Between 1941 and 1945 as World War II engulfed the world most major studios in Hollywood demonstrated their patriotism by producing numerous flag-waving musicals in support of the troops and to raise money for the war effort. Warner Bros. was represented by This is the Army (1943), Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) and Hollywood Canteen (1944); Paramount served up Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Here Come the Waves (1944); Universal had a major hit with Buck Privates (1941) starring Abbott & Costello and The Andrew Sisters; 20th-Century-Fox unveiled the mind-warping visual excess of Busby Berkeley’s The Gangs All Here (1943) and MGM brought their signature gloss and glamor to Thousands Cheer (1943) and Anchors Aweigh (1945). But probably one of the biggest extravaganzas of all in terms of star cameos and musical guests was Stage Door Canteen (1943), released by United Artists.
More interesting as a time capsule than an example of great filmmaking, Stage Door Canteen (1943) provides a fascinating glimpse of the attitudes, fashions and general mood of the country during World War II. Set in the famous Stage Door Canteen in New York City which provided entertainment and social activities for servicemen prior to their embarkation for points unknown, this patriotic all-star rally is framed by a simple plot device: a female canteen worker who aspires to be an actress meets a visiting soldier who is quickly smitten with her. During the course of their rocky romance – most of which unfolds on the floor of the canteen – we are treated to a non-stop musical variety show interspersed with countless surprise guests among the canteen’s volunteer workers. The canteen concept was originally conceived by members of the entertainment industry during the turbulent days of World War II as a community service for America’s servicemen. The Hollywood Canteen in Los Angeles was created for soldiers shipping out for service from the West coast while the Stage Door Canteen in the Big Apple served military men sailing or flying out from the East coast. Designed as welcoming centers where servicemen could enjoy a good meal served by a celebrity, hear music from a popular band or orchestra, and dance with a famous actress, the canteens did their part to boost the morale of America’s fighting men. Often the last stateside face a soldier might see was a famous star or entertainer he met at the canteen. And Stage Door Canteen is a great snapshot of this unique soldiers’ club.
By today’s standards, the film is unashamedly sentimental, corny and relentlessly patriotic. The romance between the actress and the soldier isn’t very compelling and the performances by Cheryl Walker and William Terry are bland. On the other hand, the film does a great job of documenting the nightly atmosphere of the canteen; the excitement of the soldiers as they enter the club, the spontaneous interaction of men and women on the dance floor (dig that crazy jitterbugging couple!), the odd sight of a famous actor serving coffee or bussing tables.
Equally interesting is the way the film pays tribute to America’s war allies by staging various scenes with American soldiers interacting with their Russian, Chinese, Australian, and British counterparts. One of the more awkward sequences occurs when a group of Chinese fighter pilots are hoisted up on the shoulders of American soldiers and paraded through the canteen in a show of solidarity while the orchestra strikes up “The Chinese Fighting March” (every American orchestra knows it by heart, right?).
Just prior to this, we are witness to some comic bantering between the two groups that would now be condemned by the politically correct. For example, a U.S. serviceman says to the Chinese flyer, “Too bad we don’t have any chop suey for you Chinese boys, I reckon.” The Chinese pilot’s semi-sarcastic rebuttal is “I’m thinking of introducing chop suey to China when I get back as the latest American novelty.” And there are other unexpected but humorous culture clashes on the canteen floor.
The best reason to experience all 135 minutes of Stage Door Canteen is for the staggering number of celebrities and entertainers who are paraded across the screen during the course of the film. You’ll catch glimpses of Tallulah Bankhead, George Raft, Paul Muni, Broadway theater legends Katharine Cornell, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Merle Oberon, Dame May Whitty, Ed Wynn, Ralph Bellamy, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy.
But the genuine highlights include a very young Peggy Lee performing “Why Don’t You Do Right?” with Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, Ethel Waters singing “Quicksand” to the accompaniment of Count Basie and His Orchestra, rhumba king Xavier Cugat’s rendition of “She’s a Bombshell,” a classical music segment featuring violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin, Gypsy Rose Lee doing a stylish striptease and a brief cameo by Harpo Marx in pursuit of a terrified hostess.
There are plenty of memorably odd moments as well. Ethel Merman slams home a completely forgettable tune through the sheer force of her personality while Dame Judith Anderson makes an unlikely hostess, gamely trying to convince the boys that she really isn’t like that creepy Miss Danvers from Rebecca (1940).
Katharine Hepburn shows up toward the end to give a keep-a-stiff-upper-lip speech to our heartbroken heroine and there’s also a surprising “gay” moment between Franklin Pangborn and Johnny Weissmuller in the kitchen as they wash dishes. Weissmuller decides it’s too hot to work in his shirt and strips down, prompting Pangborn to glance at Weissmuller’s chest and then pound his own, imitating the famous Tarzan yell.
Stage Door Canteen was produced by Sol Lesser for United Artists and designed as a huge benefit show, with eighty-six and a half percent of the profits going to the American Theatre Wing to establish additional canteens across the U.S. Director Frank Borzage shot half the film in New York and half in Los Angeles in order to accommodate actors who were starring in Broadway productions.
The film’s premise was not particularly unique, however, and Warner Brothers produced two similar features – This is the Army (1943) and Hollywood Canteen (1944) – with all proceeds going to Army relief. It is also interesting to note that among the top ten box office hits of 1943, This is the Army took the number one spot and Stage Door Canteen was ranked number five. During the 1944 Oscar race, Stage Door Canteen received two Academy Award nominations – one for Best Music Score (by Freddie Rich) and one for Best Song, “We Mustn’t Say Goodbye” (by James V. Monaco and Al Dubin). However, Ray Heindorf’s score for This is the Army captured the award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture while “You’ll Never Know” from Hello, Frisco, Hello received the Oscar for Best Song.
At some point, Stage Door Canteen lost its copyright protection and became a public domain title which explains while there have been so many VHS and DVD copies of the film made available by different distribution companies over the years. It is also difficult to find the original 132 minute version; most available copies are the edited 93-minute TV version. And like most public domain films the print and sound quality of Stage Door Canteen is passable but it could look and sound so much better if someone were willing to fund a complete restoration. *This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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