Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Forgotten Films: Stage Door Canteen (A Classic Reprint)

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.


Anonymous said...

The one I remember is HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN, where Bette Davis sang "They're Either Too Young or Too Old."


Anonymous said...

And speaking of subtext, I still can't believe I'm the last person to learn that Raymond Burr was gay.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.


Ed Gorman said...

Very nice post, Bill. These are some of my earliest memories, too.

Bud said...

Great reminder post. I need to watch it again. Most movie stars and other celebrities apparently did a lot of this type of entertainment at the time.
My dad got to dance with Betty Grable before he shipped out for a rather rough time in the Philippines. He didn't talk about it much, but I could tell that it meant a lot to him.

Cap'n Bob said...

From what I've heard about Pangborn, that wasn't much of a stretch for him as an actor.