The "Good 'Ole Days" at the Hollywood Canteen


Randomly channel surfing on a blissfully quiet evening as I attempted to escape from the current political mudslinging, I came across a movie on Turner Classic Movies, Hollywood Canteen, from 1944. Yes, the supposedly good ole days, America's greatest generation, depicted in Norman Rockwell pictures. The movie definitely evokes a show (in more ways than one) of unity, in its context, a unity of the free world against the dictatorships of Germany and Japan. 

Norman Rockwell pictures

Two soldiers on leave spend three nights at the Hollywood Canteen (an actual place founded by Bette Davis) before returning to active duty in the South Pacific. Slim Green (Robert Hutton) is the millionth G.I. to enjoy the Canteen, and consequently wins a date with starlet Joan Leslie. The other G.I., Sergeant Nolan (Dane Clark) gets to dance with Joan Crawford and in a really funny scene, faints when she tells him she doesn't just look like Joan Crawford, but is Joan herself. (At that time, Joan had left MGM and had signed on with Warners, where Betty was queen; she didn't like the scripts her new studio offered her, and bascially went on suspension, only making a cameo in this piece as part of her support for the war effort.) 
Joan Crawford dancing with soldier in Hollywood Canteen

Canteen founders Bette Davis and John Garfield give talks on the history of the Canteen. The soldiers enjoy a variety of musical numbers performed by a host of Hollywood stars, and also comedians, such as Jack Benny and his violin. Jack Benny actually does a “violin play off” against the really famous Hungarian violinist, Josef Szigeti. Soprano (later mezzo-soprano) Kitty Carlisle of Marx Brothers and later What's My Line fame sings Joan and Slim Green's theme song, “Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart.” 

Not much of a plot, but in the days before the 24/7 culture of celebrity, the parade of movie stars doing cameos seems unusual, but they do so not to build their own images, but to, like the country did at that time, present a united front during WWII. Looking back in retrospect, these were the days right before the Cold War hysteria, where Hollywood became the enemy, filled with Communists and Jews (pretty much stereotyped as being synonymous). 

A couple of other points that I found quite telling in retrospect. Eddie Cantor (he was Jewish, by the way) and Nora Martin sing “We're Having a Baby.” It takes Nora a while to tell Eddy she is pregnant (she can't say that word, of course). One can see that postwar baby boom essentially being advertised. The soldier will come home to a now stay-at-home wife in an apron and produce more little soldiers (as part of the banter, the possibility of a girl seems almost an afterthought). 

And those who make those babies are of course heterosexual. In this film, soldier boys Hutton and Clark are rewarded with girl kisses. In one scene, one of the comedians, whose name escapes me, jokingly kisses a sailor guy on the cheek. Of course, the sailor wipes off the cheek. It's a joke, of course. Boys don't kiss other boys. Boys are your pals. Hutton and Clark one could say are kind of in the bromance phase, but the separate twin beds and pajamas that could wake the dead in one scene reveal a world of male-male relationships far from today's sexually fluid, bi-curious bros. 

I also discovered that Bette Davis insisted the canteen be integrated, quite revolutionary for theat time period. In the movie, a quartet of African-Americans, The Golden Gate Quarter do a number (not as cringeworthy as some during that period), but they are an act, and they don't mingle with the guests and the movie stars. Still, the actual place was open to African-Americans and another significant ethnic minority in Los Angeles during that period, Filipino-Americans. 

Bette was always a risk-taker, and if she lacked Joan Crawford's glamour and charm, she never lacked for the sincerity of her convictions (which some people interpreted as abrasiveness). When she says at the end of the film that our hearts are with the soldiers, and that connection transcends, at least in that case, segregation, it isn't mawkish sentiment. She means it with certainty of Immanuel Kant's “starry heavens above and moral law within.” 

Bette Davis in Hollywood Canteen


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