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Entertaining the Troops: American Entertainers in World War II (DVD Review)

6 Jul, 2015 By: Mike Clark

$19.95 DVD
Not rated.

There are two home releases I know of that capture Bob Hope when he isn’t 100% “on” in his trademark standup (“And I just want to say”) fashion. One is in the splendid Dick Cavett boxed set devoted to the latter’s sit-downs with famed comedians, in which Hope is content to review his career without feeling a need to apply that extra layer. (In contrast, it’s interesting to read, in Richard Zoglin’s masterful recent Hope bio, that Johnny Carson hated having him on his show — living-legend status or not — because Hope just couldn’t tone it down).

The other DVD on my mind is Robert Mugge’s undeservedly ill-known documentary about the Hollywood stars who battled the elements and puddle-jumping plane rides to provide brief R&R to those serving the country in World War II. The early going of Entertaining the Troops is fun and full of foolproof footage (probably in the public domain) of Bob and Bing and Judy Garland and bandleader Kay Kyser and many more doing in-person engagements and/or radio shows bee-lined for the troops — punctuated by more up-to-date material Mugge specifically shot for this movie, including one with Hope’s sometimes (and sometimes contentious, per Zoglin) partner: Dorothy Lamour. Her field of expertise, of course, was performing pin-up girl labors, along with the even more iconographic Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth — a most valuable contribution to the war effort along with rationed gasoline and driving on bald tires. There’s also an interesting section here on V-discs, which were recordings exclusively made for service-folk and (at least at the time) not released commercially — though to name one example, a few of the Sinatra recordings in this format have shown up on lists of devoted to the singer’s career best (rather stiff competition there, wouldn’t you say?).

But the soul of the story comes late when its longer opening act concludes, and Mugge films a sit-around with Hope and his core troupe: singer Frances Langford, guitarist Tony Romano and cute-and-a-half Patty Thomas (a fan-favorite dancer who, in her advanced years here, looks a little to my eye like Dolores Hope). All have long passed away since this documentary was made, and deceased even at the time of filming was their aggressively mustached cohort Jerry Colonna — someone who could always crack me up just by walking into the room (as could Mel Blanc, who’s also among the earlier interviewees).

I seem to recall reading a long time ago that Langford had to lean on or even shame Hope into appearing in this documentary, though even accounting for the amount of time that might have transpired between Troops’ shooting and its 1994 release date, Hope really had to have been up there when Mugge asked to film him (though nothing here really gives that away). Whatever the case, this is, despite some funny recollections, a case of Hope being no-nonsense reflective about the cause and what was at stake, as well as giving us a sense of how it was for him (and especially female members, who were trying to be sexy) to perform when jungle-rot fungi had afflicted the troupe.

The single most sobering moment comes in the bonus outtake section (running about 25 minutes) when a still-shaken Hope tells of joking around with a wounded combat victim who was getting a transfusion and then learning an hour later that the kid died. This is definitely a Hope we haven’t seen before, which isn’t to say that there aren’t the kind of laughs you get when sitting around with longtime friends and spinning yarns years after the fact. Every once in a while, Hope gets off a kidding crack about the supposed men who found their way into Langford’s room while they hooped the globe — and in one episode spins an anecdote about being trapped in an air raid shelter for a long time with a local who’d had cabbage or something else incendiary for dinner, and … well, you can kind of guess the rest.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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