Hollywood Canteen (1944)

Synopsis:

In 1944, U.S. military personnel has the opportunity to meet popular celebrities at the Hollywood Canteen, where all soldiers get free food and entertainment.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“I’ll meet you there after the war… and we’ll unscrew all the bulbs!”

The Hollywood Canteen opened on October 3, 1942, and closed on November 22, 1945. It was located on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood, California, and its main purpose was to offer entertainment to soldiers, free of charge. Actors Bette Davis (President) and John Garfield (Vice-President) were the masterminds behind the concept. Jules Stein, President of Music Corporation of America, served as financial advisor. Celebrities of the day assisted staff members with various duties — all celebrities donated their time.

Davis asked her boss, Jack L. Warner, to make a film about the Canteen. She also came up with the idea of donating a portion of the reported box-office revenue to the Canteen. Initially, the film was supposed to have the cooperation of all major Hollywood studios (Warners, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, etc.), but when that idea proved to be too complicated, Hollywood Canteen became the third of Warner Bros.’s popular flag-waving variety shows (the other two were Thank Your Lucky Stars and This Is the Army).

Director-writer Delmer Daves (Jubal and The Hanging Tree) was hired to write the screenplay, which was designed to showcase the talents of Warners’ top contract players. The flimsy storyline revolves around two soldiers (Robert Hutton, Destination Tokyo, and Dane Clark, A Stolen Life) who spend a few evenings at the Canteen before they are scheduled to go to the South Pacific. One of the soldiers has a crush on actress Joan Leslie (Yankee Doodle Dandy), who plays herself.

The incredible cast includes comedians Joe E. Brown (Some Like it Hot), Jack Benny (To Be or Not to Be) and Eddie Cantor (Kid Millions). Warners’ regulars appear as themselves: Peter Lorre (Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Sydney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon), Alan Hale (The Sea Hawk), Paul Henreid (Now, Voyager), Ida Lupino (The Hard Way), Eleanor Parker (Caged), S.Z. Sakall (Romance on the High Seas), Zachary Scott (Mildred Pierce), Alexis Smith (Gentleman Jim), Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas), Jane Wyman (Night and Day), Joan Crawford (Flamingo Road), and, of course, Davis and Garfield (Body and Soul).

The Andrews Sisters, Jimmy Dorsey, The Golden Gate Quartet, Roy Rogers (with Trigger), and Sons of the Pioneers, provide musical interludes. Actor Jack Carson (It’s a Great Feeling) sings “What Are You Doin’ the Rest of Your Life.” Actor Dennis Morgan (In This Our Life) sings “You Can Always Tell a Yank.” The title song is performed by The Andrews Sisters. The Oscar-nominated tune “Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart,” written by M. K. Jerome and Ted Koehler, is sung by Joan Leslie (dubbed by Sally Sweetland) and Chorus.

Actual photo of the Canteen

There is one important moment that needs to be singled out. The camera pans around revealing soldiers of various nationalities interacting together at the Canteen. These scenes don’t appear serendipitously. Interracial nightclubs were unheard of back then. Against the advice of many people in Hollywood, Davis insisted on desegregating the soldiers. According to writer Ed Sikov, author of Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, Davis’s unprecedented stand against segregation eventually caught the eye of the FBI and the bureau monitored her “subversive activities” for a while (?).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Hollywood Canteen is silly but never boring — stargazing can be a lot of fun! The film also serves as a fascinating document of Hollywood’s role in the war effort. In 1980, Davis was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the Defense Department’s highest civilian award, for creating the Canteen. B&W, 124 minutes, Not Rated.

2 responses to “Hollywood Canteen (1944)

  1. Sorry it’s taken me so long to comment. The Canteen with Bette’s influence was a great part of the WWII generation. I didn’t know she persuaded Warner Bros. to make a film about her volunteer work. Interesting post!

    Liked by 1 person

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