Friday, July 9, 2010
Visit the 'Hollywood Canteen'
In 1944, the second canteen movie was released. And like its predecessor, "Hollywood Canteen" was a box office hit that landed in the top five-grossing movies of the year.
Its simple mix of movie stars, romance and wartime morale boosting portrayed within a giant variety show works nicely as a light, entertaining film. And, in a way, it pays tribute to the power of film during this time and the important role that movie stars played.
The real Hollywood Canteen was modeled after the successful Stage Door Canteen. Bette Davis and John Garfield, both under contract at Warner Brothers, were the driving force for creating it. And from 1942 to Thanksgiving 1945, the canteen served millions of armed forces personnel who needed only their uniforms to gain entry. Everything else was free, and Hollywood talent -- both in front of the camera and behind it -- worked side by side serving the patrons.
It was inevitable that Warners would make a film of the successful establishment, although it took some time as there was some wrangling over how to pay stars for their brief appearances in the film -- particularly non-Warners talent!
The story is simple. Corporal Slim Green (Robert Hutton, cousin of Woolworth heiress Betty Hutton) and his buddy, Sgt. Nowland (Dane Clark), have returned from the Pacific and are on a brief leave in Hollywood. Slim and Nowland want to see some stars, and Slim goes to the Hollywood Canteen, hoping to catch a glimpse of his favorite, Joan Leslie.
Davis and Garfield -- playing themselves -- are impressed by the fresh-faced Slim and arrange for him to meet Leslie and give her a kiss. When Slim and Nowland return the next night, Slim is the one millionth guest, and he wins a date with anyone of his choosing. Of course, he selects Leslie, and a mini-romance blossoms between them (above).
And mixed into this simple plot are tons of stars and recording acts. Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra play a great number; Roy Rogers and Trigger make an appearance and he sings "Don't Fence Me In"; The Andrews Sisters sing their version of "Don't Fence Me In" (below) which, as a recording with Bing Crosby, was the number one song in the country when this film was released; Carmen Cavallaro and His Orchestra get a chance to shine; violinist Joseph Szigeti and Jack Benny have some fun with their dueling violins; and appearances by Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Jack Carson, Jane Wyman, Eleanor Parker, Joe E. Brown, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet (who has an amusing bit with Lorre) and Eddie Cantor, singing "We're Having a Baby," which was immortalized on TV by Desi Arnaz. Even Joan Leslie's sister is played by her real sister, Betty Brodel. And both Leslie and, at the end, Kitty Carlisle sing the lovely, Oscar-nominated "Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart."
I was charmed by this film in many ways. For one thing, this is a film that realizes it's not going to be great art. The plot incorporates what far-away soldiers were probably dreaming about: a date with a star, a home-cooked meal, a tour of a movie studio. Its focus is simple, the star sightings are many and major, and the various numbers are engaging. If anything, there's one too many numbers, including a crazy dance piece featuring Joan McCracken that feels like something experimental that Gene Kelly would have done in the 1950s. And yet seeing the Andrews Sisters perform one of their major hits in this age before YouTube and television is a real treat.
Second, this movie celebrates the impact of movies and stars on society at that time. I remember my dad, who was in the Navy during World War II, telling me about the movies they watched, with one of his favorite stars being the #1 pinup girl of the war, Betty Grable. And when you watch Grable's movies today, they may not be brilliant but they are fun, and they did exactly what was needed at that time -- entertain audiences and boost morale. So it makes sense that "Hollywood Canteen" opens with Slim and Nowland in the Pacific waiting for the latest Joan Leslie film to arrive. When it does, a makeshift screen is erected, and even in the pouring rain everyone is watching. While today's movie business spans the world, Hollywood's impact on the troops was so important during the war that the simple sighting of stars could make one believe just for a moment that they weren't in a foxhole or the jungle.
I have not seen "Stage Door Canteen," and it's interesting that "Stage Door's" writer, Delmer Daves, directed "Hollywood Canteen." Some may consider this movie cornball, but I enjoyed this little time capsule, an ode to a specific place in a this pre-TV/computer era when such simple entertainment was all that was needed.