The Bootleg Files: Keeping Fit

BOOTLEG FILES 680: “Keeping Fit” (1942 all-star short film).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Not to my knowledge.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Rare World War II-era film that had no postwar reissue value.

Maybe in an anthology of wartime shorts or as a special feature on a DVD.

After the United States entered World War II, the Hollywood studios churned out a series of morale-building films were created to keep civilian audiences engaged in supporting the war effort. The studios often put their biggest names into these films to add a level of star wattage to the messaging.

Universal Pictures trailed the other studio when it came to the quantity of glamorous movie stars, but it did employ a large number of charismatic performers whose on-screen presence always signified something fun was afoot. A number of these actors were brought together in an entertaining short called “Keeping Fit,” which was meant to encourage health and wellness among the civilian population. The film’s message was that everyone who was not in the military needed to stay healthy in order to help the country win the war. And while that was a worthwhile idea to promote, the real joy is the spot-the-star aspect of the production.

“Keeping Fit” begins in a factory where workers are manufacturing the aircraft needed to bomb the Axis nations. Broderick Crawford looks up from his assembly line work to see Robert Stack pausing from his duties to rub his forehead. Crawford is initially concerned, then looks away, then looks back to see Stack collapse at his workstation.

The film cuts to the factory’s medical facility, where a shirtless Stack is being examined by a doctor (Ralph Morgan, a ubiquitous character actor of the era) and a nurse (Anne Gwynne, one of Universal’s musical comedy stars). Stack is quizzed on his diet and responds that his last dinner was a sandwich and a cup of coffee and his breakfast was a donut and another cup of coffee. The doctor berates his patient for not keeping fit – an odd comment, considering how buff the young Robert Stack was – and warned that he would be creating workforce problems if he was not well. However, the doctor also noted that many medical professionals were going into military service, leaving a shortage of skilled physicians to handle the civilian population.

Stack returns to work and is part of the audience listening to an address by the factory manager (Russell Hicks, another too-familiar character actor) warning the factory employees about lagging productivity created by physically unfit individuals. The camera cuts to roly-poly Andy Devine, eating an absurdly large lollipop. A representative of the “government nutrition service” (starlet Louise Allbritton wearing a hat that resembles a sewer manhole cover) is introduced and proclaims that while she is happy to meet the male factory workers, “I really should be talking to your wives because they’re the ones that fix your meals.”

The nutritionist warns that “too many of our meals are hastily prepared, with too little thought given to the menu.” That scenario is visualized with a harried housewife (Irene Hervey) rushing through meal preparation. But the scene cuts abruptly to the lovely housewife sitting at the table crying. Her elderly neighbor (Mary Gordon, the Scottish actress best known as Mrs. Hudson in the Sherlock Holmes series) comes in and inquires what is wrong. The housewife acknowledges that her husband walked out after being dissatisfied with the meal. The wise old Scottish lady points out the dinner was too heavy in starches and absent of vegetables, and recommends that the housewife go to a “government cooking school” to learn how to make proper meals.

So, what makes for proper nutrition, circa 1942? The nutritionist recommends meat – preferably broiled or roasted – along with potatoes, and at least “one pint of milk” to be consumed sometime during the day, along with a “couple of tomatoes” with lunch and “at least one vegetable” as part of a meal. “If you haven’t had your eggs for breakfast, you can have them in a custard dessert – it’s a grand way to get extra vitamins,” the nutritionist adds. As a result of this information, the housewife’s husband (Universal leading man Dick Foran) praises his spouse’s newfound kitchen skills, bragging that more meals like that and he would soon be able to build airplanes by himself.

The plant manager returns to stress the value of exercise, pointing out activities ranging from sandlot baseball to horseback riding to archery – the latter is shown with a line-up of pretty girls shooting arrows at targets decorated with the faces of the Axis leaders. We then fade to Andy Devine laying in a hammock with his big lollipop while his wife (comic actress Mary Wickes) nags him for being lazy. Andy’s neighbor Lon Chaney Jr. invites him to play horseshoes, and then asks Andy to join his bowling team. Andy initially claims he can’t afford to join a bowling team, but later throws out his lollipop and makes a mental note to get in shape.

The plant manager comes back to extol his workers to be healthy and hygienic – “Plenty of baths with lots of soap” – because that’s the ticket to winning the war. “Let’s adopt as our slogan: Keep fit to do our bit.”

Of course, fans of the Universal films from the early 1940s may grumble that the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Maria Montez, Abbott and Costello, Olsen and Johnson, the Andrew Sisters and Shemp Howard were absent from the film. But, really, who could imagine Marlene Dietrich and Maria Montez as happy homemakers or Olsen and Johnson as health-conscious factory workers? “Keeping Fit” was a change of pace for its behind-the-camera talent: Screenwriter Paul Huston specialized in rough-and-tumble serials like “Sky Raiders” and “Sea Raiders” while director Arthur Lubin was turning out Abbott and Costello comedies.

It’s hard to say how audiences reacted to “Keeping Fit” – back in the day, these types of films were typical of the big-screen line-up. Today, health-minded viewers that stumble over unauthorized postings on YouTube may question the nutritional advice and libertarians may wince at the notion of government-funded cooking schools. But “Keeping Fit” had its heart in the right place, and its encouragement for civilians to play a role in the wartime efforts helps to compensate for whatever shortcomings have become obvious over time.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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