As our nation entered World War II, Hollywood responded by cranking out morale boosters in full force. Theaters became rich with stories of fighting soldiers and civilians tending to the home fires stateside, while other pictures ended with pleas for patrons to pick up war bonds for Uncle Sam's sake. On the surface, 1943's Thank Your Lucky Stars looks no different from any of the other lightweight musical extravaganzas so bountiful in its era, but this silly little flick did much to help out the troops in its own way. It was a production made to benefit the Hollywood Canteen, a club where servicemen and allies alike could have fun and get a taste of Tinseltown, all free of charge. With the film's profits and the salaries of its cast donated to the Canteen, faulting Thank Your Lucky Stars for its patriotism and urge to entertain is nigh impossible -- even if the movie's overwhelming nuttiness and lengthy running time are another story.
While some show business figures are off fighting the good fight overseas, others are doing what they can to pitch in for the war effort here in the States. Enter producers Schlenna (S.Z. Sakall) and Farnsworth (Edward Everett Horton), who want to stage the mother of all celebrity revues with the upcoming Cavalcade of Stars. With proceeds from the show going to help our boys in battle, many high-profile guests have already been secured to partake in a little song and dance, from Errol Flynn bouncing about a cockney pub to Bette Davis herself crooning about a lack of suitable fellas. But in trying to recruit Dinah Shore, the producers meet an egocentric obstacle in the form of comedian/singer Eddie Cantor. The prima donna won't let Shore perform unless he's allowed to alter the show to his tastes, a disastrous route that Schlenna and Farnsworth want to avoid at any cost. Further complicating things is Joe Simpson (also Cantor), a tour guide whose striking resemblance to Ol' Banjo Eyes becomes utilized by two friends (Joan Leslie and Dennis Morgan) who want to break into showbiz. With the Cavalcade coming soon, the converging of these characters leaves not so much a question of whether or not it'll go on...but rather of who's going to end up on stage instead.
As one can gather from the title, the main draw of Thank Your Lucky Stars is the sheer volume of talent involved. It can either be for a quickie cameo or an extended musical sequence, but the number of names on the flick's guest list is impressive. For the most part, these appearances are charming and pretty entertaining; Shore is simply enchanting, Flynn's centerpiece song is a lot of fun, and Humphrey Bogart has a terrific little scene in which Casablanca castmate Sakall chews out the iconic tough guy. But clocking in at two hours-plus, Thank Your Lucky Stars suffers the fate of many a similar musical spectacle of the time, in that it easily finds itself bogged down with unnecessary bloat. It's not as if the actors themselves aren't popping with energy, but in a movie where the story stops in its tracks to cut to a song often enough, it could have afforded to shed a couple routines. One scene with Ida Lupino, Olivia de Havilland, and George Tobias scatting up a storm of gibberish quickly gets old, and a skit about a woman forced to marry a departing soldier comes off as very uncomfortable, no matter how lighthearted it wants to play itself. Still, something must be said for the power of quantity, and if you like your swingin' orchestral oldies, this film comes loaded with plenty big band bang.
Then there's the matter of the main plot, which, by musical standards, Thank Your Lucky Stars grants more exposure than you'd think. Basically everything with Sakall and Horton's characters is a hoot, between the former's humorous butchering of American colloquialisms and the latter's constant fretting over what bizarre changes Cantor will work into the show. Speaking of which, Cantor is far and away this movie's MVP, an incredibly good sport who's willing to play both an intensely deluded version of himself and the lowly schlub who happens to look a lot like him. He brings heart to the role of Joe and jokes by the truckload in poking fun at his own image, but as with the musical asides, Thank Your Lucky Stars reaches a point of having too much of a good thing with the guy. The third act spends an awful lot of time having Cantor (as himself) bouncing around an asylum, a scenario whose slapstick sensibilities and key conceit wears thin in a hurry. As far as the romantic B-story, Morgan is an appealing enough leading man, while Leslie brings us a treasure of a performance as a hopeful songwriter with a knack for mixing up famous movie quotes. But even their drive to get into the celebrity game is all but forgotten about by the end of the movie, a story thread closed up with so little urgency that you'd be forgiven for assuming it was left unresolved, period.
I can't bring myself to fully recommend Thank Your Lucky Stars, but there's a lot of enjoyment to be had here. While surplus tunes and gags make the picture long in the tooth, its intentions are are honorable as they come, and the songs and humor that connect arrive with appeal in spades. As messy as it can sometimes feel, Thank Your Lucky Stars is a who's who of Hollywood with at least something to like for all tastes.
(Thank Your Lucky Stars is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection.)