Pop Music Goes to
World War II
The unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941, swept America into a dreadful war. Congress declared war on Japan on December 8th, and on Germany and Italy two days later.
Instantly, the songwriters of the country sprang into action. "We Did It Before (and We Can Do It Again)" was written within hours after Pearl Harbor. Two days later it was interpolated into a Broadway musical, Banjo Eyes, starring Eddie Cantor. Within a few weeks, all America was singing "Remember Pearl Harbor" and "Goodbye Mama, I'm Off to Yokohama".
Navy Chaplain William Maguire filled in for a fallen team member on one of the big gun installations at Pearl Harbor, and when they shot down an attacking Japanese plane, he said, "Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition." Broadway composer Frank Loesser wrote a hit pop tune on that phrase, and for several years thereafter Father Maguire had misgivings about being associated with the famous slogan (Ewen 1977, 429).
As the war developed, three basic song types began to appear: sentimental ballads of loneliness, separation, and longing; militant anti-enemy songs; and comedy, nonsense, and novelty tunes that served as diversion from the fear and agony of the war mentality.
The entertainment industry collected its energies in three major productions: stage musicals, film musicals, and concert tours. The entire world of pop music hurriedly got into the war effort. Nothing quite like it ever occurred before or since.
"You'll Never Know (Just How Much I Miss You)" expressed the emotion so common to mothers, wives, and sweethearts whose men were scattered all over the globe. The same holds true for "Sentimental Journey" (1944) sung by Doris Day, "When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)" crooned by Vaughn Monroe in his best nasal delivery, Dinah Shore's treatment of "I'll Walk Alone", and Frank Sinatra's masterful reading of Jule Styne's "Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night In the Week".
Not intentionally, "White Christmas" (1942) became wartime favorite, second only to "Silent Night" among Christmas classics. Including all versions of the song, it has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. The most famous version, performed by Bing Crosby, holds the world record for best-selling single of all time, with over 50 million copies sold. According to the trade journal, Variety, it is "probably the most valuable copyright in the world" (Ewen 1977, 430).
Roy Acuff's "Cowards Over Pearl Harbor", Red Foley's "Smoke On the Water", Tex Ritter's "Gold Star In the Window", and Bob Wills' "White Cross On Okinawa" expressed America's shock and anger at being drawn into a war they wanted to avoid.
Surprisingly, American entertainers exercised considerable restraint in fierce, anti-war, musical rhetoric. The large immigrant population of Germans and Italians may have tempered things a bit.
Comedy, Nonsense, and Novelty Songs
Spike Jones' treatment of "Der Fuehrer's Face", with his rubber "razzer" creating a Bronx cheer, put the bandleader-comic in the big time to stay. In a rare vocal display, Bette Davis sang "They're Either Too Young or Too Old", lamenting on the men available for romance, in the movie called Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943). The Andrews Sisters added "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)" to their long list of blockbusters.
Several novelty tunes from the 1930s came back – "Three Little Fishes", "Flat Foot Floogie", "A-Tisket, A-Tasket", and "The Music Goes 'Round and 'Round" among them. The big hit, however, was Milton Drake's "Mairzy Doats", which derived from his four-year-old daughter's playroom patter ... "cowzy tweet and sowzy tweet and liddle sharksy doisters" (Ewen 1977, 433).
Within a few months after Pearl Harbor, the celebrated Broadway composer-lyricist Irving Berlin repeated his World War I success (Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, 1918) by writing and producing This Is The Army, another stage musical of, by, and for the military. He spent several weeks at Camp Upton to gain firsthand material for his routines, songs, and production numbers from the normal activities in the classroom, training field, service club, canteen, mess hall, and PX (Ewen 1977, 430). The result was a brilliant musical revue brought to life by a few professionals and a host of gifted amateurs.
The show opened on Broadway in July of 1942, and was so successful that its initial run of four weeks was extended to twelve weeks. It soon went on tour, was made into a movie, and sent to Great Britain. It closed two years later, having earned ten million dollars for the Army Relief Fund and three-hundred and fifty thousand dollars for British War Charities. Ex-president Ronald Reagan and ex-senator George Murphy were in the movie, incidentally. As he had twenty-five years earlier, Irving Berlin declined any financial gain from the entire project, but retained copyright ownership of all material.
The above all-soldier revue served as a pattern for Moss Hart's Winged Victory (1943), an Air Force musical similar in design, intent, and focus. The music for Winged Victory was written by David Rose who later went on to fame as composer of "Holiday for Strings", "Our Waltz", and the themes for twenty-two television shows, among them Highway Patrol and Sea Hunt.
Cole Porter had two war-theme musicals. Let's Face It (1941), featuring Danny Kaye as one of three Camp Roosevelt inductees recruited as gigolo lovers for three society women on Long Island, contained the fine cabaret tune, "Ace in the Hole". Something for The Boys (1943) put the fabulous Ethel Merman on stage as Blossom Hart, a onetime chorus girl who, because of the war, has become a defense worker. "Hey, Good Lookin'" was the big pop tune from this show (Ewen 1977, 439).
With music by Phil Charig, Follow the Girls (1944) presented Gertrude Niessen as Bubbles La Marr, a striptease queen who sacrificed her career to work in a servicemen's canteen. In the role of Goofy Gale, Jackie Gleason drew praise for his comic talents.
Leonard Bernstein's On the Town (1944), based loosely on the Robbins-Bernstein ballet, Fancy Free, opened new territory for a musical. Three sailors spend most of their 24-hour shore leave pursuing three girls. Nothing new here, except that the characters dance their way through the plot all around New York – in the Museum of Natural History, Central Park, Times Square, and Coney Island. This dance-driven musical established Jerome Robbins as a major force in the world of stage musicals.
In an interesting effort to invoke the war theme, producer Billy Rose and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II updated and reworked George Bizet's 1875 opera Carmen. In the new stage show, Carmen becomes a worker in a parachute factory in the South, and her love affair is with Joe (Don Jose), an Army corporal. Cindy Lou (Micaela) is a country girl who loves Joe, and Husky Miller (Escamillo, the bullfighter) is a professional boxer who wins Carmen away from Joe.
The famous music doesn't come off, somehow, when transferred to World War II America – "Dat's Love" for "Habanera", "Dis Flower" for "The Flower Song", and "Stand Up and Fight" for the vigorous "Toreador Song". The movie version (1959) of Carmen Jones suffered the same aesthetic difficulties.
Still, for all their limitations, the stage musicals of the war made a contribution to the overall spirit of the day. As always, the arts reveal – in symbolic gestures – the prevailing collective mentality of their age.
The story is very much the same for wartime film musicals as it was for wartime stage musicals. On one hand, the industry made a highly focused and unashamed effort to generate strong patriotic emotions. On the other hand, the industry created escapist films, to enable movie-goers to forget about the war, at least for an hour or so. The Jewish movie moguls, mostly of liberal political persuasion, had some misgivings about any war, to be sure, but they had to be careful that the government didn't move into their monopoly by making its own propaganda films in the name of national security. What happened was that "messages about the war were conveyed in the familiar idioms of advertising and movies, and predigested information and ideas were presented to a public already familiar with this form of address" (Maltby 1989, 114).
In stark contrast with the European film industry, American filmmakers have always avoided deep philosophical and political statements. In its early days, Hollywood turned out some heavy shows which were financial disasters. After that, the veterans would caution, "We're in show business – Western Union is for sending messages!"
One of the first big wartime film musicals, Buck Privates (1941), contained the runaway hit, "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy", sung by the Andrews Sisters. The movie featured Universal's top comedians Bud Abbot and Lou Costello as tie salesmen who flee the police by entering a movie theater recently turned into an Army induction center. In no time at all, they are put in the military. The rest of the show is one sustained humorous routine about Army life. "The War Office couldn't have wished for a better eighty-four minutes of recruitment propaganda…" (Hirschhorn 1981, 185).
Universal's follow-up attempt, In the Navy, again with Abbott and Costello and the Andrews Sisters, starred crooner Dick Powell, who joins the navy to escape the incessant advances of his adoring fans. Much less successful than Buck Privates, the navy show still made a few dollars for the studio, and presented the war in non-threatening terms.
Inevitably, Universal finished up 1941 with Abbott and Costello in the air force, this time with Martha Raye playing twins, in Keep 'Em Flying. A splendid blues-based tune, "Pig Foot Pete (The Boogie-Woogie Man)", enjoyed great popularity, but the movie itself was only modestly appealing.
Hollywood delivered the predictable, of course, in several wartime film revues. With a negligible plot, the screen was filled with a monumental parade of talent for no other purpose than to be there for the military boys to see when the film went all over the world. In addition to Irving Berlin's This Is the Army, there are several that film historians always mention: Thousands Cheer (1943) with Judy Garland, Eleanor Powell, Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly, Lena Horne, Ann Sothern, Kathryn Grayson, Red Skelton, Margaret O'Brien, Frank Morgan, Lucille Ball, Jose Iturbi, and the bands of Kay Kyser, Bob Crosby, and Benny Carter; Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) with a similar long line of superstars; Two Girls and a Sailor (1944); Stage Door Canteen (1943); and Hollywood Canteen (1944) with no less than thirty-nine big name entertainers, including Roy Rogers' horse, Trigger.
Not related to the war topic in any way, a few absolute masterpiece pop tunes appeared in various wartime musicals: "The Boy Next Door" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", sung by Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); "One For My Baby" and "My Shining Hour", sung by Fred Astaire in The Sky's the Limit (1943); "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To", sung by Don Ameche and Janet Blair in Something to Shout About (1943); "Long Ago and Far Away", dubbed by Nan Wynn for Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944); and many, many more.
Quicker, cleaner, and more directly patriotic were the tours to military installations by all the big names in the world of entertainment. A promoter would pick a superstar as the central figure, then surround that superstar with several secondary acts – a juggler, acrobat, a new Hollywood starlet, a jazz trio, a magician, a trained dog act, a beautiful singer, etc. – and send that entire company of talent on a tour.
The most famous and durable of these operations was the Bob Hope Annual Christmas Tour. Beginning in World War II and continuing for more than fifty years, comedian Bob Hope went on tour each Christmas with a big band, the latest Hollywood sex goddess, and a few other assorted entertainers. In recent times, those tours were videotaped for later showing in America. Most of the top entertainers in America followed his model, and many of them are still doing it.
In addition to the tours, many entertainers performed at the wartime USO Clubs all over America. At the outbreak of the war, the government set up the United Service Organization, with the goal of establishing "clubs" for the off-duty hours of the military men. Every medium-size city had a USO Club, and the big cities had several. Staffed mostly by volunteers, the USO Club provided quiet rooms for reading, a canteen for soft drinks, coffee, and light meals, a game room for checkers, chess, ping pong, and card games (no gambling, though), a room for arts and crafts, and a dance floor often with a stage. On Friday and Saturday nights, the girls from local colleges would go to the USO Club to dance and socialize with the military boys.
The USO clubs in Hollywood, Chicago, New York, and other major cities would get free talent of world-class caliber. Even the most famous of the movie superstars – Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Henry Fonda, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and others – were known to volunteer for brief appearances when their schedules would permit. Actors and actresses from dinner theaters and neighborhood theaters all over America would put on free mini-dramas. Mothers, wives, and girlfriends volunteered as waitresses, short-order cooks, and clerical staff to handle all the details of the USO Club. The American Federation of Musicians sent famous big bands, soloists, and small combos to the USO clubs, and paid the musicians out of the AFM Trust Fund.
All in all, America's music-and-entertainment establishment rose to the occasion and provided the military men with first-class recreational diversion during their off-duty hours. It was a splendid example of a very high level of patriotism and civilian support of the war effort, perhaps, even, a "finest hour".