Four Jills in a Jeep (1944) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Four Jills in a Jeep (1944)

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After reading Kay Francis' biography a few months back (highly recommended if you're ever curious just how many abortions one starlet can have), I became fascinated by the chapter entitled Four Jills and a Jeep. Kay, well past her prime as a movie star, and a trio of younger, more nubile actresses joined the USO and toured England and Northern Africa.

"That," I said, "is a great idea for a movie."

Luckily, the bigwigs back at home thought so, too. So it's 1944 and they turn the quartet's trip into a film. This is still during the war, natch, about three months before D-Day turned the tides. For Americans caught up in their third year of combat, both at home and on the fronts, it's a tiring, worrisome exercise with no conceivable end.

Our four Jills.

This is deeply important to understanding the film version of Four Jills and a Jeep, which could have been a revealing look at the front linesĀ  but instead turns into a good old fashioned revue. It's a movie that's so fluffy that you could stick it between two graham crackers with a piece of chocolate on the side and it would be delicious.

That's not what I'd say is a bad thing, but not something I've found especially compelling. The film's storyline covers the four actresses, all played by themselves, as they travel across the European theater and fall in love with a quartet of sweet-as-apple-pie soldiers. You'll hear the word 'German' once or twice in the entire picture, but most of the conflict comes from the handsome men getting sent elsewhere in the war and the women biting down on their lower lip and talking about shared sacrifice.

All punctuated by songs, mind you. Of the film's 90 minute running time, I'd estimate more than half of that is dedicated to show tunes and numbers. It's mostly ballads and a couple of sweet dance routines. Mitzi Mayfair, one of the Jills, does some spectacular dancing, the spectacle deriving from the fact that she was so limber with her legs that she could kick the back of her head. It's extraordinarily strange to watch yet something that's impossible to look away from.

Popular entertainers Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda and Alice Faye have cameos. Carmen Miranda (who, I just realized, isn't the same person as Esther Williams) shakes her hips, while Faye and Grable trade off on rather slow ballads. The latter two were popular pinups, so the studio executives are pretty evenly hedging their bets to be sure the wartime audience gets plenty to ogle at.

Phil Silvers, a man most famous for his portrayal of Sgt Bilko, serves as the Jills' attache throughout the mission, and his role is very Phil Silvers-y. His type of humor is dated, and nowadays would be be served to those whose age lies in the single digits.

Phil Silvers and Jimmy Dorsey. And, no, I couldn't get a picture of Dorsey with his eyes open.

The war is mostly on the back burner, but always a noticeable, terrifying force. When one of the performers, Carole Landis, falls for a sweet Air Force hunk, her and Kay have a moment where they watch his squadron return from a bombing mission. They count the number of planes and hear them narrate as one falls out of the sky. It's important that we don't actually see it happen-- that may have been too unpleasant. Carole's mortified, but her man bursts out of the shadows moments later to reassure her that that wasn't his plane.

Ridiculous? Yes, considering his plane would have had to land feet away, and he'd have to know where she was, etc. But an honest feeling familiar to the home front during wartime? Certainly; the screenwriters crafted a narrative that's easy to swallow but not too distant from problems of the time. Today, the sentimentality feels hamfisted, but during the war it was comfort food.

There's smiles, but an aching sadness underneath. The soldiers grin until it's time for duty, and they run off, and our Jills cheer them on. This is how people would like to remember the war: simple, sweet, undemanding, and everything turned out fine. It's nice as a record of a dream.

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Posted by Danny

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