FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP
Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: Kay Francis, Carole
Landis, Martha Raye, Mitzi Mayfair, Phil Silvers
Director: William Seiter
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Video: Black & white, 1.33:1 full-frame
Studio: 20th-Century Fox
Features: The Real Four Jills featurette, deleted scenes, isolated score track, restoration comparison, galleries
Length: 89 minutes
Release Date: October 7, 2008
“We want to be right at the front with our men!”
In the fall of 1942, in the midst of intense warfare, for the first time ever, four women were allowed to sign on as volunteers for the U.S.O. tour. Previously, only male entertainers had been permitted by the U.S. government to travel into harm’s way to raise troop morale, but four brave actresses - screen thespian Kay Francis, tap-dancing Mitzi Mayfair, comedian Martha Raye, and singer Carole Landis - had been given the green light. The ladies toured with the Jimmy Dorsey band, spending six months abroad in base camps scattered throughout England and North Africa entertaining American doughboys. Their progress was followed in Hollywood circles and newspaper columns and even became the subject of a Carole Landis book.
On their eventual return back to America, the four actresses were approached by 20th-Century Fox to reprise their roles for a musical based on their adventures. Borrowing its title from the Landis book, the film Four Jills in a Jeep (1944) was thus conceived.
Of the four actresses, Kay Francis was the most established. A major player of 1930’s film and stage, she was the unofficial leader of the quartet. Glamorous Carole Landis is most remembered today for an ill-fated affair with Rex Harrison but, at the time of this film’s release, was a rising star. Martha Raye had been making a name for herself onscreen as a brash, loudmouth comedian-singer with enough personality to entertain an entire mess-hall of soldiers. The cute-as-a-button and leggy Mitzi Mayfair had appeared in a few short subjects, but in this film was given a rare opportunity to dance like there was no tomorrow; she could have given Buddy Ebsen or Ray Bolger a run for their money.
In Four Jills in a Jeep, the four actresses essentially play themselves. The film provides a reasonably, if fictionalized, account of life for a U.S.O. entertainer. As the film opens, the ladies have just wrapped up a broadcast of another “Command Performance” radio program when Kay reveals a secret - she has received permission to bring an entertainment unit overseas to entertain U.S. troops. Who better to take along with her than her three fellow actresses in attendance? Soon enough, the four actresses are on their way to London for adventure, morale-boosting, and even a little “Lovey Mine” time. In real life, Carole Landis did actually marry a soldier she met on tour, but the film concocts a little romance for each lady. Kay is wooed by an army physician, Carole captures the heart of a fighter pilot, Mitzi renews a relationship with a former dance partner, and Martha has a hard time fending off the quartet’s assigned escort, played by goofy Phil Silvers.
As might be expected, Four Jills in a Jeep showcases many of song and dance numbers for our ladies. This film even features a few cameos by top musical actresses of the day. Brazilian bombshell Carmen Miranda dances up a storm, pin-up queen Betty Grable charms the lads over the airwaves, and musical superstar Alice Faye performs her signature song “You’ll Never Know” from the film Hello, Frisco, Hello. And no wartime musical would be complete without a performance from a big band, in this case the Jimmy Dorsey band.
Most of the film takes place in the relative safety of an English army camp, although in the finale, the girls risk life and limb by flying to Africa. At the base camp there, they are subjected to black-outs and German aerial raids, and when not entertaining troops, they do double-duty as makeshift Red Cross nurses. It is a less-than-glamorous and exhausting experience but one that certainly addresses the real dangers of life at the war front.
Ultimately, Four Jills in a Jeep ends on a cheerful, if uncertain, note. Keep in mind that the outcome of the real war at this time was far from certain, and there were no indications yet that the American troops could even win the war. But then, a morale-boosting film cannot conclude on a down-note. And so, as Four Jills in a Jeep closes, the four actresses, from their jeep, wave our boys onward to glory and victory. It is a pity that the wartime musical is essentially a dead sub-genre of filmmaking; even if such movies were superficial and not entirely realistic, they still provided hope and optimism in a time when such qualities are most needed.
Video ** ½
Four Jills in a Jeep is presented in its original black & white, full-frame format on a dual layer transfer. The film has been meticulously restored to eliminate frame drift and to remove most instances of dust and debris.
Audio ** ½
The audio is in English monaural and has been cleaned of age-related audio clicks or hiss. The sound quality is adequate if not up to modern standards. At least all the wonderful tunes, including an offering or two from the Jimmy Dorsey band and some noted cameo performers, come across quite vibrantly.
Features * ½
Four Jills in a Jeep is available individually or as part of the Alice Faye Collection, Volume 2 box set. Its inclusion in that box set, however, is somewhat dubious, considering that Alice Faye only appears briefly in a cameo.
There are a few short supplemental features on this disc. The Four Real Jills (17 min.) is a featurette that compares the public and private lives of the film’s four leading ladies with the fictionalized accounts of their U.S.O. story as seen in the film. There are three deleted scenes (6 min.) comprised of outtakes, bloopers, and alternative takes of two Martha Raye songs and one Carmen Miranda song-and-dance routine; none of these three songs made it into the final cut of the film, so their inclusion here is a real treat. Fans who wish to hear the songs from the actual film can opt for an isolated score track. Among the smaller extras, a short restoration comparison featurette summaries the restoration process with a side-by-side comparison of the initial 2008 film transfer and final film restoration, which looks much cleaner with improved image stabilization and contrast levels. Lastly, this disc offers an ad gallery of eleven posters and artworks and a stills gallery of eleven publicity photos.
Four Jills in a Jeep is a standard wartime musical. While the film does not shy away from the more tragic aspects of warfare, it is still everything a wartime musical should be - morale-boosting, light-hearted, and lots of fun!