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A Lost Fourth of July Classic: 'This Is the Army'

The Fourth of July usually brings TV reruns of Yankee Doodle Dandy, with James Cagney hoofing up a storm as uberpatriot-composer George M. Cohan. It's a great film directed by Michael Curtiz, but may I direct your attention to another red white and blue epic, directed by Curtiz the following year, 1943. It's one of the great forgotten blockbuster movies.

This is the Army is little more than a musical revue; one production number after another with a cast that includes hundreds of actual GIs singing and dancing on a great stage. It's a "backstage" musical with the thinnest of plotlines enacted by the likes of George Murphy, Joan Leslie, George Tobias, and a cute little pompadoured fella named Ronald Reagan.

But mostly there are songs - 19 of them - all written by Irving Berlin. There are so many songs to go around, in fact, that Berlin himself sings one: his World War I novelty tune "Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which by 1943 was already a golden oldie. Kate Smith is also on hand to belt out "God Bless America," and He darned well better with a delivery like that.

This is the Army was the biggest box office hit of 1943, and Warner Bros. didn't get a penny of it: the film's proceeds went to The Army Emergency Relief Fund (still doing its good work today in Alexandria, Va., helping needy families of active duty soldiers). Perhaps because the studio had no lasting financial interest in it, This is the Army fell from view and even slipped into the public domain in the 1970s. It became remembered - if at all - for the fact that it starred two future governors of California, Murphy and Reagan. (Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't even born yet).

It's big, it's brassy, it bounces with patriotic fervor. And it also has, for my money, the most sobering finale in movie history.

In what still stands as the largest-scale musical production number ever mounted, hundreds of soldiers - real GIs enlisted from camps around Los Angeles and ultimately bound for war - march, sing and drill their way through a song called, chillingly, "This Time Is the Last Time."

" We're dressed up to win," they sing (the original lyric, changed at the studio's insistence, was "We're dressed up to kill").

" We are just beginning/And we won't stop winning/Till the world is free.

"We'll fight to the finish this time/And we'll never have to do it again!"

Did Irving Berlin, did the filmmakers, did those poor soldiers really think this would be the end of war? The song and the movie posit the theory that World War II was really just a continuation of World War I, "the war that wasn't won." Surely everyone involved remembered how that "war to end all wars" thing worked out. But there they are, hundreds of them, mounting their bayonets in great choreographed unison, lunging forward as one, playing at killing before they would ship out to do it for real.

Less than a decade later we'd be in Korea. A decade after that, Vietnam. From the perspective of the 2000s, "This Time is the Last Time" rings hollow, like a death knell. All great songs speak truth. Sadly, "This Time" sings a wishful truth of the heart; the most fragile kind of truth there is.

Click on the screen up top to see the finale. 

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