In World War I song-and-dance man Jerry Jones (George Murphy) is drafted into the US Army, where he stages a revue called Yip Yip Yaphank. It is a rousing success, but one night during the show orders are received to leave immediately for France: instead of the finale, the troops march up the aisles through the audience, out the theater's main entrance and into a convoy of waiting trucks. Among the teary, last-minute goodbyes Jones kisses his newlywed bride Ethel (Rosemary DeCamp) farewell.
In the trenches of France, several of the soldiers in the production are killed or wounded by shrapnel from a German artillery barrage. Jones is wounded in the leg and must walk with a cane, ending his career as a dancer. Nevertheless, he is resolved to find something useful to do, especially now that he is the father of a son. Sgt. McGee (Alan Hale, Sr.) and Pvt. Eddie Dibble (Charles Butterworth), the troop bugler, also survive.
Twenty-five years later World War II is raging in Europe. Jerry's son Johnny (Ronald Reagan) enlists in the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor. He tells his sweetheart Eileen Dibble (Joan Leslie) that they cannot marry until he returns, since he doesn't want to make her a widow.
Johnny reluctantly accepts an order to stage another musical, following in his father's footsteps. The show goes on tour throughout the United States and eventually plays Washington, D.C., in front of President Roosevelt (Jack Young). During the show it is announced that this is the last performance: the soldiers in the production have been ordered back to their combat units.
Eileen, who has joined the Red Cross auxiliary, appears backstage. During a break in the show she brings a minister and convinces Johnny that they should marry now - which they do, in the alley behind the theater, with their fathers acting as witnesses.
The plot provides an envelope to showcase both revues.George Murphy as Jerry Jones
Joan Leslie as Eileen Dibble
George Tobias as Maxie Twardofsky
Alan Hale, Sr. as Sgt. McGee
Charles Butterworth as Eddie Dibble
Dolores Costello as Mrs. Davidson
Una Merkel as Rose Dibble
Stanley Ridges as Maj. John B. Davidson
Rosemary DeCamp as Ethel Jones
Ruth Donnelly as Mrs. O'Brien
Dorothy Peterson as Mrs. Nelson
Gertrude Niesen as World War I Vocalist
Ronald Reagan as Cpl. Johnny Jones
As Themselves:Irving Berlin
In May 1941, ex-Sergeant Irving Berlin was on tour at Camp Upton, his old Army base in Yaphank, New York during World War I. There he spoke with the commanding officers, including Capt. A.H. Rankin of Special Services, about restaging his original 1917 Army play, Yip! Yip! Yaphank. Gen. George Marshall approved a Broadway production of a wartime musical for the army, allowing Berlin to conduct the arrangements and rehearsals at Camp Upton much like he had done during World War I. Sgt. Ezra Stone was selected as director for the new contemporary play, and the two set up on base during the weekdays to put together the story and crew. Insisting on integration, Berlin was granted the chance to add African Americans into this play, which he was not allowed to do in Yip, Yip Yaphank. This would not be unconventional for Berlin, but it would be for the United States Army—no whites and African Americans would appear on stage simultaneously. Though progressive in that regard, Berlin was still planning on opening with a minstrel skit. Ezra Stone told his civilian boss that it would be impossible to get 110 men out of blackface in time for the next number. Casting aside his minstrel show, Berlin instead wrote a "new" "Puttin' on the Ritz", calling it "That's What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear".
The retooled play ran on Broadway, at the Broadway Theatre from July 4, 1942, to September 26, 1942. The show was directed by Sgt. Ezra Stone, choreographed by Cpl. Nelson Barclift and Sgt. Robert Sidney.
The show was such a success that it went on the road. The national tour of the revue ended in San Francisco, CA, on February 13, 1943. By that time, it had earned $2 million (equal to $27,680,769 today) for the Army Emergency Relief Fund. The company of men that staged the play were the only Army outfit to be fully integrated, but only so off-stage.
The title of the movie is the same as the title of the stage version of the show. The movie features star appearances by Irving Berlin, Kate Smith, Frances Langford and Joe Louis as themselves. If Washington, D.C. officials did not like the idea of a musical/revue about the Army, playwright Irving Berlin was ready to call it This Is the Navy, or This Is the Air Corps. Smith's full-length rendition of Berlin's "God Bless America" is arguably the most famous cinematic rendition of the piece. Louis appears in a revue piece called "What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear", with James Cross (lead singer and dancer), William Wycoff (dancer in drag), Marion Brown (heavyset dancer), and a chorus of perhaps a dozen, the only spoken/sung scene that includes African-Americans. Louis also appears in two other scenes, one in a boxing match, and the second being the stage door canteen number (he did not speak in either scene).
One of the film's highlights is Irving Berlin himself singing his song "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning", a scene borrowed from Yip! Yip! Yaphank!.
The celebrity impersonation "hamburger" sequence includes accurate spoofs of Broadway stars Jane Cowl, Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt and Ethel Barrymore, and film stars Charles Boyer and Herbert Marshall.
The revue pieces also include acrobat routines, several comedy pieces, including one with Hale in drag, a minstrel show sketch (often removed from consumer videos and television broadcasts), and tributes to the Navy and the Air Corps.
Although the core of the movie consists of the musical numbers, the movie also contains a veneer of a plot involving the wartime love interests of both the father and the son.
The movie premiered at the Warner's Earle Theater on August 12, 1943. It grossed $9,555,586.44 (equal to $132,252,992 today), which was donated to Army Emergency Relief.
The ending of the war saw the ending of the road show, the last performance being on Maui, Hawaii October 22, 1945, with Irving Berlin once again singing his "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." The Army Emergency Relief Fund collected millions of dollars, but the total amount was never accounted, nor released to the public.
By the mid-1970s, the movie itself fell into the public domain, occasionally airing on television to a new generation of viewers. Renewed interest in some of the actors helped those players that might have been considered down-and-out, most notably Stump and Stumpy's Jimmy Cross and Harold Cromer.
George Murphy and Ronald Reagan would run for public office in California. George Murphy served one term (1965–71) in the U.S. Senate. Ronald Reagan served two terms as Governor of California (1967–75) and then President of the United States (1981–89), with both contributing to each other's Republican campaigns. Reagan would warmly and jokingly refer to Murphy, who preceded him into politics by a couple of years, as "my John the Baptist."
Many of the soldiers who had participated in the show held reunions every five years after the end of World War II. Their 50th and final reunion (1992) was held in New York's Theater District."It's Your Country and My Country"
"Poor Little Me"
"We're On Our Way to France"
"God Bless America"
"What Does He Look Like"
"This Is The Army, Mr. Jones"
"I'm Getting Tired So I Can Sleep"
"Mandy (1919 song)"
"Ladies of the Chorus"
"That's What the Well Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear"
"How About a Cheer for the Navy"
"I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen"
"With My Head in the Clouds/American Eagles"
"Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning"
"My British Buddy", also sung by Irving Berlin, was cut from the movie version but released on DVD. It was originally added to the British production of the musical.
The musical score was nominated and won for Scoring of a Musical Picture at the 16th Annual Academy Awards. The film was also nominated in the category Best Sound (Nathan Levinson).