Dancin' and singin' in wartime Hollywood

by Ian Whitcomb


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com



“The movies seem almost unaffected by the war…They go on and on with the same treacly rubbish, and when they do touch on politics they are years behind the popular press and decades behind the average book”

George Orwell, 1941.

       For the Hollywood studios it was politic—shrewdly tactful—to steer clear of current affairs, especially the cockpit of ranting dictators in which Europe was currently rolling and roiling. The European market was very important and thus there was a reluctance to point fingers at Hitler et al. Audiences could sit back and enjoy the dark domestic humor of “Arsenic and old lace” or the Broadway wit of “The man who came to dinner”; Errol Flynn quenched a fan’s thirst for violence as the swashbuckling “Sea Hawk”, while Humphrey Bogart held customers in his thrall with a snarl and a gun.

       Most of all, the lid was held tight against any exposure to the horrors of war and the dustbin consigned to the rear of the theatre as a merry riot of song and dance monopolized center stage. During the war years more songs (800) were written for films than ever before; many such as “You’ll Never Know”, “Blues in the night” and “I can’t begin to tell you” became standards; 180 musical feature films were turned out by the studios. All provided the necessary escape hatch, while several were angled to bolster, from the safety of a sound stage, the war effort. The gilded past was always a sure winner--no tanks and bombs, just restful nostalgic music, redolent of barber shops, picnics and antimacassers.the comfortable era of the gaslight age was recalled in many features, especially by 20th Century Fox.

    They had latched onto the merry era in the 1930s with their films starring Alice Faye. Now, as factories boomed to the making of weapons, Miss Faye, in “Hello Frisco Hello” crooned of sweet cider time and the old mill in a setting of rip-roaring Barbary Coast saloons-- and all to the sound of ragtime and the tip tap of cane and dance shoe on peanut-covered floors .Her big number,  “You’ll Never Know”, an Academy Award winner, was specially composed by Harry Warren, veteran of 1930s depression-chasing musicals choreographed by Busby Berkeley, master of geometric pattern shots of legions of lovely girls. “My gal Sal” celebrated the career of Paul Dresser writer of the Indiana state song  “The Banks of the Wabash”. Muscular Victor Mature was an unlikely Dresser and his tarring and feathering introduced a disturbing violent image into an otherwise anodyne picture. And so the period features rolled on.

       James Cagney, fixed in the public mind as the roughest toughest gangster of all in screendom, did a masterful turn as song and dance super patriot George. M. Cohan in  “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, released in 1942 when things looked bleak for America in the war. Cagney had been galvanized into making the movie because he’d been suspected of being a lefty by an anti-communist Washington committee. “Let’s give them some patriotism!’ he told his manager brother William. The result pleased the committee and filmgoers.

        Cagney had come up as a vaudeville hoofer in the 1920s and now he exposed amazing skills as he strutted and marched across the stage, backed by rows of waving Old Glory flags. He climbed the sides of the stage and sang-spoke the famous songs. Pertinently, Cohan’s song “Over There’ had stirred the nation into a martial mood in World War One. FDR was full of praise as was Cohan himself. Cagney won an Oscar for his performance; he always said it was his favorite film. Certainly he was longer seen as a lefty of any stripe.

       One who had already proved his undying loyalty to his adopted country was songwriter supreme Irving Berlin. He had started this in World War One with his all-soldier revue “Yip Yip Yaphank” (in which “God Bless America’ had been tried and then cut for being excessive); in the 1930s he’d shown how well he’d settled into Protestant America by writing a Christian anthem, “Easter Parade” (This by a man who was born a Russian Jew).

       In 1942 he dreamed up a movie story set in a rustic retreat in which weary entertainer Bing Crosby finds peace and solace. “Holiday Inn” celebrated public holidays including “Easter Parade” once again. Crosby introduced a winner, an all-time chestnut, in “White Christmas”. Curiously, the verse has the singer stuck under Beverly Hills sun writing Christmas cards and dreaming of bygone days, of treetops glistening and children listening for sleigh bells. The melody is what Berlin described as ”natural”, with note notes clinging close together moving easily up and down familiar steps, a family together although far apart. The sentiment struck the hearts of all involved in the war effort like a golden arrow. The reassuring Crosby voice became a potent medicine for those at home and abroad.

       Berlin managed to get a piece of his treasured institution into “Holiday Inn’—a minstrel sequence with Crosby in blackface singing of Lincoln’s birthday. Not for nothing did Berlin have a picture of Stephen Foster hanging prominently in his office. He was to stage hundreds of soldiers in uniform and also in women’s dresses, blackfaced and in the traditional minstrel semicircle, in one of the biggest hits of the war, a reworking of his “Yaphank” now titled “This Is The Army’. With full backing of the Pentagon he had taken his revue round America and into battle zones. Warners flooded the film version in sumptuous Technicolor, assigning top director Michael Curtiz. Kate Smith sang “God Bless America” and Berlin himself appeared as a hapless recruit croaking “Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning”. For good measure there was George Murphy tap dancing and Ronald Reagan as the romantic lead. The movie made millions for the war effort.

        But this was still the Swing Era and the army of bobbysoxers and jitterbuggers were not overlooked. The biggest big band of them all, Glenn Miller’s, was the star of “Sun Valley Serenade’ featuring a snazzy “Chattanooga Choo Choo” presented by Dorothy Dandridge. Most of the other bands were either on the road or in the war. Miller eventually took off for the war and was lost in a mysterious plane crash over the English Channel.

       Singers were advancing more and more to the front of he bandstand and Hollywood reflected this change in a host of song and jive-danced movies, mostly made by Universal, not one the stellar studios. Packaged with thin plots and relative unknowns, these fast- moving musicals were studded with sparkling and lithe young dancers and peppy singers.

       Tops in the energetic collective of jiving Jacks and Jills of Universal studios was a trio of close harmony sisters in khaki skirts and matching ties wagging their fingers to a boogie beat: The Andrews Sisters, in compact harmony, sounding like front line trumpets of a big band.

       They came to the movies as ready-made hit makers, stylistically owing a little to the earlier, jazzier, Boswell sisters but with added humor and an eagerness to make everybody happy. No torch songs for them--go get ‘em with zing to a two beat meter. Their repertoire ranged around the world: the Czech beer barrel polka, “Ciribiribin” from Italy, and, bestselling of all, two Yiddish songs from Central Europe—“Bei Mir Bist Du Schon” and “Joseph! Joseph!”

       Laverne, Maxene and Patti were three attractive sisters from Minneapolis and on the screen they purveyed a straight-ahead cheerfulness. In “ Buck Privates’, their first film, they introduced the rollicking boogie numbers that established them as solid senders of the latest rhythm. “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company C” and “Bounce me brother with a solid four” were written for them by Don Raye and Hughie Prince, big band veterans and specialists in the new boogie style. Arranger and conductor Vic Schoen provided them with tight, brassy, jazzy arrangements.

       While their British allies tried to keep calm and carry on, the Andrews Sisters and their fellow screen melody makers kept peppy and marched forward, in that positive, optimistic all- American way. In 17 movies they spread the good word with sweet ballads as well as hot rhythm numbers. All in all musical Hollywood avoided dealing with issues of war (an exception being a 1942 cartoon called “Der Fuhrer’s Face” in which Donald Duck’s nightmare is to find himself cast as a Nazi; however he lands a full frontal Bronx cheer in Hitler’s face and wakes up refreshed and renewed)

       Hollywood’s message for the world was full-blooded pop music, jazz-tinged and forever on the move forward into a bright and shiny tomorrow. Even in the darkest days of the war its songs spread good will; in deepest Naziland official dance bands foxtrotted out Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen songs but with politically correct lyrics affixed. In the end culture is more powerful than bombs.


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com