“Verna: U.S.O. Girl, a 90-minute film on PBS’S Great Performances series, happily ignores all the rules that plague made-for-TV movies. It is not an uplifting message drama about a trendy social or political issue. It is not a vehicle for TV stars seeking to plug an upcoming series or special. It is not a violent action spree or a self-congratulatory exercise in middlebrow culture. Verna: U.S.O. Girl is just a small story – - too small for a theatrical film but perfect for the tube — engagingly told by talented people. It can stand as a model for what made-for-TV movies could and should be.
The film is an adaptation of a Paul Gallico story about a fledgling song-and-dance woman (Sissy Spacek) who enlists in a second-rate U.S.O. troupe during World War II. A shy orphan with a sweet smile and no discernible talent, Verna fervently believes that a U.S.O. tour overseas will speed her way to superstardom. She even imagines that Rogers and Hammerstein will write her a musical after the war and promises her fellow troupers supporting roles. Though her pulpy fantasies of fame and fortune are ludicrously out of reach, her brave self-confidence wins over her battered G.I. audiences. The soldiers feel a kinship with the dauntless Verna because she, like them, is risking her life for the sake of an innocent American dream.
Written for the screen by Albert Innaurato (Gemini), one of the most gifted young U.S. playwrights, Verna is both a comic and a sorrowful account of a girl’s peculiar heroism. The humor can be found in Innaurato’s sassy dialogue, which gives new resonance to the lingo of the ’40′s movies, and in the many vintage U.S.O. routines that dot the film’s narrative. Underneath the surface wit is Innaurato’s portrait of Verna’s aching loneliness and cultural malaise. When Verna, for the sake of her nonexistent career, jilts an Army captain whom she loves, she ceases to be a colorful eccentric and becomes a tragic victim of her bankrupt, fan-magazine values. By the time the film reaches its ironic denouement, Innaurato’s nostalgic affection for Verna’s old-fashioned innocence has turned into pity.
The high quality of the script is matched by every aspect of the production. Despite his limited budget, Director Ronald F. Maxwell has not stinted on important details: he shot the war scenes on location in Europe and enlisted Broadway Choreographer Donald Saddler and Burlesque Comic Joey Faye to help create the vaudeville numbers. Maxwell’s casting is precise. Spacek, playing a spiritual sister of the lost souls she acted in Badlands and 3 Women, is diaphanously vulnerable, but also makes a fine clown in her off-pitch songs. William Hurt, her awkward military suitor, is sensitive and attractive in the scenes where he tries to shield Verna from the horrors of battle. The other members of the U.S.O. show, a fraying torch singer and a has-been Catskills comic, are performed with oldtime show-biz relish by Sally Kellerman and Howard da Silva. Verna’s troupe is the kind of company that gives the small screen the illusion of depth.”
Frank Rich, TIME MAGAZINE, January 30, 1978
“Filmed in military training areas in Hammelberg and Baumholder, Germany, by WNET N.Y. Producers Jac Venza and Ronald F. Maxwell; director, Maxwell; teleplay, Albert Innaurato based on a story by Paul Gallico; camera, Beda Batka; editor, David E. McKenn
Cast: Sissy Spacek, Howard da Silva, Sally Kellerman, William Hurt, Joseph Turin
Great Performances series looking backstage at performers goes fictional with Paul Gallico’s sentimental tale about an untalented singer-dancer hired by a desperate USO during World War II. Adapted effectively by Albert Innaurato, filmed realistically on location at military training areas in Germany, telefilm has been further sparked by appealing perfs. It’s a slim, touching story charmingly told.
Verna Vain’s the 1944 loser taken to Europe to entertain the servicemen with one of those heroic units that dragged into bivouacs, firing-line camps, and assembly areas — any place troops needed entertainment. It’s a nonstar bunch, and the three performers are more willing than able.
Eddie(Howard da Silva) is the self-confessed second-rate comic who holds the acts together. Maureen (Sally Kellerman) is the would-be chanteuse whose innocence belies her nonchalance.
Verna (Sissy Spacek) really can’t entertain troops, but she as such spirit and such ambition she’s sure of her talents — she is, she thinks, unique. “When you’re a star, you know: it’s that simple,” she explains.
Her chance at love comes with engineering captain Walter (William Hurt), but she’s committed to stardom with all the trappings. It’s a poignant story, directed with flair by co-producer Ronald F. Maxwell, and Spacek knows the vulnerability of Verna without making her weak — or foolish.
Kellerman, singing in a whisky baritone or dropping supposedly sophisticated comments, reflects that particular type of blasT attitude that WWII curtailed, if it didn’t kill it. And Hurt conveys farmboy Walter’s innocence and eagerness with telling conviction.
Da Silva proves the strong underpinning for the telefilm, and it’s a lovely, rich portrait of a kind man. His is the most difficult assignment, and da Silva brings it off well. Germany stands in well for Belgium, where the action takes place, and today’s soldiers do a good job of standing in as their forefathers’ representatives. There’s a sweetness in the telefilm, a tenderness that also may have died in WWII, and it’s good to observe its honest, lost innocence.”
VARIETY, January 25, 1978
“Cheers for the warm, entraining and tender Verna: U.S.O. Girl, a WNET-Thirteen Great Performances drama (PBS, Jan. 25, see local listings). It’s such a good story, so well produced, directed , and acted that it could be a successful theatrical feature. Producers Jac Venza and Ronald F. Maxwell effectively used German locations and, as director, Maxwell handles World War II battle scenes and intimate tete-a-tetes equally well. And his talent for comedy and drama is also strong. The amusing, nostalgic musical numbers were knowingly staged by Donald Saddler. Sissy Spacek is delicious as a big-hearted, no-talent singer and dancer who gives up marriage to a fine young Captain because of a nonexistent career. William Hurt is just right as the Captain; Howard da Silva shows talent to spare as a second-rate comic; Sally Kellerman comes through well as a singer who recognizes her limitations. Albert Innaurato’s script (from Paul Gallico’s wry and wise story) combines dream and reality in a delightful way. You’ll laugh at times, you’ll weep at times, and you’ll enjoy this lavish, ambitious undertaking (with a marvelously dramatic ending) from start to finish.”
Norma McLain Stoop, AFTER DARK, February, 1978
“By far the most glowing 90 minutes on television this week — and one that will be long remembered as a high point of this television season — is Verna: U.S.O. Girl, starring Sissy Spacek, Sally Kellerman, Howard da Silva and William Hurt. Adapted for television by Albert (Gemini) Innaurato from a short story by Paul Gallico and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, this glowing telefilm is a delicious bit of ’40′s nostalgia which does not demean the “what-was” genre at all. The time is World War II, and Verna (Sissy Spacek), a cute but hopelessly star-struck kid who can neither sing nor dance, looks upon a stint with a U.S.O tour as her big step to stardom. ” I’m unique,” she keeps telling her sidekick Maureen (Sally Kellerman) who can sing and dance, and frequently does.
But Verna’s clumsy innocence is endearing to the G.I.’s and the rest of the U.S.O. troupe. She falls in love with a handsome Army Captain (Hurt) but spurns his offer of marriage in order to continue her “career,” despite Kellerman’s advice to “forget the career and marry the guy.” Upon this fragile story, a major telefilm has emerged which strikes not only a nerve cord of responsiveness in the heart but also says a great deal about the often hopelessly out-of-perspective self-delusions with which we all sometimes view ourselves. Miss Spacek, something of a cross between Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, has never been better. Her emotional range overflows with a bubbling, nutty kind of energy which will make you fall in love with her on the spot. Miss Kellerman is also particularly good, mixing a worldly-wise, nervous exterior with a heart of gold interior. “She’s invented a new way to sing flat and dance clumsy,” says Maureen about Verna. And da Silva, as a second-rate vaudevillian who knows it and isn’t afraid to say so, is perfect. This silly, hysterical, adorable band of troupers will tear at your heart. And despite Innaurato’s Felliniesque ending, Verna: U.S.O. Girl is simply sensational any way you look at it, and the songs, from “I’ll Get By,” to “Jeepers, Creepers” to “Since You Went Away,” are all neatly melded into the production. Who says quality television can’t be enormously entertaining?”
Nicholas Yanni, WHAT’S SO SPECIAL?, 1978