A vehicle to return James Cagney to musicals...
"This movie should have been shot in colour" is all I can think about every time I watch this musical. Somehow, the black and white photography takes away from the energy of the picture. From the very opening sequence, which was filmed at West Point, with the cadets singing and marching around the beautiful campus, one realises how spectacular this would have looked in CinemaScope and Technicolor.
"The West Point Story" was used as a vehicle to return James Cagney to musicals. This would be the first time since his Oscar win for "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and was also an opportunity for Warner Brothers to promote its new star, Doris Day, and feature her with some of the other heavy-weights on the lot, notably, Virginia Mayo, who at the time, was touted as "the screen's most beautiful blonde". She was, of course, more than just gorgeous, she was talented, too. It was also, in another way, a reunion with Jimmy Cagney, with whom Mayo had shared the screen in the scorching melodrama, "White Heat". She seemed a cinch for a best supporting Oscar nod, but was overlooked by the Academy Awards, just as she had been passed over a few years earlier for her exuberant acting in "The Best Years of Our Lives." Too bad Hollywood couldn't get beyond that classic face and body and recognise the true gifts of Virginia Mayo. In "West Point", she was used as mere window dressing once again.
This tale concerns Elwin Bixby, once successful producer/choreographer on Broadway, now washed up and working at a rundown New York club called Nick's Bohemian Gardens, and playing the horses to keep food on the table. His fiancée, Eve Dillon (Mayo) is at the end of her rope, trying to convince "Bix" to do something about his situation before it's too late. Bix refuses an offer by rival producer, Harry Eberhart (Roland Winters), to go to West Point and stage a show which was written by his nephew, talented cadet, Tom Fletcher (Gordon MacRae), Eberhart, assured that the show will be a hit, wants Bix to convince Tom to leave West Point and embark on a career on the stage. Fletcher is dedicated to the Army and has resisted all efforts his uncle has taken to lure him away from the Academy.
The feud between Eberhart and Bix stems from hard feelings and a tug of war concerning a young singer called Jan Wilson (Doris Day). Jan had been in an Eberhart show, buried in the chorus, and Bix secretly helped her get a Hollywood movie contract when he felt she was being misused. This sparked Eberhart to fire Bix and get him blackballed on Broadway. Afraid that Eve will leave him (she's got an offer to go to Vegas), Bix reluctantly accepts the West Point "gig". At West Point, Bix and Eve hear Tom sing for the first time. Not only is he handsome, but very talented. There are no women in the production, so all of the parts are played by men. On another note, I'm surprised that "The Kissing Rock" rehearsal was not picked up by the Vito Russo documentary, "The Celluloid Closet" with young men dancing together. It's a hoot!
The "rules and regulations" at West Point are a hindrance to Bix. He has limited access to the actors and has to rehearse in their spare time. A former member of the Armed Forces, Bix amassed a formidable reputation as a hellion during his service. Now, at West Point, he was on the verge of causing havoc once again. After striking a cadet, who whistles at him during a demonstration of how to dance "lady-like", Bix is barred from the Academy. He receives a second chance to return to the campus, as a cadet, himself. Shocked and horrified, but realising he would have more access to the cast members, and especially Tom, he concedes. What follows is what you would expect, reluctance to comply with "rules and regulations" on Bix's part, but concession for the cause. The rehearsals continue and we are treated with MacRae's wonderful singing of the ballad, "Long Before I Knew You" and some dynamite dancing by Gene Nelson. Virginia Mayo gets to sing and dance, intermittently, while showing the males how to do it the feminine way. Bix's attempts to lure Tom away from the Point for a glamorous career on the stage fall on deaf ears. Cadet Fletcher is determined to continue his life in the military after graduation from West Point. Bix is no quitter and decides to change his strategy. He invites his old friend, Jan Wilson, to be Tom's date, or "drag" (as dates are called) at an upcoming hop. Jan owes Bix. Without him, she'd still be dancing in the chorus in Eberhart's show.
The movie has run almost 35 minutes before Doris Day makes her first appearance in a New York hotel suite singing "Ten Thousand Sheep" backed by a male chorus of five men. She looks marvellous and sounds incredible. Bix convinces Jan to attend the dance by pointing out his role in her success. He wants her to break tradition and appear with Tom in the West Point show, giving him a real taste of show business and swaying his opinion in regards to leaving the Point. Jan is no fool; she'd be the first woman ever to appear in a West Point production, though she is unaware of Bix's underlying motives. At the hop, Jan is coaxed into singing a song from her last picture. Out of nowhere (oh! those 50s musicals!) a big production number ensures during "The Military Polka" with Day, Cagney, Mayo, MacRae and Gene Nelson miraculously knowing all the dance steps. Surprise! So does everyone else at the hop! Day looks marvellous in a white chiffon gown, which flows gracefully when she dances. Mayo and Nelson dance nicely together, just as they did in several Warner Brothers musicals.
Bix is desperate. He has plans to make Tom fall in love with Jan. On the terrace at the party, Tom sings the beautiful ballad, "You Love Me". This prompts a moved Jan to ask Tom about show business and encourages him to consider changing fields. By "The Kissing Rock", Jan agrees to be in the show. She also starts to fall in love with Cadet Fletcher. When Eve finds out what Bix is up to, she rebels and threatens to return to New York. She is convinced by Tom to stay, for the good of the show. The rehearsal continues. "The Corps" is a patriotic song performed by the show's chorus. It's a dedication to West Point and very moving. No doubt, it was probably an obligatory addition to thank West Point for its cooperation in the production of the film. Tom asks Jan to marry him, but Bix, feeling guilty about what he's done, has contacted Jan's studio in Hollywood and she is ordered to call off the marriage and return to California. "You have a contract, you know?" Jan's plans for marrying Tom are thwarted and he, desperately in love with her, goes AWOL to be with her. Forced to decline on the marriage proposal, Jan, in a poignant scene tells Tom why. "Tom, at 15, I was singing in a band, making one night stands, when other girls were going to high school dances. At 17, I had a Hollywood contract. I'm a commodity now, I'm not a woman." Sound familiar? This dialogue could have been lifted out of Doris Day's own bio! This is a tender scene and one that should be included in Day retrospectives. It's some of her best acting.
Returning to West Point, Tom is arrested for AWOL, and the show is cancelled. After some research, Eve uncovers a plan to get Tom pardoned by eliciting the help of a high ranking foreign official. The visiting French Premier, when approached, is at first reluctant to involve himself, but reconsiders after Bix produces the French Medal of Honour which was awarded to him during the Resistance. The show is on again with an all-male cast. During the performance, an unfortunate accident causes Cadet Courtland (Gene Nelson) to bow out of his solo number, with Cagney and Mayo stepping in to do "It Could Only Happen in Brooklyn." There is some high stepping between the two. Cagney looking like he did in "Yankee Doodle" and Mayo performing like a pro. When the show's ballad, "You Love Me" is being sung by Tom, the "princess" who materialises is not Cadet Bull Gilbert (Alan Hale, Jr.), but Jan Wilson in a surprise appearance. She and Tom sing the song beautifully. Doris' voice is like a dream come true. After the performance, the book and the music are presented to Bix and Eve, hopefully to be produced on Broadway.
This is a very entertaining show. Cagney was superb as Bix and he was the centrepiece of the film. Doris Day was given the opportunity to shine and her star quality was evident in every scene she played. This was Day's first appearance with Gordon MacRae and Gene Nelson with whom she would make several films. Day also appeared with Virginia Mayo in "Starlift", a movie that few Day fans have seen, but they were both "guest stars" in that one. The production was first rate, although I did recognise some of the sets from other Warner Brothers pictures. As I stated earlier, this should have been filmed in colour, if not CinemaScope, which was invented three years later. Director, Roy Del Ruth must be commended for keeping the continuity intact and the believability alive even though most of the occurrences could never happen. The movie is important because it gave you a preview of greatness to come. Five years later, Doris Day and James Cagney graced the screen together again, this time at MGM in the memorable musical drama, "Love Me or Leave Me", in CinemaScope and Colour.
Ralph McKnight, New York, December 2000
Doris Day said: “Although a movie song is filmed on
the set during its performance, the song itself is prerecorded in a recording
studio under ideal conditions before the picture ever starts. In the solitude
of a room with perfect acoustics, I could record a song as many times as
possible to get it right. Of course, when you film a song it is necessary
to sing the song in perfect synchronization with the way you previously
recorded it so that your lips move at precisely the right time.” Doris Day, Her Own Story
“Doris Day and Gordon MacRae make a fine pair of lovebirds. Dancing cadet Gene Nelson taps out some neat numbers. Put ‘em all together and you have a bright, brisk show.” - Motion Picture Magazine
“The tunes are topnotch, catchy, and plentiful, with Doris Day and Gordon MacRae cooing the lyrics exceptionally well. The story is overlong and dated with corny situations that make the running time seem twice as long…Doris Day and Gordon MacRae register well as a singing team and help put spark into the new music.” -Film Bulletin
“The plot is as old as the hills..Although the score was by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, there are no memorable musical numbers in the film, and the story, as once can see, was primitive, but the cast was valiant. Cagney, of course, is forever worth watching, and he did have a certain chemistry with Doris that would later bloom in the admirable Love Me or Leave Me…The West Point Story is one of the most forgettable movies in the Doris Day canon.” Alan Gleb, The Doris Day Scrapbook
“Fresh treatment and new twists to the musical formula make The West Point Story worthwhile entertainment.” - Variety
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Motion Picture.