This is not a particularly good Soundie, and in many ways is a quite offensive one. But like every release in the Soundies oeuvre, there is something here to enjoy, and a great deal to learn from as well.
Soundies producers often featured stars of the past who still maintained a presence on the 1940s entertainment scene. If Gus Van was considered old fashioned by Swing Era jitterbugs, he was nevertheless a success on the Panoram screen and was featured in two series produced in 1941.
The vaudeville team Van and [Joe] Schenck was performing early in the century and was an audience favorite by the mid-teens. Van and Schenck sang popular songs of the day in a style clearly influenced by the early minstrel tradition. The duo traded on ethnic stereotypes, and Irish, Italians, Swedes, Russians, African Americans and Jews were all part of Gus Van’s stage “personas.” During a stage appearance in 1930 Schenck suffered a heart attackand passed away soon after. Gus Van returned to the vaudeville stage and soon re-established himself as a solo act. This Soundie allows us to sample his declamatory vocal style, a holdover from the time before microphones allowed for the more intimate crooning of vocalists like Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee.
The visual content of the Soundie is something else altogether. While lacking some of the virulent imagery found in other films of the period, the message is subtle, subversive and not at all progressive. Here we see Swingin’ Major Brown, an African American, strutting down the street, baton in hand, leading the parade. He is “happy go lucky,” with rhythm in his feet, swinging so much that even the enemy will be cheering for him. To picture Major Brown as a commanding officer, fully capable of defending the nation in war, would have flown in the face of the stereotypes that Soundies producers dealt in, and that many white Panoram viewers would have expected. None of this reflects the fighting prowess of Black Americans, thousands of whom died during World War II.
Many Soundies hint at the progress of Black Americans, their slow integration into the majority white culture, the first steps into the middle class, and the creation of a musical form that influenced a century of entertainers. Swingin’ Soldier Man is just not one of them.