BOOTLEG FILES 523: “The Yankee Doodler” (1942 musical short starring William Frawley).
LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube and other video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Included in anthology collections of Soundies shorts.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A real curio from days long passed.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Hell, this belongs on the National Film Registry!
When you mention William Frawley, the first thing that comes to mind is his Fred Mertz character on “I Love Lucy.” But before he gained immortality as the irascible landlord that witnessed the zany antics of a Cuban band leader and his redhead wife, Frawley had another role of even greater importance: the singing, dancing, jingo-slinging cheerleader that roused a war-scarred nation to defeat the forces of global fascism.
Oh, you’re not aware of that William Frawley role? Well, it would seem that you need to be introduced to “The Yankee Doodler.”
Back in the 1940s, there was an attempt to mix the musical appeal of jukeboxes with the happy distraction of motion pictures. The result was a series of short films based on the popular songs of the day that were presented in coin-operated machines located in bars, lounges and other amusement venues. Dubbed the “Soundies,” these were the forerunner of music videos.
The Soundies had several problems. For starters, the films were cheaply made – seriously, these were some of the lowest budget endeavors arranged before a camera. Due to financial limitations, there was no budget to hire the top-selling singers and bands of the decade. Thus, the popular songs were mostly cover versions featuring little-known performers. While some of the on-screen talent would later find greater stardom – a very young Dorothy Dandridge turned up in a couple of Soundies, and an unknown comic named Henny Youngman appeared in a novelty number – most of the folks on the Soundies screen brought little name recognition and were never heard from again after their brief on-camera turns.
But there were exceptions to this rule, and that’s where William Frawley comes in. By 1942, Frawley had a long career that included vaudeville, Broadway, silent movies and the sound flicks. Top league stardom eluded him, although he managed to carve a niche as a comic character actor, and he often showed up as either an inefficient heavy or a dyspeptic observer to the leading actors’ antics.
Frawley enjoyed a very rare chance to be front and center in a film when RCM Productions, one of the companies creating Soundies shorts, decided to adapt the Spike Jones tune “The Yankee Doodler.” Jones and his City Slickers band were not available to perform the song for the Soundies camera, so Frawley was recruited. How this bit of casting was made is not clear – and considering that Frawley was not a recording star or even a regular player in Hollywood musicals, one could assume the Soundies producers were aware of the actor’s early days as a song-and-dance man in vaudeville.
“The Yankee Doodler” was certainly not a special song – it was typical of the dozens of morale-boosting numbers that flooded the airwaves following the American entry into World War II. The lyrics followed a very familiar pattern: harkening back to the American victory in World War I, openly promising to punish Hitler and Mussolini (but not insulting the German and Italian people) while using impolite language to describe the enemy across the Pacific (in this case, the “sneaky Jap”). There was also excessive praising of the American war leadership (for this tune, General MacArthur and President Roosevelt – in that order!) and a happy plea for people to buy War Bonds to finance the fight. But it was all wrapped up in a bouncy musical arrangement, and the repetition of the flag-waving lyrics made it easy enough to sing along after hearing it once.
To film “The Yankee Doodler” within the Soundies’ cheap budget, it was decided to use a single set consisting of a dark stage with a giant board featuring the words of the song’s chorus and comic strip illustrations of the people and issues highlighted in the lyrics. The concept of the giant board was to have Frawley teaching in a school room manner. For some reason, two starlets dressed as majorettes were posed next to the board – they had little to do but smile at the camera and move their bare legs in a simulation of marching while keeping their feet firmly on the ground.
This might sound rather droll, but there was nothing droll about the unlikely vocalist at the center of the film. Billed as “Professor William Frawley,” the future Fred Mertz bounces into view dressed in an academic cap and gown while carrying a large stick to highlight the printed lyrics on the giant board. Frawley poured all of his energy into his number, and the result is nothing short of stimulating. Curling his fist with the promise of demolishing all enemies, Frawley’s gravelly singing voice is rich with the desire to smack Mussolini in the jaw and kick the Japanese “off the map.” His sense of urgency rises when he demands the purchase of War Bonds and the need to support Roosevelt’s leadership.
Frawley tears into the song with gusto, vocalizing as if the fate of the nation depended on him. Granted, he occasionally falls out of key with an off-stage chorus singing along with the chorus – but, hey, it was wartime and such attention to detail was not required. And while there is no dancing, per se, Frawley marches about the cramped set at a frenetic pace while turning his stick into a bayonet to impale the enemy and a rifle to be used in the heat of battle.
It impossible not to watch “The Yankee Doodler” without thinking, “Hey, is that really Fred Mertz?” After all, there was nothing in Frawley’s “I Love Lucy” years – or, for that matter, in his Hollywood films – that gave any hint that he was capable of such a larger-than-life explosion of musical glory. And it is all the more amazing considering the shabby setting of this film – a dark, tiny stage where a human dynamo spins around in one-man-show designed to rouse a nation to recapture a fascist-dominated world.
Frawley’s partner behind the camera for this film was Herbert Moulton, a producer-director whose career was mostly concentrated in short subjects. Moulton later won a pair of Oscars for his short films, but nothing that he ever created came close to the inspired craziness of “The Yankee Doodler.”
For many years, no one thought twice of “The Yankee Doodler.” Even when the Soundies were later repackaged for TV and DVD release, this film was merely noted because of Frawley’s unlikely appearance.
But thanks to YouTube and other video sites, the spectacle of Frawley’s musical flag waving has found a new audience. I recently showed this film to some friends that were previously unaware of its existence, and they reacted with flabbergasted delight at uber-patriot Frawley extolling his countrymen to military greatness.
The films within the Soundies series have fallen into the public domain, but I don’t believe that the copyright to song itself has expired without renewal. But as everyone knows, Net denizens addicts cannot be bothered with the triviality of music rights, and “The Yankee Doodler” is ready to delight a new generation ready to find the next crazy video. And, maybe, in the near future, historians will rewrite the story of World War II and remind us of the important role that Fred Mertz played in conquering the enemies of liberty. To quote our beloved star: Yeah, man, win this war!
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