Irving Berlin and Churchill

Did you hear the story about Irving Berlin’s lunch with Winston Churchill during WWII? It’s a very funny story, it’s true, and it’s part of the larger and very wonderful story of Irving Berlin’s musical This is the Army. Berlin wrote This is the Army both to boost American morale and to raise money (which it did, in spades). Although originally intended for a short Broadway run, it ended up touring America, being made into a movie, and being performed in England, as well as the European and Pacific theaters of War. The English tour was the occasion for this great story:

For prominent Americans wartime London was remarkable for the easy access they enjoyed to the highest echelons of British society. Berlin received an invitation to have lunch with Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street. Throughout the course of the war, Churchill had been entertained by dispatches written by the celebrated Oxford don Isaiah Berlin, who was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington. On hearing that the writer he so admired was visiting London, Churchill hastened to invite Isaiah Berlin to lunch. Through a bureaucratic mixup, however, the invitation went out to the songwriter rather than the political commentator.

On the appointed day, Irving Berlin presented himself at the prime minister’s residence, where he was escorted to a comfortable room and given a cigar and a glass of brandy. In time, Churchill appeared, still under the impression that his guest was Isaiah Berlin. The prime minister wasted little time on pleasantries. “How is war production in the United States?” he demanded.

Berlin was taken aback by the question. He was a composer and performer, not a war correspondent. “Oh, we’re doing fine,” he hesitantly answered.

“What do you think Roosevelt’s chances of reelection are?”

Uncomfortable at being called on to play political pundit, he gave the obvious answer. “I think he’ll win again.”

“Good,” Churchill replied. “Good.”

“But if he won’t run again,” Irving offered, “I don’t think I’ll vote at all.”

For the first time, he had Churchill’s interest, not that he welcomed it. “You mean you think you’ll have a vote?” Churchill asked, a note of wonder–or was it British irony?–creeping into his voice.

“I sincerely hope so,” Irving said.

“That would be wonderful,” Churchill replied, appearing to sum up. “If only Anglo-American cooperation reached such a point that we could vote in each other’s elections. Professor, you have my admiration. You must stay for lunch.”

Throughout lunch at 10 Downing Street, Irving was haunted by the feeling that he was well out of his depth. Why had Churchill addressed him as “professor”? He stopped trying to reply to Churchill’s probing questions and fell silent. Eventually Churchill turned his back on his taciturn guest. The awkward lunch finally came to a conclusion, and as Churchill left the room, he whispered loudly to an aide, “Berlin’s just like most bureaucrats. Wonderful on paper but disappointing when you meet them face to face.”

If you’d like a sense of the show, I’ve included a couple of clips below, one lauding the Air Force, the other the Navy. All the performers you see in the clips, incidentally, are real members of the Armed Forces (most with performance backgrounds, of course), rather than Hollywood stars and extras. Who you don’t see in the clips is Ronald Reagan, who was then a Lieutenant working in Hollywood on morale boosting projects, and who had a role in this movie too. Aside from Reagan, who served at the Army’s behest, there were other actual Warner Brother stars in the movie as well but, with the exception of a couple of George Murphy and Frances Langford numbers, they did not provide the musical content, which was left to the real troops.

And here’s a nice piece of trivia from the movie:

This film is the only one to star a U.S. President, a U.S. Senator, a state governor and two Presidents of the Screen Actors Guild. Ronald Reagan was President of the U.S. from 1981-1989, Governor of California from 1967-1975 and President of SAG from 1947-1952 and 1959-1960; George Murphy was Senator from California 1965-1971 and President of SAG 1944-1946. They filmed the movie prior to having been elected to any of the offices mentioned.

UPDATE: Perhaps because I’ve spent the last 30 minutes mentally back in WWII (an era that pre-dates my birth), when our country cared about the military and its fight to defend freedom, I somehow found startling the results of the gala for “CNN Heroes.” All the “heroes” sound like great people, creative and hard working, but I did find it a bit peculiar that, while our country is at war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the heroes did not include (and, indeed, the roster did not even contemplate) people whose heroism includes actually putting their lives on the line so that others can live free.

4 Responses

  1. Bookie

    SJSal and I sat and watched both clips. Our thanks!

    We own a copy of the entire movie. Our children have watched it many dozens of times and love it. (My 12 year old daughter’s favorite movie is “The Gallant Hours”, however.

    Bravo Zulu for posting.

    V/r
    SJBill

  2. In WWII, Hollywood went to war, too. Stars were proud to support the war effort. What happened?

  3. The story about the two Berlin’s and Churchill is sad. Isaiah was a great and important thinker, I’m sure Churchill missed a great conversation that day, which was most certainly corrected over the years.

    Irving was a great song writer and certainly didn’t need to be in such an embarrassing situation.

    Churchill had plenty of time because America ran the anti-axis war effort.

  4. I would be wonderful IF it were true. The myth is in a lot of Churchill biographies—-all told slightly differently. But the person who wants to see the truth will go to a biography of Irving Berlin and look in the Index under C for Churchill. (That’s right, no mention of Churchill.)

    It’s not so much that the story was made up. It’s that it would be WONDERFUL if it were true, and so many Churchill scholars wanted it to be true that they dreamed it. But the scholars of Irving Berlin’s biolgraphies did not dream it.

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