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Forgotten by Fox: The First Casualty of War is Whimsy

Fred MacMurray travels in time with the aid of a genie, to the tunes of Kurt Weill and the lyrics of Irving Berlin, in an odd Fox flagwaver.
David Cairns
As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
And now they've quietly disappeared William Fox's name from the company: guilty by association with Rupert Murdoch, even though he never associated with him.
***
"We offer for your mental scrutiny / The reasons for the mutiny."
I believe Where Do We Go From Here? (1945) qualifies as a rarity, having never been released on any home video or streaming format. This is a shame, but you can see why. The whole concept of whimsy has a tendency to lumpenness, even though the very word seems to imply a lighter-than-air approach. Which is heavier, a ton of scrap metal or a ton of feathers?
So what we have here is a fantasy in which 4F schmo Fred MacMurray is granted three wishes by a genie. He wants to get into uniform but the well-meaning genie keeps transplanting him into period dress, so he winds up at Valley Forge, then with Columbus, then in Puritan times. The visions of antiquity are antic: Valley Forge has its own USO cafe, et cetera. Whimsy upon whimsy...
But the film has really amazing people involved in it, everyone but the director. This is Fox workhorse Gregory Ratoff, a well-liked figure who normally took charge of the studio's "sophisticated comedy" output, which is one reason why the studio never really succeeded at screwball. Ratoff has an uncredited assist from George Seaton, an equally unstylish fellow, but the film has some sparkle, being written by Morrie Ryskind, a major Marx Bros. collaborator. It's also a lesson on the importance of having the right comic: MacMurray could be a great underplayer and his modesty (he regarded himself as just a sax player who got lucky) allowed him to support the era's top female stars to great effect. Here, he's the whole focus of the film unless a musical number is raging around him, and he doesn't quite have the comic personality to hold it. Ryskind seems to have been imagining he'd get someone like Bob Hope (anchored at Paramount) or Red Skelton (tied to MGM). Fox didn't really have any light comics, and had to borrow Fred.
Oh yes, musical numbers. The reason this film is significant is the songs, by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin. Weill generally had a rotten time in Hollywood, his broadway shows being significantly reworked for the screen against his wishes (a fate endured by 1944's Lady in the Dark), and this picture actually suffered the least from productorial interference. It features what was, at the time, perhaps the longest number in musical history: in a film running only seventy-six minutes, "The Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria," occupies close to eleven. An indication that plot is not the main concern.
Asides from most of the gags being based on flagrant anachronism, Fred keeps bumping into different incarnations of his two leading ladies, Joan Leslie and June Haver, a further indication that this is either all a dream or it may as well be. Add in lots of casual talk about "Japs" and this weird time-travel flag-waver begins to feel critically short of the charm it needs to get by.
But the songs are of definite interest. Berlin rhymes "bewilderin'" with "children." True, the numbers are all too tied in to the Quantum Leap "narrative" to have become standards, but in context they work nicely. Bronislau Kaper, another composer who fled the Nazis, said that he was able to succeed in Hollywood because as a German he wasn't ashamed to indulge in the kind of hokey Americana actual American composers of quality were embarrassed by. Weill may have just been too sophisticated, but here he gets to write a German bierkeller song for Washington's Hessian opponents, sung by Herman Bing and June Haver, the duo of your drunkest dreams. Bing was a former circus performer (and would voice the ringmaster in Dumbo), which shows, and had come to the States as Murnau's interpreter, A.D., and whipping boy, and evolved into a full-blown cartoon character who got a lot of work out of the global conflagration. To see him is not to be able to unsee him. His schtick is broad and his commitment is total.
Visually, it's the equivalent having the contents of a candy box swarm all over you like ants. Those synthetic yellow wigs make me itch just looking at them. Everything is dipped in gaudy Technicolor courtesy of Leon Shamroy (later works include The Girl Can't Help It, Leave Her to Heaven). Fox's use of color often made MGM's look practically dowdy.
Just when you're getting into the insanity of it all, along comes Otto Preminger as a general, which is a bit of a shock, but a foretaste of things to come for the studio. Otto is another man who turned the tide of history to his advantage, even as his family back in Austria were perishing: by grabbing Nazi and Nazi-like roles and playing them to the hilt and beyond (what's beyond the hilt?), Preminger eventually overcame the personal enmity of Darryl F. Zanuck to become one of the studio's top directors, and then a powerful independent producer-director. He's already directed Laura at this point but he's still doing uncredited Kraut walk-ons for the war effort. It's all very strange, and when he starts saying "Very in-ter-estink," it turns out he's the model for a Henry Gibson Laugh-In sketch. A forgotten film inspires a forgotten sketch on a forgotten TV show. We're traveling in time, alright.
The Columbus sketch features Italian mutineers, a bit of propaganda that might have dated, what with Italy joining the Allies, but thanks to MacMurray's musical intercession the sailors also switch sides and get on the winning team, so embarrassment is avoided, at least for the filmmakers. Unable to shoehorn in all the Axis powers, Ryskind settles for trashing the Dutch settlers, a poor substitute for Nippon, one would have thought, but what are you gonna do?
Also, let's see, there's some tee-pee t&a before MacMurray buys Manhattan from Indian Anthony Quinn in a bit of embarrassing redface comedy, the silliness only rising above its own level when Quinn drops the heap-big dialect to say, "Deucedly complex problem, what?" And then goes back to umming and ughing as if nothing had happened.
I'm not sure why the zaniness here isn't as delightful as in, say, Hellzapoppin', other than that it's too timid. Random and disorganized—the time travel isn't even chronological. But there's a great, great gag when the genie flies Fred back to his own time: as they fly pass a series of clouds with the names numbers of the centuries engraved in their cloudstuff for some reason, the familiar Fox fanfare strikes up as they reach number Twenty...
It's good to be home.
Forgotten by Fox is a regular fortnightly series by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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