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Monday, March 06, 2006

Hollywood Canteen Fact and Fiction

Just got out the old laser disc of Hollywood Canteen and looked at it
again. First of all, I found myself fast-forwarding through most of Dane Clark’s scenes. Did servicemen from Brooklyn behave like this in wartime? Even William Bendix at Paramount was less irritating ,though George Tobias runs Dane a close second in terms of tiresome Brooklyn shtick. Still, we love Hollywood Canteen. When it’s good, there’s nothing better. The air of total unreality is off to a good start
when we open on the G.I.s catching a 35mm (!) screening of The Hard Way in a jungle clearing. The boys are quietly reverent when they see girl-next-door Joan Leslie on the screen --- not like actual camp screenings where the soldiers were often as not hurling profanity-laced epithets toward the players and giving the horse-laugh to phony heroics being staged (at one such unspooling of So Proudly We Hail, Veronica Lake packs a grenade into her shirt and walks into a group of Japanese soldiers, blowing the whole crowd, including herself, to smithereens -- it was at this point that one wag in the audience yelled, “Hey! I know which part I want!”). Anyway, "Slim" (nicely played by comparative newcomer Robert Hutton) falls for Joan, and from there it’s off to Hollywood for he and pal Clark, both of whom have received the kind of battle wounds that only involve a sling and/or slight limp, but don’t really hurt or anything. Immediately upon arriving at the Canteen, Hutton unburdens himself to ultimate purveyor of show-biz brash Jack Carson, confessing his love for Joan with a line that, if nothing else, reveals his appalling naivete. “I feel that she’s really just like the girls back home at heart”. Jack right away lets Bette Davis in on the secret, and this is where essential absurdity of Hollywood Canteen begins to reveal itself. First off, all the stars are presented as one big joshing fraternity, everyone on a first-name basis. Since they’re for most part Warner players conscripted to be in this movie, that may not be too much of an exaggeration, but it raised the question in my mind --- Just how well did movie stars of that day know each other? Obviously, a lot of them worked together, but what about the rest? I remember reading that when they told Clark Gable that his Soldier Of Fortune leading lady would be Susan Hayward, he confessed to never having heard of the actress, and this was 1955, years after she achieved stardom. And speaking of Jack Carson, there is kinescoped opening-night footage from the 1954 A Star Is Born premiere where Donald Crisp is greeted by Master Of Ceremonies Jack with “Hiya, Donald, haven’t seen you since Bright Leaf!” It’s a great candid moment.

The story goes that Ann Sheridan was approached to play herself in Hollywood Canteen, that is to play what became the Joan Leslie part. Sheridan loudly declared that the whole idea of a movie star entering into a successful romantic relationship with a soldier was utter nonsense, and that she would never participate in such a lie. Now, if any of this is true, you have to credit Sheridan, because the love story presented here, between lonely soldier Robert Hutton and supposed real-life “Joan Leslie”, is so patently false, so utterly outlandish in every detail, that it’s no wonder audiences began to turn away from the movies not long after the war ended. To begin with, “Joan Leslie” (who was nineteen when this picture was made) is still living at home with her parents and a sister (played by Joan’s real-life sibling). The father is standard- issue patriarch Jonathan Hale, and it’s clearly indicated that he’s master of the house, even though Joan must surely be principal breadwinner. There’s even a scene where mother and father go in to prepare the evening meal for guest Robert Hutton, saying that for this special occasion, “We’ll give Joan the night off.” Respect for elders is the order of the day, even when you’ve hit it big in movies. The dishonesty is further compounded when Joan hesitates to invite Bob in after she discovers her parents have gone to the movies. “I don’t think they’d like it very well if they came home and found just the two of us in the house.” Such was pandering to Middle American family values. Topper to this is a train station farewell where Joan pledges that she’ll wait for Bob, just like Jennifer Jones promised her Bob in Since You Went Away. The wholly ridiculous conceit might almost work if she were playing a fictional movie star, but this is Joan Leslie as herself, and asking the audience to buy a finish like this is plain breathtaking in it’s audacity. That, of course, is only part of what makes Hollywood Canteen such a delight ---

The pressbook ad shown here will give you an idea of the cast --- those that got billing, at least. Others to be glimpsed include Diana Barrymore, Robert Shayne, Julie Bishop, John Dehner, Dick Erdman, James Flavin, Dorothy Malone, Mark Stevens, Ray Teal, and many more. The “Love Conquers All” feature is a misrepresentation of what actually happens in the movie, and you can’t help wondering how much false hope was raised among servicemen when they saw the “photographs which prove that even beautiful movie stars are not impervious to the American uniform”. We won’t comment on the “doughboy’s persistence” and “individualistic strategy” beyond speculating that all of this must have caused a good deal of hardship among actresses trying to get through their shifts at the real Hollywood Canteen. The mention of Bette Davis and her “toughest assignment” was actually on the level, as we understand B.D. found it near impossible to play herself on film. Maybe by 1944, she’d forgotten who the real Bette Davis even was. There's also a shot of forlorn Joan Crawford making the best of a bad situation as she waits for Mildred Pierce, and the resumption of her stardom, to roll around. She’s about the only big name in Hollywood Canteen who never interacts with other big names. This was her first appearance in a Warner Bros. picture. Of course, the whole story is built around the gimmick of Robert Hutton being the "millionth man" to walk through the doors of the Canteen. I located the still at the top of the real millionth man, First Sgt. E.W. Bell of Rising Star, Texas, who just happened to have received a Purple Heart in the South Pacific. His reception committee includes Lana Turner, Deanna Durbin, and Marlene Dietrich. The actual Hollywood Canteen was torn down in December 1966, due to rotting wood throughout, said officials. The hand and footprints on cement outside was promised to Janis Page, whose first movie Hollywood Canteen was.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

For sheer entertainment value, I always preferred "Thank Your Lucky Stars." Warners players singing and dancing, Eddie Cantor making fun of himself... Somehow, I can't see anything remotely like this happening now.

My father went to the Stage Door Canteen during WW II. Claude Raines served him coffee. Bette Davis didn't impress him or his buddies when they saw her -- not enough of a sex symbol!

7:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As for me, I cut most of these war-time films some slack.

Considering what I witnessed Sunday evening, the old Hollywood glamour is truly gone. The filmic deceits of the past at least did not even remotely approach the slime fest that was the 2006 Academy Awards™.

Let's give it up for Bing crooning "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp." Indeed.

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haven't seen this but it is on my list to do so. I too cut a lot of movies of the 30 and 40's some slack, most have unbelievable story lines or miraculous endings, or they seem to run of out time and everything is quickly brought to a happy conclusion. As long as it is entertaining that's all I want - simple pleasures.

8:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear John, Just ran across this piece -- I'm catching up with older posts I've never seen -- so you'll once again forgive me for issuing a little "family history": This is really a special piece for me which holds a lot of sentiment -- my grandfather, M.K.Jerome wrote several songs for the picture, and one of them, "Sweet Dreams Sweetheart" was nominated that year for best song. He also penned the opening theme song, sung by the Andrews Sisters, over the credits. (In both instances, Ted Koehler did the lyric, I believe). And finally, that clip you refer to at the film's opening from "The Hard Way"with Joan performing "Youth Must Have It's Fling" was also written by my grandfather for that film (He also appears in a "cameo" as "rehearsal pianst" in the scene with Gladys George). Actually, "The Hard Way" was one of my grandfathers' favorite assignments-- at least one of the few I ever heard him refer to on several occasions. Met Joan Leslie at a screening of it several years ago, here in Hollywood, and she talked very fondly of my grandfather -- they worked many times on several films at Warners. In closing this out as quickly -- and painlessly as possible -- not even I can make any kind of reasonable case for "Hollywood Canteen" as a movie -- we all know exactly what it was intended to be and what it is today. On the other hand, ANY MOVIE that has Peter Lorre and Sydney playing off their images certainly contains it's own special, unique value! P.S.: I agree with the gentleman at the top of the page whose father went to the Stage Door during the war -- Claude Rains was to me always much sexier than Miss Davis, with all due respect!

7:50 PM  

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