This was Abbott and Costello’s second movie, but the first where they got top billing. They were big stars on radio, and had been big stars in vaudeville, and with this picture they became big movie stars. It was a huge hit, one of the top-grossing films of 1941. And it’s really not much of a movie … in movie terms. But if you look at it as a vaudeville show, it’s damn good.
There are really three parts to it, shown episodically. Least important is the “plot,” which is pathetic, starring two handsome second bananas, one a square joe, the other a spoiled millionaire playboy who is only in the army because his dad thinks it will make a man out of him. Both want to make time with a B-list studio contract player whose name is now as obscure as the two rivals. Naturally the cad reforms himself—with absolutely no reason to do so except that the plot requires it. You can easily snooze through these parts.
The second element is the musical interludes starring Patty, Maxene, and Laverne, the incomparable Andrews Sisters! They give A&C some serious competition for your attention, doing four numbers including “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” The audience we saw it with at the Million Dollar Theater broke into enthusiastic applause at the end of that one. (Something I hadn’t realized: Those gals could dance! Just watch them stepping out as they sing “BWBB.”) They also do a terrible number called “You’re a Lucky Man, Mr. Smith,” which extols the virtues of the good ol’ US of A in a way more suited to a government recruiting film than a motion picture that seeks to entertain. But the whole movie is like that. Since it was made before Pearl Harbor I had thought it might be a little less relentlessly patriotic than the movies of the next four years, but I’d forgotten that it was the time of the first peacetime draft—the whole reason the picture was made, apparently—and the studios wanted to help out by showing what a grand, hilarious time you’d have in the army, with the Andrews Sisters serenading you every evening, lots of high-quality jitterbugging, and pretty hostesses passing out free cigarettes! C’mon, guys, join up! It’s only for a year! Except, of course, in the event a real war breaks out …
You’ve probably figured out that the third element is A&C, who reprise some of their best radio and vaudeville routines, integrated into what little story is here, and do a considerable amount of improvising. They are brilliant as usual. “Hey, loan me fifty dollars.” “All I got is forty.” “Well, give me the forty and you can owe me ten. Now, here’s the forty you loaned me. Now you only owe me ten. Give it to me.” And it gets wackier from there.
There are some passages intended to show our military might, with wave after wave of planes passing over, and hundreds of tanks rolling by. It’s rather heartbreaking, looking at those pathetic World War One tanks. Pretty soon they would be facing Rommel’s Panzer divisions in North Africa, where they might as well have been made out of tin foil and armed with BB guns. Lots of American boys roasted alive in those death traps.