exact notes and I no longer have the disc) of "They said it would be too old-fashioned to have a minstrel number, but it worked just as well now as it did in the old show". Which doesn't speak well of the old show.

Really, the only part that jumps out for being good is the only number performed by a legitimate top-shelf professional singer: we're ushered into 1941 by Kate Smith, a radio superstar, performing "God Bless America" with a passionate gusto that makes for one of the best - maybe the best - performance of that well-worn song I've ever encountered. Otherwise, it's mostly just good-natured but largely interchangeable performances of a bunch of soldiers singing; there's a lovely piece of theater history recorded when 54-year-old Berlin gamely sings "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning", proving above all that even one of the most genius writers of pop songs in the history of the art form is not necessarily well-equipped to sing them.

It's still a nice moment though, and what is anyway true is that This Is the Army has a largely high enough success level that it's a pleasant entertainment, though hardly essential, and certainly not as rousing and exciting as when it was brand new and the need to keep stoking patriotic fervor was at its height. Rare for a film of its peculiar genre, it was directed by a fairly major filmmaker: Michael Curtiz, in the same year his Casablanca enjoyed the release for which it would net him his directing Oscar.* This Is the Army is by absolutely no means one of Curtiz's great works, though it's not without its charms and points of nifty directing; I am particularly taken with a globe that has a small fire burn across Poland as the visual transition from the first to the second World War.

What Curtiz brings to the film, mostly, is the quick momentum and frankness of his better-known and just plain better films. That, and a certain knack for shooting the stage as a stage, doing absolutely nothing to romanticise or shade the action, but to simply declaim, this is the space where these men are, this is what they're doing, and this is the kind of people they are. It's a very spartan musical, as probably befits one made about military men; no flourishes, no indulgences where the camera seems to be taking part in the dance. We're always in the audience, watching the performers with a fair degree of closeness and attention, but no poetic remove.

It's a clean, efficient way to stage the movie, and I don't suppose there's enough meat to it for it to survive anything else. This Is the Army, beyond question, is chiefly interesting as a sociological lens, but it manages to be at least passably entertaining the process, and we cannot say this for all morale-boosters. It's never less than fascinating, and there's a lot to be said for the kind of weird history lesson movies like this represent.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1943
-Alfred Hitchcock directs the black-hearted small town thriller Shadow of a Doubt
-Tex Avery makes the legendary adult-themed cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood for MGM
-The immensely solemn The Song of Bernadette, starring the immensely solemn Jennifer Jones is the most Serious Artistic Film of the year

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1943
-The Nazi propaganda machine makes Titanic, an anti-British retelling of the 1912 nautical tragedy
-The future emissary of Japanese cinema to the world, Kurosawa Akira makes his eerily self-assured directorial debut with the judo drama Sanshiro Sugata
-Emilio Fernández's María Candelaria, the oldest film to compete at the first Cannes International Film Festival in 1946, is produced in Mexico