Facial Hair Friday: A Musical Interlude

“Crowds gather for the Washington, D.C., premiere of the film This Is the Army at Warner’s Earle Theater in Washington, D.C., on August 12, 1943. ” NARA, 111-SC-178981

We interrupt our usual hairy programming to bring you this musical interlude.

What could be so important that we would skip mustaches, beards, and goatees?

Well, today marks the anniversary of the Washington, DC, premiere of This Is the Army, with songs written (and one performed) by Irving Berlin.

You would easily recognize Irving Berlin’s songs “God Bless America,” “White Christmas” and “Putting on the Ritz.” But the citizens and soldiers of 1943 would have easily recognized “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”

When World War II broke out, Irving Berlin was already a very successful songwriter. During World War I, he had been drafted by the Army to raise morale through music, which he successfully did with his musical Yip! Yip! Yaphank. Now, three decades later, Berlin was ready to do the same for his adopted country again.

The result was the musical production This Is the Army. Although Laurence Bergreen notes in this Prologue article, “And in case the army didn’t like it, he had another title in reserve: This Is the Navy. Or the Air Corps. Whatever. But his heart was with the army.”

Members of the This Is the Army unit rehearse "That's What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear." The cast was the only integrated World War II company in the armed forces. (NARA, 111-SC-140528)

One of the most interesting aspects of the show was that the performers were soldiers, and this company was integrated. Originally minstrel-style songs had been sung by white performers in blackface in Yip! Yip! Yaphank thirty-odd years before, but this had fallen out of favor.

So Berlin hired African Americans, who sang and danced and starred in the only integrated company of the U.S. military. And when This Is the Army went on tour across the globe, they performed, ate, bunked, and travelled with their white co-stars, fending off attempts to desegerate them by producing a paper from General Marshall.

Eleanor Roosevelt saw This Is the Army three times, and when her husband’s health did not permit him to make the journey to New York City, the show came to Washington, DC, kicking off a national tour.

It was an enormous success and the production was turned into a movie by Warner Brothers and grossed $9,555,586.44 million, which was donated to the Army Emergency Relief Fund. (The soldiers in the movie received military pay of $250 per week, including its star Ronald Reagan!)

After the movie Berlin and his men toured the globe, from Italy to Guam to Egypt to Japan, braving U-boats and bombs and illness to bring music and morale to the fighting troops right up until the end of the war. So go google This Is the Army, watch a few numbers, and tip your hat to the singing, fighting spirit of Irving Berlin and his men!

Want to read the full story of intrigue and action that went into making this film? This post is based on “This is the Army,” the article Laurence Bergreen wrote for Prologue, the magazine of the National Archives.

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