Musical Monday: Starlift (1951)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Starlift (1951) – Musical #653

Warner Bros.

Roy Del Ruth

Janice Rule, Dick Wesson, Ron Hagerthy, Richard Webb, Hayden Rorke, Howard St. John, Richard Crenna (uncredited), Ann Doran (uncredited)
Themselves: Doris Day, Gordon MacRae, James Cagney Virginia Mayo, Ruth Roman, Gene Nelson, Gary Cooper, Virginia Gibson, Phil Harris, Frank Lovejoy, Lucille Norman, Louella Parsons, Randolph Scott, Jane Wyman, Patrice Wymore, LeRoy Prinz, Tommy Noonan and Peter Marshall (as Noonan and Marshall)

Cpl. Rick Williams (Hagerthy) grew up in the same town as now-famous actress Nell Wayne (Rule). When Nell and other movie stars are near their military base for a premiere, Rick’s buddy Sgt. Mike Nolan (Wesson) encourages Rick to seek her out to say hello, even though they didn’t really know each other. When Mike and Rick meet Nell, Doris Day and Ruth Roman, Mike lies that they are about to go overseas to see action in the Korean War so that the three actresses will accompany them back to the base. While visiting, the actresses are inspired to gather other Warner Bros. stars to return and entertain the troops preparing to go overseas or are returning. Meanwhile, Louella Parsons reports a romance between Rick and Nell, and the two begin to fall in love.

• The film is based on the real Operation Starlift, which was spearheaded by Ruth Roman when she visited Travis Air Force Base in Sept. 1950. Special Service Officers and Hollywood Coordinating Committee , according to the Travis Heritage Center.
• Tommy Noonan and Peter Marshall’s credits appeared onscreen as Noonan and Marshall. Early in their careers, the two were a comedy team.
• Bonnie Lou Williams dubbed Patrice Wymore, and Hal Derwin dubbed Gene Nelson.
• Working title was “Operation Starlift.”
• Film locations included Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, CA; Birmingham Veterans’ Hospital grounds and Metropolitan Airport in the San Fernando Valley

• Specialty performances by the lead actors.
• Gene Nelson and Janice Rule dancing together to “It’s Magic.”

Notable Songs:
• “You’re Gonna Lose Your Gal” performed by Doris Day and Gordon MacRae
• “‘S Wonderful” performed by Doris Day
• “What Is This Thing Called Love?” performed by Lucille Norman and Gordon MacRae, danced by Gene Nelson and Janice Rule
• “The Good Green Acres of Home” performed by Gordon MacRae
• “I May Be Wrong, But I Think You’re Wonderful” performed by Jane Wyman
• “It’s Magic” performed by Gene Nelson and Janice Rule with vocal quartet
• “Look Out, Stranger, I’m a Texas Ranger” performed by Phil Harris, Gary Cooper, Virginia Gibson and Frank Lovejoy

My review:
In reading the plot, “Starlift” (1951) seems insignificant and forgettable.

But in the history of film, “Starlift” is a rarity.

Throughout World War II, Hollywood film plots were filled with the war. From battlefront, features to brief romances with soldiers. In the musical world, films were produced with a thin plot, multiple cameos and filled with multiple musical performances. Examples of these include “Two Girls and a Sailor,” “Star-Spangled Rhythm” or “Hollywood Canteen.”

But after World War II when the Korean War began, not many films in Hollywood focused on the Korean War. And there were even fewer Korean War musical films. So far, “Starlift” is the only musical I’ve seen based during the Korean War or that is even close to the cameo-filled musical revue films of World War II.

“Starlift” is also based on real events. Like in the film, Ruth Roman helped spearhead an effort where stars entertained troops.

In the film, stars like Doris Day, Gordon MacRae, James Cagney and Ruth Roman all play themselves. Janice Rule plays a fictional actress Nell Wayne from a small town. Cpl. Rick Williams, played by Ron Hagerthy, is from the same town and admired her from afar. They are thrown together because of his buddy, Sgt. Mike Nolan, played by Dick Wesson, pressures Rick to seek Nell out. In the process, they meet Ruth Roman, who talks Nell Wayne and Doris Day into entertaining at the military base.

The film is filled with fantastic musical performances, such as a duet by Doris Day and Gordon MacRae and a dance number by Gene Nelson and Janice Rule. We even get to see Gary Cooper in a musical number (Phil Harris sings and Cooper and Frank Lovejoy act out the drama in the background).

This was an early film rule for Janice Rule and Ron Hagerthy. Hagerthy reminds me of a mix of Lon McCallister and Robert Walker in this film.

Overall this is a fun film, but there were a few things I questioned:
– While on stage, the actors are in front of a screen with a recording of military personnel watching. But in long shots, actors are sitting in the audience.
– Gene Nelson is dubbed in “It’s Magic” and I don’t know why, since he could sing.
– I could have done without the Marshall and Noonan comedy routine. However, I had no idea that Peter Marshall and Tommy Noonan had a comedy routine.

Otherwise, this is an entertaining film. An interesting note, in a 1950 review, the Los Angeles Times noted that Korea is never actually mentioned in the film, but when overseas or the front are mentioned, you know exactly what they mean.

“Starlift” was released on DVD in a Doris Day boxset, but she is only in the first half. Regardless, don’t sleep on “Starlift.” Plot-wise, it’s not stellar, but historically I think it’s important.

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