Saturday, December 17, 2005

Stage Door Canteen

Vince Keenan has some comments today about wartime propaganda movies, and by coincidence I watched Stage Door Canteen last night. Stage Door Canteen isn't your usual propaganda film. It's not about battles or courage under fire or any of that. It's the story of four soldiers and their last few days in the states before shipping out for the European theater in 1942 or so.

And of course it's also about the galaxy of stage and screen stars who perform or work at the canteen. There are far too many of them for me to name here. You need to click the link above, go to the IMDb and see for yourself. One great moment, however, just has to be mentioned. It's the scene where Johnny Weissmuller and Franklin Pangborn are in the kitchen washing dishes. Pangborn remarks about how hot it is, and Weissmuller removes his shirt. Pangborn shrieks, "What chest!" Then he does an imitation of Tarzan's ape call and swoons into Weissmuller's arms. Talk about your subtext!

Stage Door Canteen is truly a relic of another time, a past so distant that to a lot of people reading this it might as well be about the Trojan war as about WWII. It was a time when everyone was a patriot, a time when movie and Broadway stars not only supported a war but went out and mingled with the soldiers (sure the movie's romanticized, but there really was a Stage Door Canteen, and a Hollywood Canteen, too), a time when innocence wasn't just a word. (In fact, I think it would be almost impossible for a teenager today to watch the movie without laughing at a good-looking 18-year-old guy who's never kissed a girl and to whom a first kiss could mean so much.) It was a time when "The Lord's Prayer" could be sung to a group of men and women who would automatically stand at its first words and say "Amen" when it was done. It may not have been a better time, but it was beyond question a different time, and one that I'm old enough to remember. The plots and situations might seem sappy or corny now, and maybe they even seemed that way even 60 years ago, but by golly they're effective.

Some of the highlights for me were the antics of Kay Kyser, the "strip" by Gypsy Rose Lee, Benny Goodman's clarinet playing, Ray Bolger's dancing, and the great bit with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, which is why I recorded the movie in the first place. Great, great stuff, like opening a time capsule.


Kent Morgan said...

This made me track down my Charlie McCarthy spoon that I used to eat porridge (actually Red River Cereal, a hot cereal that was produced in Manitoba) with my grandfather every morning when I was small. I'm sure I have some Johnny Weismuller treasure lost in my basement and I've already misplaced the paperback copy of Tarzan that I recently found for 25 cents. Too much crap, not enough storage space.

Anonymous said...

I'm remembering that Jean Tierney also visited the Canteens, and that's apparently where a WAC fan got up out of her sick bed and went there to meet Tierney, who later contracted German Measles as a result and gave birth to a child with severe birth defects. Very sad story. And I have a sneaking suspicion Agatha Christie used it as the plot in The Mirror Cracked.

Mary Anne said...

I've got a real Hollywood Canteen story for you! After doing my 40's show for a group of seniors, a gentleman came up and told me this story. He was 18 and in LA with a friend walking around before they shipped out to the Pacific. Someone came up and asked them if they'd like to go to Shirley Temple's birthday party. They thought it was a joke, but went to the Hollywood Canteen that night anyway. Shirley Temple was indeed celebrating her birthday! And she celebrated by dancing with each and every serviceman there that night. She also asked for their addresses back home. Later he got a letter from his parents saying Shirley Temple had written them, saying she had danced with their son that night and he was doing fine!! Can you imagine one of today's stars going to such trouble?

Anonymous said...

Wasn't that the movie where Bette Davis sings (so to speak) "They're Either Too Young or Too Old"?


Marsdon said...

Bette Davis sings They're Either Too Young Or Too Old in Thank Your Lucky Stars, another one of the wartime musicals - and part of the Warner Bros. Homefront Collection, which also features Errol Flynn singing and dancing and Bette Davis doing the jitterbug (sort of). There are two other movies in this collection - This is the Army and Hollywood Canteen. The prints are beautiful and the sound is excellent, and each film also has short subjects and a cartoon. I picked up a remainder copy at Big Lots for four bucks - money well spent.

Stan Burns