"The War and Show Biz" is inescapably the theme, presented as the headline of the Variety flung over the slumbering careerist (Gene Kelly). As a slick hoofer and applause-hog ("Bet he bows every time he hears a thunder clap"), Kelly dons baggy pants and tramp greasepaint and spins and stomps on the bare stage, sweet on his own virtuosity. He meets his match in trouper Judy Garland, who gives the picture its most entrancing, split-second effect -- the way her voice modulates from ingénue lilt to chanteuse bass over the word "daddy" in the "Doll Shop" number. The 1916 setting allows for reenactments of early vaudeville, so Busby Berkeley gives such routines as Ben Blue's "Oceana Roll" pantomime a hands-off camera treatment that preserves their wholeness. (Geometric patterns are in shortage, though Berkeley occasionally shifts into montage-mode to give himself a renewed momentum.) Less happily, the setting also doubles as a smokescreen for wartime enlistment fervor, with "When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose" elbowed out for "You're in the Army Now." The pitch is set plaintively by the heroine's doughboy brother/sacrificial lamb (Richard Quine), who wishes to "postpone the war long enough to hear you sing again"; Kelly's draft-dodger crushes his own knuckles to keep away from the trenches and spends the rest of the film pushing through an early version of The Rake's Progress for the forgiveness of woman and country. Transcending the vortex of bulldozing patriotism are Kelly and Garland, harmonizing musically and emotionally, performing the eponymous song in a snowbound café and being surprised by the force of their feelings ("Say, what hit us?!"). With George Murphy, Stephen McNally, Mártha Eggerth, and Keenan Wynn. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce