Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Kay is in a Jeep

Four Jills in a Jeep  (1944), based on a book by Carole Landis, tells the true story of the Ms. Landis, Kay Francis, Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair, as they venture from the safe confines of Los Angeles (where all four were deeply involved in the war efforts) to entertain the troops in the war zone - first in England and then in North Africa.  Along the way, Carole and Mitzi find romance - and Martha dodges a smitten Sgt Eddie (Phil Silvers).

By and large, this is a true story - the four women, spent nearly four months abroad lto entertain the troops in the middle of the danger zone (see this AFI Catalog article).  Carole Landis did meet a flyer (Army Air Force Captain Thomas Wallace) on the tour, and married him in 1943 (they divorced in 1945).  The film presents an interesting picture of the war effort from the point of view of those who decided that staying home was not the best service to the troops.  It's an enjoyable film, with great music, and an array of talent from 20th Century Fox studio - Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, George Jessel, Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra, and even Dick Haymes, playing Lt. Dick Ryan (in his first credited screen appearance.  Of course, he is a singer!).  You can see from the advertisement below that these guests get more prominent billing than our four stars.
Though other wartime revues, such as Hollywood Canteen and Thank Your Lucky Stars (both from Warner Brothers) did well, this film did not, and received an unfavorable review from the New York Times.  Released in 1944 (in April, before the D-Day invasion), audiences (now in the war for over 2 years) were likely dejected by the seeming lack of progress.  But it must surely have been welcomed by the soldiers who were not able to see the Four Jills on their tour.

Of course, the film was shot entirely on the studio lot, resulting in the women riding Central Asian (two-hump, or Bactrian) camels in North Africa (the home of the Dromedary, or one-hump camel).  And though the ladies always look immaculate, the film does capture the flavor of what they had to deal with.  Especially impressive is a scene in which the women perform using only cigarette lighters when the power goes out during a bombing raid.
We sometimes forget what a lovely singing voice Martha Raye had.  This film, luckily, gives her the opportunity to show it off.  Sure, it's a novelty number, in which she gets to clown as well.  Had Ms Raye had the looks of a Carole Landis, it is likely she would have had starring roles in big musicals.  However, that was not to be.  The film's producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, was apparently not a fan; he commented to director William A. Seiter, "Martha Raye usually talks too fast and too loud. Try to make her play Martha-Raye-off-stage and not Martha-Raye-on-the-screen, if possible."
Ms Raye continued her work abroad after the four month tour.  She was famous for going where the troops were, no matter whether it was 2 men or 2000.  She traveled with the USO during the Second World War, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War.  She was given the honorary rank of Colonel Maggie.  In later years, she would receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work with the troops.  She also appeared in numerous films though apparently she was only happy with her work in Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux.  When the age of television arrived, she began to work in TV;  she also appeared on the Broadway stage - notably in Hello, Dolly and No, No, Nanette.  Her personal life was not a happy one - she married seven times, all but the last ending in divorce.  Her relationship with her daughter, Melodye Condos, became fraught when Ms. Condos sought to control her mother's money following Ms. Raye's stroke in 1991.  Ms. Raye died of pneumonia, age 78, in 1994, the result of the stroke and serious circulation problems.

This is a cute movie, though not great literature.  Then again, it's not supposed to be. It certainly is worth a look as a glimpse into the lives of those who went abroad to entertain the troops.  Plus, it's one of Alice Faye's last film roles (until she reemerged from her self-imposed exile in 1962), and one of Kay Francis' final roles as well.  We'll leave you with this snippet of Ms. Mayfair dancing the jive.

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