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Joan Crawford danced with servicemen, the Andrews Sisters gathered corn for their country and Roy Rogers introduced a Cole Porter standard while Bette Davis presided in her most beatific performance. Hollywood Canteen (1944), a hodgepodge of music, comedy, romance and star cameos, was all part of Warner Bros.' contribution to the war effort. It was inspired by the actual club created to give servicemen in Los Angeles a home away from home, and one of the biggest charity events in Hollywood history.
It all started on Broadway, where the American Theatre Wing had opened the Stage Door Canteen to give military men passing through New York on their way to World War II a meal, a chance to meet a stage star, dance with a beautiful woman and mingle with some of the industry's greatest talents. The West Coast division sprang from a suggestion by Warner Bros. star John Garfield. According to Bette Davis in her autobiography, This 'N That, "Just after the start of World War II, in the Green Room, our dining room at Warner Bros., Johnny Garfield sat down at my table during lunch. He had been thinking about the thousands of servicemen who were passing through Hollywood without seeing any movie stars. Garfield said something ought to be done about it. I agreed, and then and there the idea for the Hollywood Canteen was born." Enlisting help from the film industry's 42 unions, Davis supervised the conversion of a former stable into a nightclub that opened October 5, 1942. She also got her agent, Jules Stein, to supervise the Canteen's finances and fundraising.
In addition to getting the studios to sponsor benefits for the organization, he got Warner Bros. to produce the all-star musical Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), giving their stars the chance to showcase their musical talents (Davis introduced the comedy song "They're Either Too Young or Too Old") and donate their $50,000 salaries to the Canteen. With the success of Stage Door Canteen the same year, a film about the West Coast version was a natural.
Warner's paid $250,000 for the rights to call the film Hollywood Canteen, then turned directing and writing chores over to Delmer Daves, who had written Stage Door Canteen before making his directing debut at Warner's with Destination Tokyo (1943). He crafted a romantic tale of a GI (Robert Hutton) who visits the Hollywood Canteen hoping to meet his favorite star, Joan Leslie (who played herself), leading to a brief wartime romance. The story was just a pretext for a series of musical numbers and star turns, with the stars donating their reduced salaries to the Canteen.
The flimsy storyline sans famous actors was all that might have made it to the screen had the Screen Actors Guild gotten its way. Concerned about plans for other all-star benefit films, the actors union refused to allow its members, particularly those without studio contracts, to accept the reduced salaries Warner's' was offering. They also claimed that Warner's and other studios were using charitable donations to pressure stars into cutting their fees for such films. Their actions brought production to a halt halfway through the shooting and inspired a lawsuit from Warner Bros. They finally settled their differences by agreeing to allow a union committee to decide future cases involving work on benefit films and setting freelance fees at one week's salary at the performer's usual rate. But though the film went back into production, the postponement had kept Warner's from using stars like Hedy Lamarr, who had devoted hours to the Canteen.
One visitor from another studio introduced the film's biggest song hit. Singing cowboy Roy Rogers, supported by his usual back-up group, the Sons of the Pioneers, and the Andrews Sisters, performed "Don't Fence Me In." The song was an uncharacteristic paean to the simple life from sophisticated composer Cole Porter. Actually, Porter had written the song a decade earlier, for Adios, Argentina, a musical at 20th Century-Fox that never got made. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters made the original recording, which went on to top the hit parade for eight weeks. Surprisingly, it was not nominated for a Best Song Oscar®. Hollywood Canteen's nominee in that category was "Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart," by Ted Koehler and M.K. Jerome. It lost to "Swingin' on a Star" from the year's top-grossing film and Best Picture Oscar®-winner, Going My Way. Other musical numbers featured in Hollywood Canteen include "Gettin' Corns for My Country" by The Andrews Sisters, "The General Jumped at Dawn" by the Golden Gate Quartet, and "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" by the Sons of the Pioneers.
Hollywood Canteen got only mixed reviews, but with its all-star cast and wartime appeal, it couldn't help but win at the box office. With a $4.1 million gross, it was the year's fifth most popular film. Forty percent of its considerable profits went to the Canteen itself. In fact, the Canteen did so well under Davis and Stein's management that it closed at war's end with $500,000 left in the bank. The money was used to create a foundation that continues to fund various projects for the armed forces. As for Bette Davis, she later said, "There are few accomplishments in my life that I am sincerely proud of. The Hollywood Canteen is one of them."
Producer: Alex Gottlieb
Director/Screenplay: Delmer Daves
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Art Direction: Leo Kuter, Casey Roberts
Music: Ray Heindorf
Cast: Robert Hutton (Slim), Dane Clark (Sergeant), Janis Paige (Angela), Jonathan Hale (Mr. Brodel), As Themselves: Joan Leslie, Andrews Sisters, Jack Benny, Joe E. Brown, Eddie Cantor, Kitty Carlisle, Jack Carson, Joan Crawford, Helmut Dantine, Bette Davis, Faye Emerson, John Garfield, Sydney Greenstreet, Alan Hale, Sr., Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Ida Lupino, Joan McCracken, Dennis Morgan, Eleanor Parker, Roy Rogers and Trigger, S.Z. Sakall, Alexis Smith, Zachary Scott, Barbara Stanwyck, Craig Stevens, Jane Wyman, Jimmy Dorsey and his Band, Carmen Caballero and his Orchestra, Sons of the Pioneers, Dorothy Malone, Chef Joseph Milani.
BW-124m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller