BOOTLEG FILES 122: “Private Buckaroo” (1942 musical madness with the Andrews Sisters).
LAST SEEN: Available for online viewing at the MovieFlix site.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only from duped public domain labels.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: A lapsed copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
BOOTLEG OPPORTUNITIES: It’s all over the place (sort of like syphilis, but not as much fun).
The sole reason for enduring the 1942 musical “Private Buckaroo” is an astonishing song-and-dance number which is perhaps the most bizarre piece of melodic madness ever captured on film. It comes fairly late in the movie, but hang with the flick and you will be rewarded.
The number in question is based on the popular tune “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” which was one of the Andrews Sisters’ most successful recordings. The singing siblings recreate it here, but the song’s sentimental lyrics (about a soldier at war requesting faithfulness of his girlfriend back home) is absent from the movie recreation. In fact, what transpires in the “Private Buckaroo” version bears no resemblance to anything in the lyrics.
The number takes place in a theatrical setting (actually a USO show for the troops who are about to be shipped off to war). The Andrews Sisters are on stage, dressed in quasi-military outfits and pulling at a giant rope which is attached to something in the wings. They are singing “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” as they yank and yank at the rope. Finally, the object they are yanking at rolls on stage: a huge cardboard apple tree. The sisters fall back and Patty Andrews tumbles on her a*s. With Maxene and LaVerne assisting her to her feet, Patty rubs her backside furiously and makes weird grimacing faces – her actions and _expression would suggest she was sodomized by Frankenstein’s monster.
After Patty’s posterior problems are (pardon the pun) behind her, the sisters lock arms and dance around the stage. Much to their surprise, they are joined by Shemp Howard – he plays a sergeant in the movie and is dressed in his uniform. The Andrews Sisters are furious that this sloppy stooge joins their dance and they react by slapping him violently in the face and physically throwing him off the stage. They are still singing while this takes place.
The sisters then lock arms once more and dance about the stage. Again, Shemp Howard joins them. The ladies punch Shemp in the jaw, which sends him reeling backwards from the stage. And again, they never break from the song. Then, the Andrews Sisters cut loose into a wild jitterbug dance but wind up crashing into each other. All three fall on the floor and they are suddenly buried by a shower of oversized apples. The musicians who were playing the song for them rush out and scoop up the apples, leaving the Andrews Sisters to writhe on the floor.
How can you top something like this? You can’t (and don’t try this at home with your DV cameras, kids!). But in the context of “Private Buckaroo,” it sort of makes sense.
“Private Buckaroo” is typical of the wartime morale-boosting programmers designed to divert Americans in the early 1940s. It was loud, boisterous and full of what used to pass for music and comedy. If the final results were often dubious, its intentions and heart were in the right place. And for many people back when, it took their minds off the troubles at home and abroad.
The plot of “Private Buckaroo” is pure stupidity: bandleader Harry James gets a letter (delivered to the nightclub where he and his orchestra are performing!) that he is drafted into the Army. The band members are ecstatic for him and everyone decides to join the Army with Harry. Their goal is to fight “the monkey men in Tokyo” (okay, so it’s not P.C. – but who bombed Pearl Harbor, eh?).
The entire band is sent to what might be the strangest Army base in the military. Pretty civilian women walk around, a weird little girl in her own uniform (who answers to the name “Tagalong”) causes mischief, and there is a USO hall the size of a major urban auditorium on the premises. Occasionally, the new soldiers drill and practice their bayonet skills. One conceited band member, the male crooner (Dick Foran, the poor man’s Nelson Eddy), is initially a royal arrogant pain but he eventually learns what it means to be a team player in the Army (go, Army!). He even gets to show his humility by singing the Negro spiritual “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen” (although the film doesn’t have any Negroes – this is the 1940s Army, when the white folks and the black folks weren’t allowed to breathe the same air).
In the middle of this mayhem, Harry James tries to learn how to blow the bugle (his teacher is Huntz Hall). Oh, and the Andrews Sisters show up to put on a couple of USO shows. There is even a squadron of deranged teenagers who show up to dance the jitterbug for the troops, who are called out to battle once the dance number is over – they seem happier to face Hitler then listen to the Andrews Sisters. And all of this runs a compact 68 minutes.
If the total sum of “Private Buckaroo” sounds odd, the parts of the whole are a lot more fascinating. The film was directed by Edward F. Cline, a prolific veteran whose career stretched back to the silent era (he helmed Mack Sennett’s slapstick romps and Buster Keaton’s classic “Sherlock Jr.”). Cline rarely got the major assignments as a director, but occasionally he snagged a big flick – most notably the W.C. Fields-Mae West classic “My Little Chickadee” and Fields’ surreal landmark “The Bank Dick.”
The Andrews Sisters were top-billed for this movie, even though they are primarily guest stars. They were the top performing stars of the early 1940s and were popular additions to several Abbott and Costello comedies. While wonderful as singers, their acting left something to be desired and thus they never truly made the crossover from recording stars to movie stars.
Harry James was also a major recording star during this era and a frequent guest star in movie musicals. Like the Andrews Sisters, he couldn’t act for beans. In “Private Buckaroo,” he has very little dialogue – which is rather strange, since he is nominally the center of attention.
The film also features a rare appearance by nightclub comic Joe E. Lewis. He’s on hand to perform his classic novelty number “I Love the South” and to play off Shemp Howard and Mary Wickes in a homely love triangle. The fact that Lewis was in the movie was a minor miracle – years earlier, he was brutally assaulted by gangsters and left for dead. His dramatic comeback was essayed by Frank Sinatra in the 1957 biopic “The Joker is Wild,” which is primarily how he is recalled today. Lewis would only make one more film appearance: in 1967 in Sinatra’s “Lady in Cement.”
“Private Buckaroo” premiered in June 1942. After the war, however, the film and its music became hopelessly dated and Universal Pictures (the studio behind the movie) allowed its copyright to lapse into the public domain. Over the years, nostalgia for the 1940s gave the film more prominence than it might deserve. Bootleg dupes are widely available, both on DVD and for Net viewing, and the quality of the dupes is fairly good.
But if you must see the film, fast-forward to “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” After experiencing that, you’ll never look at apples or the Andrews Sisters the same way again! And you may even come away wondering how we won the war!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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