Thursday, December 10, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #48 (“They’ve taken the last of the canteens” edition)

This past Monday, Turner Classic Movies commemorated the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor with the Why We Fight documentary series directed by Frank Capra (with an assistance on many of the docs by Anatole Litvak) and while I didn’t get the opportunity to sit down and enjoy any of them (I did record them, often catching the beginning and tail ends of each) its patriotic wartime spirit put me in the mood to watch a pair of films made during that era to boost the morale of Americans and to reassure them they were fighting the good fight. Both of these movies were shown on TCM within the last few months so I don’t want to give you the impression they were on Monday night (though I think Stage Door Canteen was shown on Saturday morning)—perhaps I should have retitled this post as “Movies I’ve recorded recently on TCM.” Oh, well. I will warn you that there are spoilers ahead…though with these two films it’s not like you couldn’t guess where the plot was going anyway…

Stage Door Canteen (1943) – The titular non-profit establishment was created in New York as a recreational center for servicemen; a place where they could get free grub, dance with pretty women and be entertained by big-name celebrities who either performed at the Canteen or were working there (bussing tables, handing out sandwiches, sweeping out the jernt, etc.) This film—financed by the Theatre Guild—is a fictionalized account of the “typical” goings-on; amidst the background of star-studded folk “doing their bit” are a solider, “Dakota” Smith (William Terry) and an aspiring actress, Eileen Burke (Cheryl Walker), who fall in love with one another and though the rules of the house prohibit fraternization outside the Canteen (we don’t want folks thinking that loose women are working here!) , Eileen and Dakota plan to tie the knot in holy acrimony matrimony. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam has plans for Mr. Smith and he’s shipped out with his buddies “Texas” (Michael Harrison—better known to B-western fans as Sunset Carlson) and “California” (Lon McCallister) faster than you can sing Oh, Promise Me. Texas and California also leave a pair of women behind; a Southern belle named Ella Sue (Margaret Early) and girl-next-door Jean (Marjorie Riordan).

So much for the plot, which admittedly is so thin it has only one side. You’ll want to watch Stage for the (as my friend Hal Erickson calls it) “movie star salad”—there are more celebrities in this film than one can possibly count, many of them relegated to blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em walk-ons and cameos. Some of the participants get a bit more screen time than others: Edgar Bergen does a comedy routine with dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd (one of the film’s highlights…but I might be a tad biased); Gracie Fields sings a cheerful little ditty about shooting down “Jap planes”; Ray Bolger does an impressive tap dance number; Gypsy Rose Lee stripteases (well, as much as a feature film will allow) and George Jessel places a phone call to “Mama.” There are also songs from Ethels Merman and Waters, and a concert piece performed by violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin (“Who’s Yehudi?”)

Loads of great big bands in this movie as well—music from Kay Kyser, Guy Lombardo, Freddy Martin, Count Basie, Xavier Cugat (with Lina Romay but sans his trademark Chihuahua) and Benny Goodman (with Peggy Lee as vocalist). As for the star cameos it’d be easier to skate on over to the IMDb for an inventory of who’s in the film but a handful of notables (longtime TDOY faves) include Ed Wynn, Tallulah Bankhead, Harpo Marx, Paul Muni, Johnny Weissmuller (Johnny’s in the back on KP and he takes off his shirt because it’s too hot—much to Franklin Pangborn’s approval), William Demarest, Allen Jenkins, Tom Kennedy, Ned Sparks and Helen Hayes (she has a lovely scene in which a soldier asks her to dance because he wants to tell his kids he danced with “Queen Victoria”). Stage is also on record as the only film stage legend Katharine Cornell appears in (she hands out oranges and does a snippet from Romeo and Juliet) and stage personages like the famous husband-and-wife duo of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne are also in attendance. Speaking of Kate, Katharine Hepburn makes an appearance toward the end of the film—she tries to console Walker when she learns of her boyfriend’s departure but does so with all the finesse of a prison matron. The print shown on TCM was in better shape than I expected; it’s fallen into the public domain and has been released by a slew of companies on both VHS and DVD—some of which have issued heavily-edited versions.

Hollywood Canteen (1944) – Out on the West Coast, movie stars Bette Davis and John Garfield (and MCA president Jules Stein) were the movers and shakers behind the Hollywood Canteen—an answer to Broadway’s (though there was also a Stage Door Canteen in Philly) popular establishment for servicemen. And because Davis and Garfield toiled at Warner Bros., it seems only fitting that Warners came to release a theatrical film based on the recreational hangout—which also goes a long way toward explaining why everyone volunteering to help out in the film were also Warners contractees (didn’t anyone from M-G-M or Paramount ever lift a finger?). Hollywood’s plot is pretty similar to that of Stage’s—two servicemen, Corporal “Slim” Green (Robert Hutton) and Sergeant Nowland (Dane Clark), recuperating from injuries sustained in battle in the Philippines, pay the Canteen numerous visits while waiting to be shipped back out. Slim, a bashful youth, has quite a thing for actress Joan Leslie (there’s a clip from The Hard Way [1943] at the film’s beginning as he and Nowland watch with other soldiers) and during his first visit Bette and Julie arrange for Joan to show up to meet the young soldier and give him a kiss (Garfield works out a “winning number” scam that is extremely funny). Slim and Joan’s paths continue to cross throughout the film, particularly when Slim unwittingly becomes the 1,000,000 visitor to the Canteen (based on a real-life incident in which the one-millionth solider received a kiss from 20th Century-Fox’s Betty Grable) and “wins” the “services” of Joan for the weekend (oh, it’s all perfectly innocent—they just go out on a lot of dates and meet her parents, you dirty-minded people). Meanwhile, Nowland (I know I often refer to actor Clark as “the poor man’s John Garfield” but he’s more like “the poor man’s Leo Gorcey” in this one) keeps striking out with many of the Canteen stars (notably Ida Lupino and Joan Crawford) before taking up with a studio guide (Janis Paige). As in Stage, the good times must eventually come to an end (we’ve got a war to win, dammit) and Slim and Joan part company in a train station sequence that bears a strong resemblance to the one in Since You Went Away (1944).

Stage definitely has more celebrities, but Hollywood is the slicker of the two productions (Stage was an independent film produced by Sol Lesser, and released through United Artists) and as previously mentioned, rounds up everybody on the Warner lot…with the exceptions of Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn. Sheridan was originally tapped for Leslie’s role but she refused to do it—not because she wasn’t patriotic but because she thought the premise (soldier falls in love with ingénue starlet) was ludicrous. Still, she’s mentioned a couple of times in the film (as is Bogart); as to why Flynn is missing from the roster I’ve always speculated that the long-running animosity between him and Davis put the kibosh on that. But this is nit-picking; there are plenty of other WB celebrities present and accounted for: Jack Carson, Jane Wyman (Jane and Jack do a fun duet of What Are You Doin' the Rest of Your Life), Paul Henreid, Alan Hale, Eleanor Parker, S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Zachary Scott, Alexis Smith, Barbara Stanwyck and so many others.

Again, I’m always partial to the comedy routines in hodgepodge films like this; Joe E. Brown does a funny bit while eating a donut as Slim enters the Canteen the first time (Brown later sings with Dennis Morgan a tune called You Can Always Tell a Yank) and I love Eddie Cantor’s reaction to having been relieved of a piled-high tray of sandwiches from some hungry servicemen: “If only I could get rid of my daughters as fast!” (Cantor also sings a duet with Nora Martin on We're Having a Baby.) There’s some entertaining badinage between Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, an amusing violin duet between virtuoso Joseph Szigeti and some amateur named Jack Benny, and two versions of Don’t Fence Me In by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers and The Andrews Sisters. (I think the Andrews’ reprise of Don’t Fence Me In is a bit superfluous—even if they did wind up with the hit record, sung with Bing Crosby—and had it been me I would have cut it from the film; their warbling of the titular tune and Gettin' Corns for My Country are far more entertaining.)

Hollywood isn’t as big-band heavy as Stage—but they do have Jimmy Dorsey and his musical aggregation on hand, which is nothing to sneeze at; Carmen Cavallero and his orchestra are also in the film but to be honest I think the movie could have survived without his contribution, Voodoo Moon (which is danced by a couple billed Rosario & Antonio). I don’t recall Stage having any moments in which the musical numbers slow down the film but Hollywood is rife with them—again, had I been editor I would have snipped the Ballet in Jive sequence (which features Joan McCracken, the star of the stage version of Oklahoma! at the time). (I expect to hear from Pam about this any second now.)

As with Stage, the participants in Hollywood generously donated their salaries (even Jack Benny!) to worthy wartime causes, and while both films are enjoyable to watch I think I have to give Stage the slight edge in overall entertainment value. Hollywood got the last laugh, though—the film was nominated for three Oscars including Best Music, Original Song (Sweet Dreams Sweetheart) and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture—Stage received the same nominations the previous year but Hollywood also managed to get a nod for Best Sound Recording. Delmer Daves wrote both screenplays (as well as directing Hollywood; Frank Borzage was at the reins of Stage) which could be a clue as to why both films’ “plots” are so similar—there’s also a subtle link between the two films that you should keep an eye out for: William Terry, who plays the male lead in Stage also has a brief bit in Hollywood…as the sailor who misses becoming the Canteen’s 1,000,000th guest by changing his mind about going in at the last minute!

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Pam said...

The "Canteen" movies are fun. But the best, imho, is MGM's Two Girls and A Sailor (1944). Two sisters (June Allyson and Gloria DeHaven) start their very own canteen. Two Girls has the funniest performances. Jimmy Durante is drop-down, tears-streaming funny with Harry James in "Inka Dinka Doo". Gracie Allen's "Concerto for Index Finger" is a close second. I believe it is her last movie role. And while not major, certainly memorable.

Laura said...

TWO GIRLS AND A SAILOR is just about the favorite movie ever of my 14-year old daughter. I'm getting her the Warner Archive DVD for Christmas, although I find it very annoying that there are no chapter selections for the musical numbers. One almost might as well pick up a used video!

Enjoyed your discussion of the Canteen movies, Ivan!

Best wishes,