The West Point Story
“The West Point Story” is the weakest of the early Warner Brothers musicals featuring Doris Day. This is not to say it’s bad or that fans shouldn’t see it, but that it’s simply not on par with the others. It lacks the charm of “Tea for Two” and “Romance On the High Seas” and even the humor of a relative lightweight like “It’s a Great Feeling”. And this is despite a great cast of top studio players like James Cagney and Virginia Mayo and up and comers like Gordon MacRae, Gene Nelson and Day herself (who gets only third-billing here). The cast is the reason to see this film, for they all do their best with weak material.
I can’t figure why Warner Brothers seemed to not care too much about this film after committing some of its top talent for the project including director Roy Del Ruth who had done major musicals like “Broadway Melody of 1936” and “The Desert Song”. First of all, why is it in black and white? Of course there were many great black and white musicals but this was no longer the ‘30s or ‘40s. By 1950 musicals and lighter fare were expected to be in color while black and white was used for darker and more serious films. It looks like an attempt to save money, but why? In a similar vein, the West Point location is not well-used and it’s clear from the unconvincing rear screen projection that the cast was never there. This could have been a very colorful romp in a unique setting.
Then there’s the plot, silly, improbable and absurd even for a musical. One never holds up high standards of reality with movie musicals, but the possibility of any of the events and character choices ever being remotely real doesn’t exist. The dialogue is okay, but the rest doesn’t hold water. Cagney, playing Broadway director Bix Bixby, is a fish out-of-water at West Point, but this potential source of comedy is only briefly alluded to. Doris Day is practically a guest star who doesn’t appear until almost halfway in and then seems to just occasionally drop by.
The songs, by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn are slight and forgettable. Styne tended to save his best work for his Broadway musicals (“Gypsy”, “Bells Are Ringing”, “Funny Girl”). The songs here he could have dashed off in half an hour. He wrote “It’s Magic” for Day in “Romance On the High Seas” but here her most memorable tune is “10,432 Sheep”. Gene Nelson, who jumped on top of pianos and danced up bannisters in other musicals with Day is given some basic dance steps with a cane and little else. Gordon MacRae’s love song, “You Love Me” is nice while it lasts but that isn’t very long.
Cagney makes out best here, but Cagney was Cagney, taking command of any scene with a blink of an eye. He’s the principal character, on screen most of the time and is perfect as a conniving and irascible director given to sudden bouts of temper. Because of his perfection in gangster roles, some people forget he could dance up a storm. The studios liked to keep their actors in one type of role, and even Bogart and Gable were originally cast only in thug roles until the public responded more to them than to the blandly handsome actors the studio heads preferred as leading men. At least he had “Shanghai Lil” in “Footlight Parade” and his Oscar-winning performance in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. I wish he had had these roles more often.
He is assisted by the beautiful Virginia Mayo and she gives one of her best performances here in a wise-cracking, comic role as Cagney’s sweetheart. It’s funny to see them as a romantic couple when their previous film had been the classic “White Heat” in which Mayo played the dissolute girlfriend to Cagney’s terrifyingly psychotic gangster, Cody Jarrett. Mayo could be really lively as she was here and in “Working Her Way Through College” but often, because of her looks, was given only decorative roles. There’s also a very early appearance by Alan Hale Jr. (later “The Skipper” in “Gilligan’s Island”) in a fairly substantial secondary role as a cadet.
All in all, it’s an okay film but with this cast it should have been so much better. Fans of Cagney and Day should see it but there are many better films with them for anyone interested in seeing either one. We can be most thankful to this film because it was from working with Day that Cagney recommended her to MGM to play Ruth Etting in the studio’s upcoming film, “Love Me or Leave Me”. Not only is this the only other film with the two stars together, but a powerful musical drama that is not to be missed.