by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The movie we watched was The Fleet’s In, a 1942 musical and another item in the tribute TCM paid to Johnny Mercer last Wednesday night (it’s continuing every Wednesday this month), along with the original documentary Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me and several other movies containing songs he worked on, including Blues in the Night (a mediocre movie that gave the world a fabulous title song) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The Fleet’s In was the last film ever made by director Victor Schertzinger, and though it was released on January 24, 1942 (a month and a half after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor catapulted the U.S. into World War II), not only does the film not mention the war but it even describes the male lead, sailor Casey Kirby (William Holden), as due to get out of the Navy when his hitch expires in a few months — they wouldn’t have let him out on schedule once the war was on!
TCM host Robert Osborne gave it a curious introduction, saying that it was a film that he’d wanted to screen throughout the 15 years of TCM’s existence but had only been able to get to now — not surprisingly since TCM was built on the catalogs of MGM, Warners and RKO (which Ted Turner owned until he merged his company with Time Warner) and The Fleet’s In was a Paramount picture, meaning that TCM would have to rent it from its current owners, Universal. (Universal got control of most of the Paramount output from 1929 to 1949 when MCA’s Revue TV subsidiary bought the Paramount catalog in 1959; then MCA merged with Universal in 1962.) Osborne admitted that the plot of this movie was no great shakes (you can say that again!), but The Fleet’s In was a big musical and the plot was even more incidental than usual — though it seems a shame that Victor Schertzinger, who had made genuinely innovative, frame-breaking musicals like Something to Sing About (made by James Cagney during his brief stint at Grand National in 1937) and the first two Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies, would end his career (he died right after it was finished) with a mound of half-digested clichés like this.
Schertzinger also wrote the songs for the film, with Mercer supplying lyrics, and at least two of them, “Tangerine” and “I’ll Remember You,” became standards. The writing credits are bizarrely complicated; Walter DeLeon, Sid Silvers and Ralph Spence get credit (or blame) for the script, based on a “short story” by Monte Brice and J. Walter Ruben and a 1933 play called Sailor Beware by Kenyon Nicholson and Charles Robinson. While one sits through the film numbed by the idea that it took no fewer than seven writers to create this ragbag of hackneyed situations and plot contrivances, the story behind the scenes is that Paramount combined an original screen story by Brice and Ruben for a 1928 film with Clara Bow, also called The Fleet’s In and now, regrettably, lost, with the Nicholson-Robinson play, which they’d already filmed in 1936 under the title Lady Be Careful with poor Lew Ayres saddled with the part played by Holden on this go-round. (And as if three times around the block with this plot wasn’t bad enough, Paramount trotted it out again in 1952 for the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis vehicle Sailor Beware.)
The film starred Dorothy Lamour, William Holden and Eddie Bracken (in that order!), with Betty Hutton topping the miscellaneous acting credits on the next card — she was making her feature-film debut in this one, though she’d made band shorts with Vincent Lopez for Warners and Paramount before, and TCM actually prefaced this film with her Warners one (a quite clever conceit — Lopez’s band members stage a mock revolt against their having to play the song “Nola,” and he finally assuages them by producing a swing version — though Hutton, billed as the Queen of the Jitterbugs, looks surprisingly uncoordinated in her dance numbers and raucous and frequently flat in her singing) — and, as if one leather-lunged but shaky-voiced female singer wasn’t enough for this film, Cass Daley is also in it, billed way down but given a couple of featured numbers.
The plot (if you can call it that) of The Fleet’s In starts in San Diego, with movie star Diana Golden (Betty Jane Rhodes) singing the title song (a charmingly cynical number about sailors and girls Mercer must have had fun writing the lyrics to — especially when the singer says he’s willing to be taxed more and then adds, “Just kidding”) at a personal appearance and then being upbraided by her manager for being rude to her fans. He decides on the spot that the way she can overcome her diva image is to kiss a sailor and be photographed doing so — and the sailor who happens to come along (with an autograph book he wants her to sign for his niece) is Casey Kirby (a callow-looking young William Holden who looks like he just got out of high school — which is right for the part of a naïve sailor but a little strange in that he bears only a slight resemblance to the Holden we know from his 1950’s films). By being kissed by a movie star and having the photo of himself doing so plastered all over the front page of every newspaper in the country (or so it seems), Casey suddenly acquires an undeserved reputation as a lady-killer, which only grows when the admiral’s daughter kisses him as well and requisitions him for “special duty.” (Actually all she wants for him is to arrange Diana Golden’s appearance at a benefit, but it certainly looks Code-bending as all get-out.)
The other sailors on his ship make a bet that Casey can seduce “The Countess” (Dorothy Lamour), a performer at the Swingland ballroom in San Francisco who is famously resistant to the attentions of sailors, during the four days they’re going to be in port there before the ship ships out. Casey’s shipmate, Barney Waters (Eddie Bracken), mistakenly bets an heirloom watch he’s holding for another sailor and, when the other sailor finds out, he threatens to beat up Barney if he doesn’t recover the watch — which gives Barney a vested interest in making sure Casey seduces “The Countess” and wins them the bet. Adding to the mix is that Barney’s former girlfriend Bessie Day (Betty Hutton) is the Countess’s roommate — they live in an apartment atop a long flight of outdoor stairs the Countess calls “The Discourager” because it keeps men who’ve taken her home from asking to come in. With these bare facts, you know what’s going to happen — the Countess and Casey will fall genuinely in love, then she’ll find out about the wager (from Bessie, who blurts out the truth one day) and turn against him, then she’ll end up with him again — and while the writing committee rings a few mildly clever spins on the clichés, they remain pretty much the old Hollywood musical standbys.
What saves this musical from total oblivion is the quality of the songs and the presence of Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra to play them — and his singers, Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell, who have considerably better voices than any of the movie “names” around them (though they still weren’t the best big-band singers of the time — when this film was made Jimmy Dorsey’s brother Tommy had Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford in his band!). When we finally get to San Francisco and see Swingland (an Art Deco ballroom with a dance floor so vast that Charles joked, “During the day they build destroyers there”), the Jimmy Dorsey band plays a snatch of their hit “Amapola” — for which Dorsey and his arrangers introduced the gimmick of having Eberly sing the song as a straight ballad, and then O’Connell sing it as an uptempo swing number, often with a different and considerably more jocular set of lyrics — and then they proceed to do the new song “Tangerine” the exact same way, giving the band another hit (it was this gimmick, as well as the relative novelty of doing these numbers in Latin-flavored style, that finally gave J.D. his first big commercial success and got him out from under the long shadow of his brother).
There are two songs in this film that became standards, “Tangerine” and “I’ll Remember You” (though the latter didn’t really become established until Australian ballad-rock singer Frank Ifield covered it in 1962) and a third that should have, a haunting, world-weary ballad of romantic disillusionment called “Not Mine” — “There’s somebody else’s moon above/Not mine/There’s somebody else’s night for love/Not mine” — though Benny Goodman’s record, with a scintillating arrangement by Eddie Sauter and an eloquently phrased vocal by the young Peggy Lee, made a better case for it than Eberly, O’Connell, Lamour and J.D. did in this film. The writers do deserve credit for spoofing the convention of having the band magically appear to accompany whoever is singing (though given the way Schertzinger broke the frame in his previous musicals I suspect this is his doing, not that of the writing committee); the band just happens to be rehearsing on an outdoor patio below Lamour’s and Hutton’s home when Lamour takes it into her head to sing “Not Mine,” and at the end of the film (after Lamour and Holden have been married inside a taxicab to make sure they get hitched legally before his ship sails) Dorsey’s band bus is parked outside the dock and the band is inside it. blasting away.
Dorothy Lamour is a serviceable singer and the songs serve her well enough; Betty Hutton is almost unlistenable — before she came to Hollywood at the behest of Paramount studio chief Buddy DeSylva, she’d been in the supporting cast of the Ethel Merman musical Panama Hattie, and she’d obviously adopted Merman’s devil-may-care attitude towards intonation — though she got tolerable later, and in her nonmusical The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (also with Eddie Bracken), the great writer-director Preston Sturges managed to make Hutton’s raucousness serve his script; but the songs themselves are worth listening to (Hutton’s dubious coordination actually makes her big novelty number, “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry,” work, even though she’s so gawky one wants to add, “And I’ll bet he was glad to get rid of you!”) and the women’s dresses have such high shoulders one expects them to sprout wings and helicopter-rotor beanies so they can fly.
The Fleet’s In is O.K. entertainment, though given Schertzinger’s greatest claim to fame (aside from being one of the few auteurs who not only directed but wrote music for his films — like Charlie Chaplin before him and Clint Eastwood since), one can’t help wish he had cast Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in the roles played by Holden and Bracken, respectively (even though Crosby would have been too old in 1942 to play a callow sailor); if he’d done that he’d probably have had to call it The Road to San Francisco, but then it would have been a comic masterpiece!