Classic Movies

Grey Market Cinema: Give Out, Sisters (1942)


Professor Chester Woof (Charles Butterworth) was only interested in learning the conga…and yet, he was somehow persuaded to purchase the dance school, courtesy of a fast-talking sharpie named Gribble (Walter Catlett).  That school is now swimming in a pool of red ink, but its financial salvation might come in the form of a student (and Western Union messenger) named Peggy (Peggy Ryan).  Peggy, while delivering a birthday telegram to Maxene Andrews, has learned that the Flamingo Club—where Maxene and sisters Patty and Laverne perform, accompanied by Bob Edwards (Dan Dailey) and his orchestra—is looking for an act in support of the singing trio.  She convinces club owner Harrison (William Frawley) to allow the troupe (The Jivin’ Jacks and Jills) at the school to audition for the job (leaving out the information that the kids are amateurs).

The members of the dancing school wow the audience at the Flamingo Club that evening.  Harrison is not too happy when he learns that the terpsichorean act is not a professional one—but he changes his mind when he learns that the lead dancer, Grace Roberts (Grace McDonald), is in actuality heiress Grace Waverly.  That kind of publicity (a photograph is taken of Grace as she performs her big number, and is later splashed all over the newspapers) guarantees that the Flamingo will be doing turn-away business for years to come.  Here’s the problem: Grace’s spinster aunts—Agatha (Edith Barrett), Blandina (Marie Blake), and Susan (Fay Helm)—are aghast that their niece is involved in show business, and as her guardians forbid her to participate in any of that foolishness.  To save their bacon (they already accepted $500 from Harrison, who demands a return on his investment), Gribble and Woof must resort to some comic subterfuge—including pressing the Andrews Sisters to masquerade as the Waverlys.

The Andrews look more like inmates than the female Ritz Brothers as they sport outfits from a musical number performed in Give Out, Sisters (1942).

The popular vocal group known as The Andrews Sisters made their feature film debut in Universal’s Argentine Nights (1940), a Ritz Brothers romp…so it’s completely understandable that the Andrews siblings once observed of their forays onto the silver screen: “We looked like the Ritz Brothers in drag.”  The sister team made fourteen films between 1940 and 1945 (a short and thirteen features), and are probably best remembered for their appearances in the first three Abbott & Costello films: Buck Privates (1941—where they performed Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B), In the Navy (1941), and Hold That Ghost (1941).  (The three Andrews also appeared in the Warner Brothers all-star extravaganza Hollywood Canteen [1944].)  In addition, the “female Ritzes” received top billing in such Universal B-musicals as How’s About It (1943) and Moonlight and Cactus (1944) …but many classic film buffs agree that Give Out, Sisters (1942) stands out as the team’s definitive vehicle.

Critics were never kind to the Andrews Sisters’ movies.  New York Post critic Archer Winsten, in writing about one of the group’s vehicles, “The Andrews Sisters…get by on sound but are still short on sight.”  (Hey…we can’t all be Hedy Lamarr.)  The praise for Give Out, Sisters wasn’t particularly effusive, either; “In spite of the priority on rubber, Universal Pictures stretches a short subject into a feature-length film by the simple expedient of combining several variety acts with a slight and ineffectual plot,” groused a critic at The New York Herald after telling kids to get off his lawn.  The New York Times critic was also underwhelmed: “There is nothing quite as exasperating as a bad musical film, and Universal appears to have missed on all beats in making Give Out, Sisters, yesterday’s new entry at the Palace.  The Andrews Sisters haven’t come up against such weak tunes in a long while…”

Grace McDonald and Walter Catlett conspire with the Andrews Sisters…posing as Grace’s aunts.

What these individuals ignored at the time is that these little inconsequential musicals—quickly filmed on a ten-day schedule, and cramming in not only song/dance numbers but elements of romance and farce, often in a sixty-minute running time—were a tonic to moviegoers who forked up cash for nothing more than a little entertainment to take their minds off the troubles of the day.  As Doug McClelland writes in The Golden Age of “B” Movies, “the light-of-day truth is they afforded lively, tuneful, ‘escapist’ relaxation for a war-frantic, movie-crazy nation.”  H. Arlo Nimmo, author of The Andrews Sisters: A Biography and Career Record, remarks: “I personally think Give Out, Sisters holds up better than most of the sisters’ Universal war films.  The supporting cast is strong, the musical numbers are fun, the dances are lively, and the pace is fast.  A great film it is not, but fun escapist fare it is…”  I concur wholeheartedly with Nimmo’s assessment.

Patty, Maxene, and Laverne sing four tunes in Give Out, Sisters, including the lovely You’re Just a Flower from an Old Bouquet and their hit Pennsylvania Polka (#17 on the charts in 1942).  Polka is the focus on a “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” musical number that concludes the film, allowing nearly everyone in the cast to participate in the singing and dancing.  But the Andrews are also riotously funny impersonating the Waverly aunts; I used to own a reference book on Universal movies (I got a bargain at a library book sale) many, many moons ago that had a picture of the trio in their “aunt” masquerade and it tickled me so much I put Give Out, Sisters on my “must-see” list.  (I crossed this one off thanks to Finders Keepers, which has the film in its DVD inventory—but I will warn you that it’s four minutes shorter than the official time of 65 minutes; there’s a noticeable gap in the film at one point.)

“Doctor” Charles Butterworth administers to a bedridden Edith Barrett as Marie Blake looks on.

No one does cinematic befuddlement better than Charles Butterworth; Charlie must impersonate a medical specialist who’s been called in to diagnose Agatha (she experiences frequent fainting spells), and he’s simply hilarious.  His interactions with Catlett (at his con man best) are also amusing, and throwing Bill Frawley (Rick Brooks’ role model) into the mix is a sure-fire recipe for laughter.  (Frawley cracked me up when he let loose with his trademark irascibility: “The Andrews Sisters are all right, but you gotta get something around ‘em!”)  I’m not the world’s biggest Dan Dailey fan, but he’s very easy to take in this one—particularly since his required romance with ingénue Grace McDonald (recently seen in Strictly in the Groove) doesn’t get in the way too much.  Peggy Ryan, on the other hand, is always a welcomed presence, and her partner Donald O’Connor (the duo made a slew of Universal musicals—they were the poor man’s Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney) is also on board though he’s not much more than a chorus boy in Sisters.  The supporting players include Leonard Carey (as the Waverly butler), Emmett Vogan, Irving Bacon, Leon Belasco, Robert Emmett Keane, and Fred “Snowflake” Toones.

Eddie Cline sat in the director’s chair on Give Out, Sisters—the veteran filmmaker achieved cinematic immortality as one of Buster Keaton’s gagmen (and co-director)…but he also worked alongside legends like Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields (The Bank Dick), Wheeler & Woolsey (Hook, Line and Sinker), and Olsen & Johnson (Crazy House).  He’s able to make Sisters work even when it stumbles from deficits in the scripting.  In a press release that came out shortly after Sisters hit the theaters, the sisters Andrews were on the record as saying: “Universal has made us look so bad in pictures, it must be an art.  They must study it at nights, like homework.”  With the benefit of hindsight, one of the trio (Maxene) eventually had a change of heart: “But now when I see those movies I think, my God, those girls are good!  My God, those girls move!”  Betcha by golly wow, they do—I enjoyed the hell out of Give Out, Sisters, a model example of the kind of “quickie” musicals that Universal did so well (and hey—they paid the rent!) and I urge you to check it out at the first available opportunity.

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