Thank Your Lucky Stars (Blu-ray Review)1 Jun, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Eddie Cantor, Dinah Shore, Joan Leslie, Dennis Morgan, Edward Everett Horton, S.Z. Sakall.
The all-star, predominantly “let’s-put-on-a-show” musicals — which, if memories serve, spanned 1942’s Star Spangled Rhythm through 1951’s Starlift — couldn’t have existed without the studio system because their viability depended on having a stable of stars who could show up on a dime to take part in a specialty number. You’d probably have to regard these give-or-take 9-10 entries as a bona fide mini-genre, albeit a fleeting one — though in rare cases, certain of their isolated scenes could boost a career, as when Gene Kelly did a lot for his young self by dancing solo with a broom and pretty well stealing MGM’s 1943 Thousands Cheer from everyone else. But what more often resulted were audience opportunities to experience (and this was the applicable verb) what paying customers just weren’t going to get anywhere else, as when Dorothy Lamour, Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake teamed to musically spoof their screen images in Rhythm or when Soundies veteran Alan Ladd ambushed us by singing "Tallahassee" (and not badly) in 1947’s Variety Girl.
Thank Your Lucky Stars, from Warner, came early in the cycle, and many regard it as best of the bunch; Pulitzer-winning TV critic Tom Shales has more than once cited it as a personal favorite. Judged strictly from its high points, I’d go with it as a close second to Rhythm — though the 127-minute running time (longest of them all save for 1943’s Stage Door Canteen) really pushes it unless you really have a thing for Eddie Cantor, who has a double role. One is as a mock-unbearable spin on his “real” self — akin to the gentler self-parody of Jack Carson in 1949’s all-star It’s a Great Feeling and, much later, the more abrasive satire of Dean Martin in Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid. The other finds the performer playing a much more humble, bespectacled Hollywood tour bus driver and aspiring actor who can’t find movie work because he looks too much like the real Cantor, who mercifully avoids his blackface shtick here.
Mistaken identities between the two of them predictably ensue, and some of this gets not only labored but even a little icky during a semi-climactic episode in which the real Cantor is threatened with a lobotomy that comes closer than you’d think to what Jessica Lange experiences in Frances. Otherwise, for all the excesses, Stars is probably the best showcase Cantor ever had on the big screen, though as a very young child, I liked him a lot on NBC’s “Colgate Comedy Hour” (my favorite TV series ever until “Later With Bob Costas” and, later, “Mad Men”). I was even one of, say, a dozen people worldwide that saw Warner’s 1953 megaflop The Eddie Cantor Story in theaters when it was released, so to this assertion I bring minor perspective. (More than a quarter century later, my boss at the American Film Institute, suffering with me through a turgid 2½-hour Taiwanese epic I was screening for a prospective retrospective, commented, “This is worse than The Eddie Cantor Story.”)
The premise here finds two promoters of a wartime benefit show (Edward Everett Horton, S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall) being forced to take on Cantor No. 1 (again, the real one) as a creative director. It’s the price they have to pay for securing the participation of singer Dinah Shore, who’s under contract to him — as well as an invitation for Cantor to take over the show with his horrific artistic brainstorms. Meanwhile, Cantor No. 2 tries to advance the careers of a romantically inclined tenor (Dennis Morgan) and a cute but inept tunesmith (Joan Leslie). Of the casting front-liners, the latter are the only two performers who play fictional characters; this is a movie made by the production numbers, and if you’ve ever wanted to see John Garfield (kind of) sing “Blues in the Night,” this could be your week. And make that a “tough guy” “Blues.”
Another tough guy (Bogie himself) gets some wind knocked out of his sails in an amusing early bit — typical of a movie in which the males (Spike Jones, Errol Flynn, Jack Carson tap-dancing with Alan Hale Sr.) generally fare more memorably than the women (Shore, Ann Sheridan, Alexis Smith plus Olivia de Havilland doing hot-cha chippie stuff with Ida Lupino and, of all possibilities, George Tobias). But one has to append a qualifier here because this revue’s two standouts, to my taste, are the Harlem-set “Ice Cold Katie” number with Hattie McDaniel plus Bette Davis’s all-timer of “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old,” which fries the brain as much as, say, a Ramones tribute album to Cole Porter would have.
Punctuated with a lot of great Ray Heindorf brass, “Katie” (which also features a kind of dazed-looking Willie Best), is such a killer that it rated inclusion on a 3-CD boxed set from many years back of great moments from the Warner Bros. musical department — though you just know that a lot of Southern distributors probably excided it from prints shown in Southern markets (if they did it to Lena Horne, what chance did Hattie have?). A lament about the wartime shortage of eligible males, “Young-Old” actually became something of a hit for Jimmy Dorsey and his then-vocalist Kitty Kallen, though their Decca waxing of the Frank Loesser-Arthur Schwartz tune didn’t have the add this movie’s added attraction. Which is of seeing some guy literally tossing Davis around on a dance floor, which wasn’t anything we were ever going to catch George Brent doing.
The earliest and more famous of these all-star affairs were built around World War II, though this was, of course, tough to do after 1945. Starlift, which, among other things, features the non-silky musical stylings of Gary Cooper, tried transposing the formula to the Korean War, but no one could get too excited. Technically speaking, I suppose 1953’s currently hard-to-see Main Street to Broadway — the only movie ever to combine the talents of Tallulah Bankhead and that great Hoosier humorist of my youth, Herb Shriner — might have been true last of the genre, but there isn’t very much music in that one despite the appearance of Rodgers & Hammerstein on screen. The Stars Blu-ray, which positively glistens in certain numbers, throws in some bonus extras mostly carried over from the old DVD — including one on the lives of chorus girl bit players, which is, by definition, irresistible. But this is definitely a time when the movie is the thing — hit-and-miss as it is, though happily heavier on “hit.”