|See You at the Canteen|
|Written by Chris Bamberger|
Part One of a Series
About 20 years ago I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the New Hampshire bank where I worked granted us Veteran's Day off. With the snow falling softly outside my windows, I set up the ironing board in my little Maine duplex and turned on the television.
One of the UHF channels (remember those?) was showing the 1943 movie Stage Door Canteen. Though they were "before my time" I had always loved the mood of 1940s movies, and was often reading books about the home front in World War II. Soon the film had my complete attention.
Part of the fun came from the numerous cameos of wonderful stage stars, including a glimpse of some I'd heard about, yet never seen, like the Lunts. But the film also had an unusual sense (for that time) of equality and respect amongst the nationalities and races of the canteen patrons. Though the story was mostly lightweight, the musical numbers were extraordinary, and I caught moments that revealed a warm spirit of pulling together to get through that war.
To this day, my favorite moments are Ray Bolger's astonishingly dexterous soldier dance, and the swinging of the often-overlooked Kay Kyser and his Orchestra with the catchy "A Rookie and His Rhythm".
Some years later I caught Hollywood Canteen (1944), about the west coast version of the star-studded haven for servicemen. Though nearly all of its stars were Warner Brothers contract players at the time, some—like Eddie Cantor and Joe E. Brown—were originally as famous for stage work as the denizens of the earlier movie. Playing a pivotal role in its equally feathery-but-sweet plot is Joan Leslie, a great favorite of mine from her roles in Yankee Doodle Dandy and the magical little movie The Sky's the Limit.
The films Stage Door Canteen and Hollywood Canteen are veritable trips in a time machine that give us a pretty good idea of what it was like to visit one of these establishments during World War II. Besides giving you some historical background on the two organizations, Port Halcyon would like to single out some of the performers that appear in these two cornucopias of talent and give you some background on their work and lives.
Each month we'll focus on a few performers from a given category—actors, actresses, comedians, bandleaders, dancers—and give you some insight on their careers and contributions to the war effort during the 1940s.
Though we tend to associate celebrity canteens and USO shows with World War II, the seeds for the Stage Door Canteen in New York were sown when the United States entered the First World War. Members of the Broadway theatre world, led by playwright Rachel Crothers, founded the American Theatre Wing, which is still in operation today.
Many performers and behind-the-scenes employees wished to help out with the war effort, so in 1917 the organization began the Stage Women's War Relief. In addition to establishing a canteen on Broadway, the group organized food and clothing drives, sold Liberty bonds, and sent entertainers overseas.
The American Theatre Wing again became active in 1939, as the need for war assistance for England became evident. This time the effort was referred to as the Allied Relief Fund.
Joining Crothers and her co-founders—actresses Josephine Hull and Minnie Dupree—was a new contingent, including musical comedy star Gertrude Lawrence, journalist and critic Brooks Atkinson, and Antoinette Perry, the actress and director who championed so many causes for the good of theatre people that the "Tony" award was named after her.
After the U.S. entered World War II, the Wing opened New York's Stage Door Canteen, one of their eight clubs for servicemen in the U.S. and overseas. Actresses Helen Hayes, Selena Royle (whom we see in the movie) and Jane Cowl became involved with the American Theatre Wing's new project. Theatrical producer Lee Shubert turned over his 44th Street Theatre to the organizers for the duration, and soon after the canteen opened there were thousands of soldiers visiting every night to enjoy the hospitality of its famous employees.
Los Angeles and environs was a prime embarkation point for soldiers, sailors and marines headed for the Pacific. Actor John Garfield's first devotion was to Broadway theatre, and perhaps the New York canteen was part of his inspiration in founding the Hollywood Canteen. He had become a big star at Warner Brothers by the time he asked Bette Davis to help him run it.
They organized a massive effort, making over an old nightclub at Cahuenga Blvd. near Sunset that once had been a horse barn. Studio carpenters, craftsmen and artists helped them rejuvenate the dilapidated space into a cheerful spot.
Though Garfield considered Davis president, and he vice-president, of the canteen organization, she always credited him as the partner more important to its success. Both stars worked extremely hard, not only to book their colleagues at Warner Brothers and from other studios to appear at the nightspot, but at everything else that needed to be done—dishwashing, waiting tables, or introducing the acts.
Garfield had been rejected for military service because of heart trouble, and wanted to do his part. Bette felt useless and trivial making pictures with a war pulling the world down around her ears, and leant her boundless energy to the project.
The Canteen Movies
In future installments I will tell you more about how the films Stage Door Canteen and Hollywood Canteen came to be produced and how they have been received by the public at various times, but for now let's look at some of the actors who appear in them.
Hollywood Canteen is one of the few films in which John Garfield plays a cheerful, friendly character—he usually portrayed a cynical sort, on the wrong side of the law. Like Bogart and Cagney he was an early example of rebellious and unlikely hero, but he also had a streak of uneasy tenderness that made him something of a forerunner of Brando and Dean. In his most famous roles—Body and Soul and The Postman Always Rings Twice—he played a troubled, not entirely virtuous man, but the humanity that had been suppressed along the way was somehow in evidence.
Sadly, Garfield's promising career was cut short by the blacklist in Hollywood following the first wave of House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the late 1940s, and he died of a heart attack at age 39.
Until I had a chance to see the movie version of The Guardsman (1931), my only real knowledge of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne was their brief appearance in Stage Door Canteen. In J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caufield scorns them and their admirers, who from his point of view are snobbish sheep.
Lunt and Fontanne were famed for a stage acting style at once elegant and natural. Their speeches overlapped a bit (too self-consciously, Holden complained), and neither actor minded turning his back to the audience if it enhanced the dialogue scene.
Though Lunt sometimes comes across as annoyingly fey, his wife tempers it with a kind of refusal to take him too seriously. Their banter in Stage Door Canteen sums up their spark together. As she makes sandwiches and he teases her about her numerous soldier admirers, a young man asks Lunt if he is "Alfred Fontanne." Lynn is so tickled that she presents the soldier with two sandwiches. This humorous indication of their secure marriage was reminiscent of their manner in The Guardsman, which they developed while appearing in the stage version in 1924.
The Guardsman is a diabolically clever sex farce about a Broadway actor who tests his actress wife's fidelity by posing as a Russian guard and wooing her. Fontanne's acting is so subtle that it is never clear whether she's on to the ruse, or genuinely tempted. We also get a chance in the movie to see the actors playing roles in Elizabeth the Queen—another play in which the Lunts actually appeared.
Unfortunately The Guardsman is our only chance to see them star together in a sound film. Despite its resounding success and Hollywood's invitations, they never thereafter made another feature.
In real life the famed theatrical pair worked tirelessly in the New York canteen. Lunt was considered "the chief cook and bottle washer of the American Theatre Wing," according to critic Alexander Woollcott, and was so often the emptier of the garbage cans that actress Katharine Cornell declared him to be "the only man who succeeded in putting glamour into garbage." Indeed, there is a comical allusion to this duty in the film.
Alfred Lunt was an excellent gourmet cook who not only procured food from area restaurants and stores for the soldiers, but gave cooking classes (six lessons for $10) for aspiring canteen workers.
When Irving Berlin's wartime revue This is the Army opened, Berlin was concerned that Lunt and Fontanne might be offended by a parody of their canteen work in one of the show's sketches. But Lynn Fontanne assured him that not only did they not mind, they had never been so honored in their lives.
Allen Jenkins shows up in the second tier of "name actors" in the opening credits of Stage Door Canteen, and makes only a few appearances as an emcee in the film, but he's one of those character actors for whom I've always had a soft spot. He frequently played somewhat dopey blue collar roles—the cabbie, the cop, the garbage collector. But there were layers to his portrayals—he could communicate the complexity of a likable gangster or an uneducated bright person.
One of those guys whose name you seldom recall, but whom you know by his face the moment you spot him, Jenkins most often sports a somewhat droopy deadpan expression. He played comic roles in movies like 42nd Street, Destry Rides Again, and Pillow Talk. But in a serious role, like Humphrey Bogart's loyal henchman in Dead End, or Barney in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, he sometimes processes alarming information with a kind of Robert Mitchum-like squint of cool.
It is especially startling to see Jenkins' performance in Dead End. The character he plays, Hunk, is faithfully protective of Baby Face Martin (Bogart), even when Martin treats him harshly. He takes it with equanimity for the most part—he understands what made Martin what he is, and that there is still enough good in the man to make him worth caring about. Allen Jenkins has few lines in the movie, and yet he communicates all that.
Jenkins studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and had several roles on Broadway before he went to Hollywood. He seems right at home in Stage Door Canteen—he is a very capable emcee with that friendly Irish swagger and Brooklyn accent.
He introduces Count Basie and his Orchestra and the inimitable Ethel Waters, and the way he prepares the crowd for an appearance by Gypsy Rose Lee is downright eloquent! Not long before Stage Door Canteen was released, Jenkins was back on Broadway to appear with Ethel Merman in Something for the Boys, a musical with a light-hearted home front theme.
With the possible exception of Scarface, George Raft never had quite a significant enough film role to become an icon. He was, however, a Hollywood figure whose onscreen roles seemed drawn from real life.
His unique presence and his associations with true gangsters and glamorous women made his memorable movie persona and his life meld. In Some Like it Hot he spoofs his own image, but even in the comedy you sense something dead serious about his menace. He is almost the quintessential movie gangster. Lesser known is that Raft began as a dancer, speed-Charlestoning it up at Texas Guinan's famous speakeasy in the glittering New York of the 1920s. It was in clubs that he made his gangster acquaintances, of which he said, "If you were an entertainer on Broadway during those days you would have to be blind and lame not to associate with gangsters. Look, they owned the clubs."
But Raft was equally famous for consorting with sports figures. A former pro boxer himself, and a close friend of Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, he found a way to combine sports with his contribution to the war effort.
In Stage Door Canteen he washes dishes and chats with Bill Stern, a radio sports announcer, about boxing and baseball. The references are to George Raft's Cavalcade of Sports, a team of boxers who traveled to Army and Navy bases to put on bouts.
Henry Armstrong, whom Raft mentions in the film, was the only fighter in boxing history to hold three world titles simultaneously—featherweight, lightweight and welterweight. Raft asked him and ex-heavyweight Jim Jeffries to referee some boxing bouts for the troops—other times he did the honors himself. George Raft also appeared in European USO tours.
Dane Clark is the comical soldier-on-the-make in Hollywood Canteen, and as he feverishly seeks advice on how to sweep a woman off her feet, he consults with two of the most hearthrobbish dishwashers around, Donald Woods and Paul Henreid. The Trieste-born Henreid appears in two of the most representative films of the 1940s, playing roles with fascinating contrasts.
He will never be forgotten for his quiet anti-Nazi hero, Victor Lazlo, in Casablanca, but in that classic film, the cagier heroism of Bogart's Rick somewhat overshadows him. (I have often wished that he had been allowed to play Lazlo as a man more passionate toward his wife; it might have made her decisions even more agonizingly dramatic.)
But Henreid's greatest role is that of the married man who falls in love with Bette Davis's Charlotte Vale in the romantic Now, Voyager. Much is made of his trick of lighting two cigarettes in his mouth and then giving her one of them, but this film is more than a soapy idyll—it explores ethics and is probably the earliest compassionate portrayal of concern for mental health that I have ever seen.
Henreid is again heroic, but with human frailty. His character remains in a loveless marriage for the sake of his children, but falls desperately in love with a woman who is struggling to overcome her mother's domination of her life. The affair and its aftermath help her become stronger and more sure of herself.
In addition to poking fun at his romantic image in Hollywood Canteen, and helping out at the real thing, Henreid was part of the Hollywood Cavalcade War Bond Tour in September of 1943. During one of their stops he returned to his hotel room, and had just begun to undress when he heard some muffled giggles. Under the bed he found two young female fans who had managed to sneak by the military police that guarded the floor against just such incursions. Henreid scolded them and asked the MPs to escort them out—but not before he had given each of them a signed photo.
Next Month: The Dancers
That's our look at some of the great actors whose limelight has dimmed over the years, but whose contributions to their art and the war effort will never be forgotten. Be sure to check back for the next segment, a look at the dancing stars who appeared in the two Canteen movies.