Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hollywood Canteen

Wish fulfillment 1940s style is at its peak in “Hollywood Canteen” (1944). Movie stars are just regular folk, eager and helpful to entertain the soldiers at the Canteen, and it’s possible, just possible, that a Marine corporal could meet the movie star actress of his dreams and have her fall in love with him.

Writer-director Delmer Daves lays on the corn a little too thick here for my taste, but it’s not detrimental to the film. It must have pleased his bosses at Warner Bros. however, as the film is a love letter to the studio’s stars, and it became one of the highest grossing films of 1944.

Joan Leslie plays herself, or an idealized version of herself, who is the object of rapt adoration of Marine Corporal “Slim” Greene (Robert Hutton). Recovering from wounds, he is on leave in Hollywood and wants to see movie stars. A friendly short-order cook recommends the Hollywood Canteen, open only to servicemen, where he can see all the movie stars he wants.

The Canteen was a real place, founded by Bette Davis and John Garfield, where members of the armed forces could enjoy a meal, hear live bands and mingle with movie stars, all without costing them a penny. All the studios backed the idea, and many of Hollywood’s top stars could be found dancing with the troops, chatting with them about their girls back home, or serving coffee and donuts.

The movie “Hollywood Canteen” celebrates the place, but since this is a Warner Bros. movie, the stars Slim and his pal, Sgt. Nowland (Dane Clark) meet are mainly Warners stars. That’s too bad. Having stars from other studios sharing screen time would have made it a star gazers delight. We do get musical numbers from non-Warners stars The Andrews Sisters (Universal) and Roy Rogers and Trigger (Republic Pictures), but that’s about it. Oh, and Kitty Carlisle sings a reprise of “Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart” in the film, introduced by Joan Leslie earlier in the film.

I’ve often wondered why Rogers and the Andrews Sisters appeared in the film, but stars from other studios didn’t. I wonder if the Andrews Sisters performed so often at the Canteen that it was a natural they should be in the movie. Rogers sings the Cole Porter song “Don’t Fence Me In” which is later reprised by the Andrews Sisters. Republic must have been thrilled to have one of its stars appear in a Warner Bros. movie. I wonder what those negotiations were like?

There’s much to enjoy in the film, music-wise. Dennis Morgan and Joe E. Brown perform “You Can Always Tell A Yank”, a rousing number and Carmen Cavallaro and his band play “Voodoo Moon.” Jimmy Dorsey and his band play a few numbers as well. Classical violinist Joseph Szigeti does a duet with the “noted American violinist” Jack Benny, who is chagrined that Szigeti does not know “Love in Bloomioso.”

Warner Bros. stars are portrayed as pretty swell types. When it’s learned Slim has a crush on Joan Leslie, Bette Davis, John Garfield and Jane Wyman conspire a plan for her to give him a special kiss. Later, when Slim becomes the Millionth Man to enter the Canteen, he is practically given the key to the city, as well as the chance to have any actress in town as his date for the weekend. Naturally he chooses Joan Leslie. (I would have picked Rita Hayworth, but with my luck I would have been the Millionth and One Man).

I think the film would have worked much better if Joan Leslie played a fictional actress, and not herself. Dramatically it would have worked better. Here, it’s kind of odd and off-putting. Slim goes to Joan’s house to pick her up and he meets her parents. Dad is played by Jonathan Hale (Mr. Dithers in the Blondie movies). All moviegoers knew who Jonathan Hale was, so all pretense of this really being Joan Leslie is thrown out the window.

Hutton and Leslie do play well together – indeed they could not be more All-American – but I wish she had played a fictional, up-and-coming actress. After all, Janis Paige doesn’t play herself, but Angela, a studio messenger who catches the eye of Sgt. Nowland.

I always enjoy Golden Age movies set in Hollywood and we get to see the backlots of the studios, and “Hollywood Canteen” is no exception. Naturally Warner Bros. gets to show off their backlot, and its here we get to a musical number that stops the show dead in its track, a dreadful number called “Ballet in June” performed by Joan McCracken and company. We do get to meet dance director LeRoy Prinz, and I was amused to note that he somewhat resembles Busby Berkeley. Prinz routines were often the bane of Warners musicals (“Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942) being the exception), and “Ballet in June” does nothing to dispel that notion.

Enough carping. There’s other good comedy on display here, notably Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet lampooning their sinister screen images. Their scene together is one of the highlights of the film.

As can be seen by the still above, we have, left to right, Jack Carson, Jane Wyman, John Garfield and Bette Davis signing autographs and visiting with the men. Was it like this every night? Probably not. I don’t doubt that many stars put in many hours at the Hollywood Canteen – and its East Coast counterpart the Stage Door Canteen, also the subject of a movie a year earlier – but this film posits that the place was crawling with stars every night of the year.

My dad served in the Navy in World War II and visited the Hollywood Canteen on leave one night. He didn’t remember the band that was performing there – odd, as his memory for such details was remarkable – and that night there were no stars there. He did remember getting served coffee and donuts by an exceptionally pretty girl there. After the war he went to the theater and saw “Holiday in Mexico” (1946), an M-G-M musical, and noticed one of the cast members. He remembered her as the girl who waited on him at the Canteen.

She turned out to be Linda Christian, probably best known today as the second Mrs. Tyrone Power. She had a short-lived acting career. I remember her fondly from the gloriously absurd “Tarzan and the Mermaids” (1948). It was Johnny Weissmuller’s last appearance as the Ape Man, and boasts a grand Dimitri Tiomkin score, beautiful on-location photography in Mexico and George Zucco as a high priest of a pagan cult. Co-starring in a movie where George Zucco plays a high priest trumps appearing in a Best Picture winner anytime, but that’s just my opinion.

Rating for “Hollywood Canteen”: Three stars.

1 comment:

Dees Stribling said...

I think I saw Tarzan and the Mermaids as a kid, on TV. Or maybe I just wish I had, looking at Linda Christian in that photo.