by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film we watched was Seven Days Ashore, a nice if insignificant little comedy-musical from RKO in 1944 presented as a vehicle for Wally Brown and Alan Carney (the two vaudevillians RKO paired in an attempt to create their own bionic Abbott and Costello) but really a romantic quadrilateral dealing with the sailors in the merchant marine. The film, based on an “original” story by Jacques Deval and scripted by Edward Verdier, Irving Phillips and Lawrence Kimble, seems at least in part to have been intended as a riposte to audience members who thought merchant-marine sailors were wimps avoiding the “real” war; Charles pointed out that most of the people in the merchant marine had been sailors on freight vessels in civilian life — and the only difference is that in wartime people were shooting at them and trying to sink their ships, which meant that after the war they were considered veterans because they had served in combat.
In the opening sequence a merchant-marine ship successfully rams and sinks a Japanese submarine that was trying to sink it, only between the damage to their own ship and the fact that it got separated from its convoy, the crew members have no idea where they are. The captain promises everybody a seven-day leave once they arrive in port — no matter where that is — and the ship’s reigning Don Juan, Dan Arland, Jr. (Gordon Oliver), shows his shipmates Monty Stephens (Wally Brown) and Orval “Handsome” Martin (Alan Carney) his address book, in which he literally has a girl in every port. As it turns out, they’re just a few miles off the coast of San Francisco, where Dan’s parents (Alan Dinehart and Marjorie Gateson) live — and where he has three girls, Annabelle (Elaine Shepard), Carol (Virginia Mayo — I recorded this off a TCM birthday tribute to her) and Lucy (Amelita Ward), the latter two of whom are members of Dot Diamond’s (Marcy McGuire) all-girl band that plays at a local dance hall. (There was a brief vogue for women musicians and all-women bands during the war because bandleaders didn’t have to worry about female sidepersons being drafted.)
Dan intends to send a letter to either Carol or Lucy telling her he’s in town and asking her to meet him at the dock, but of course both of them get mailed and the two women find out he’s been two-timing each with the other and vow revenge. Meanwhile, Annabella — established early on as the woman he was really interested in but who broke with him in disgust over his constant cruising (hmm, seems like there’s a moral lesson here!) — is staying with Dan’s parents as a house guest even though she’s already engaged to someone else (though we don’t meet him until the end of the movie). The plot, of course, is just a pretext on which to hang 11 songs and some gags — though Brown and Carney have surprisingly little to do in the comedy department and their main plot function is to woo Carol and Lucy when both sue Dan for breach of promise and he wants two other guys to take them off his hands. He tells them to pass themselves off as millionaires, and the girls see through the imposture relatively quickly but fall in love with them anyway — and the finale is a triple wedding just before the ship sails again (establishing in that annoying Production Code way that even though the three sailors have all married their girlfriends they still haven’t had time to have sex with them!).
The film features some interesting musical guests, including Freddie Slack and his orchestra (though with McGuire singing with them instead of Slack’s regular vocalist, Ella Mae Morse) and a novelty band led by Freddie Fisher as “Col. Corn,” and though McGuire isn’t that great a singer and she’s utterly incapable of convincing us that she can play the clarinet (she wields the thing like a baseball bat and her fingers don’t move at all when she’s supposedly playing), she turns out to be a spectacular acrobatic dancer whose solos are among the high points. Also in the cast is Dooley Wilson, playing the Arlands’ house servant and also a singing piano player (singing he could do for real, piano playing he couldn’t) who trots out the song “Apple Blossoms in the Rain” by Lew Pollack and Mort Greene whenever Dan and Annabelle are on the outs and he wants to bring them together. The song compares to “As Time Goes By” about as well as Gordon Oliver and Elaine Shepard do to Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, but at least Wilson is personable, has a nice voice and is allowed to play a relatively more intelligent character than most of the African-American actors who got cast as servants in this era (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Mantan Moreland are special cases).
There’s also a nice offtake on that hoary old plot gimmick about the son of a wealthy family whose father is down-to-earth and likes pop culture, while his mother is snooty and puts on classical “musicales” in her home; in this case, she invites an impossibly bad opera singer named Mrs. Croxton-Lynch, played by the Marx Brothers’ great foil, Margaret Dumont — making an hilarious effect singing “Over the Waves” in a deliberately bad voice. (She was obviously exaggerating and singing badly on purpose because her voice here, especially her intonation, is far inferior to her quite well sung “When the clock on the wall strikes ten … ” bit in the opening scene of Duck Soup.) About the only thing wrong with this relatively unpretentious entertainment is how little the nominal stars, Brown and Carney, are featured; Brown comes off more as a second romantic lead than a Bud Abbott-like comic foil, and Carney seems to have forgotten that there was more to imitating Lou Costello than just whining a lot. They only get one big slapstick moment — when their girlfriends, cottoning to the fact that they aren’t really millionaires, push them off a boat and into the water (whereupon, in true Hollywood logic, they are so endeared by the sight of them floundering around in the sea that they fall in love with them instantly!) — and seem to be lost in what was supposed to be their vehicle.