Big Bands and Tap Dancing: World War II Escapism

Reveille with BeverlyWhen Reveille with Beverly was first released in 1943, it was viewed as little more than a snappy little B musical programmer that showcased a star on the rise (Ann Miller) along with some of the top musical acts of the day. It was also a reflection of the type of assembly line escapist fare being released by Hollywood for war weary audiences and servicemen who needed a distraction from the harsh realities of a global conflict.

Jean Ruth Hay, Denver radio DJWith a storyline loosely based on the career of Jean Ruth Hay, a Denver disc jockey whose musical broadcasts developed a cult following among service men during WWII, the film follows Beverly Ross (Miller) as she uses true grit and determination to advance from record shop clerk to switchboard operator to the host of her own radio show. Along the way she clashes with and triumphs over the station’s elitist classical music host (Franklin Pangborn) while being romanced by a serviceman in a lame mistaken identity subplot.  Frank Sinatra in Reveille with Beverly

Certainly the template for Reveille with Beverly was nothing new. The concept of a musical revue tied together by a minimal plot had become a film genre unto itself since 1929 with The Broadway Melody and, in the case of Reveille with Beverly, it is the phenomenal musical talent on display that makes this a unique pop culture time capsule. For one thing, it features Frank Sinatra, minus the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, in his first movie appearance as a solo vocalist. He sings “Night and Day” accompanied by an orchestra of chorus girls posing as violinists and pianists.

The other highlights include Count Basie and his band performing “One O’Clock Jump,” Bob Crosby and his musicians deliver a “Big Noise from Winnetka”, the Duke Ellington band pay tribute to the Billy Strayhorn composition, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (which is visualized as a railway club car and not the famous New York City subway line), Ella Mae Morse, backed by the Freddie Slack Orchestra, performs a suggestive rendition of “Cow-Cow Boogie” and the Mills Brothers get to shine in two numbers – the Spanish standard “Cielito Lindo” presented in a stylized Deep South setting and “Sweet Lucy Brown” which is just a foreshadowing of the rhythm and blues craze that erupted full-force in the fifties. The icing on the cake is provided by Ms. Miller in a big production tap dance number at the finale – “Thumbs Up and V for Victory.”

Ann Miller in Reveille with Beverly (1943)

Ann Miller in Reveille with Beverly (1943)

The only low point is the specialty act, The Radio Rogues (comprised of Jimmy Hollywood, Eddie Bartell & Henry Taylor), whose brand of airwaves comedy combines vocal impersonations of famous celebrities (Amos ‘n Andy, James Cagney, W.C. Fields) with vaudeville skit humor. The group was clearly a favorite with radio listeners of the thirties but their on-screen antics in Reveille with Beverly will most likely elicit groans from viewers today.  The Radio Rogues in Reveille with BeverlyAlmost everything else in the film zips along at a fast clip under the direction of Charles Barton, who rarely got off the B-movie treadmill except for an occasional Walt Disney feature (The Shaggy Dog [1959], Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus [1960]). Barton would go on to direct Ann Miller in two more flag-waving musicals for WWII audiences – Hey, Rookie [1944] and Jam Session [1944] – but his biggest success came with a series of Abbott and Costello comedies including the trend-setting Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

A behind the scenes production still of Ann Miller from Reveille with Beverly (1943).

A behind the scenes production still of Ann Miller from Reveille with Beverly (1943).

Like Barton, Ann Miller paid her dues in the B-movie unit at Columbia Studios. In her autobiography co-written with Norma Lee Browning – Miller’s High Life – the actress wrote “Harry Cohn was known as one of the most hated men in Hollywood. He kept a riding crop on his desk which he was apt to pick up and crack at anyone who got out of line. But I always felt that his bark was much worse than his bite. He put me in a little nothing-picture called Go West, Young Lady [1941]…And thus began my reign at Columbia as Queen of the Bees, as I became known, for turning out quickie B pictures during those early years of World War II.”

Andrew Tombes and Ann Miller in Reveille with Beverly (1943).

Andrew Tombes and Ann Miller in Reveille with Beverly (1943).

Miller has little to say about most of the B movies she made at Columbia but she did note “among my most notable ones was a happy-hearted little film called Reveille with Beverly, which really cleaned up at the box office, racking in millions more than the $400,000 which Columbia spent to make it…The movie was a smash hit among the armed forces. And not only because of Ann Miller. It featured some of the biggest bands in a big-band era…it also featured a new young singer in his very first motion picture, Frank Sinatra. I’ll never forget it. A record would start to spin, then the cameras would pan into the record while the voice came on, and then to Frank’s face with a big band backing him up. Even way back then he was great, his voice sent tingles up your spine. And to think the name Ann Miller (as well as a few others) topped him in the billing. How times do change!”   Bob Crosby in Reveille with BeverlyAs for behind the scenes anecdotes, Miller does provide one in her autobiography which could easily have turned into a personal tragedy. “When I was doing Reveille with Beverly, real flames of fire were supposed to spring up behind me as I twirled my way up and down a V for Victory platform. But sometimes the man who controlled the fire turned a flame on in front of me and I would have to leap out of the way. And once I didn’t leap quite fast enough and ended up with a singed costume, eyelashes, and hair after my big finale.”

Even though moviegoers flocked to see Reveille with Beverly, some critics were not impressed, especially Theodore Strauss (T.S.) of The New York Times, who wrote, “Reveille With Beverly” opened with a thud yesterday at the Abbey. Dedicated to the hepcat element, which seemed to have stayed away in large numbers, it is a cheerless series of musical numbers strung together with a tired little story guaranteed to produce a severe case of ennui in record-breaking time.” Mr. Strauss must have been having a bad day or was a grumpy musical snob because what’s not to like about a movie featuring appearances by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Mae Morse, and Frank Sinatra with a tap dance finale by Ms. Miller?

A publicity still of Ann Miller from Reveille with Beverly (1943)

A publicity still of Ann Miller from Reveille with Beverly (1943)

To my knowledge Reveille with Beverly has not had an official DVD release but you can find bootleg DVD-R copies of it for sale on the internet and it turns up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies.

* This is a revised and expanded version of the original article that appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.      reveille_with_beverly

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