Dancing at the Canteen
Written by Chris Bamberger   

Part 2 in a series

Servicemen line up for dancing  at the Hollywood CanteenThe movies Stage Door Canteen and Hollywood Canteen are permeated with dancing, just as were the World War II establishments they portray. In addition to talking with soldiers to help them feel less homesick, and serving them sandwiches and Cokes, the young women hired as canteen hostesses were expected to dance with soldiers. In those days of wearing pretty, high-heeled shoes for job-hunts, shopping, and dancing, many a gal complained (as Patty Andrews sings in Hollywood Canteen) that she was "getting corns for her country."

Both canteen films offer an abundance of swing orchestras, and numerous onscreen dancers appreciate their music, including the exuberant Lindy hoppers who appear with Kay Kyser's band. Perhaps because dancing is so omnipresent among the offstage denizens, not many dance performers are showcased in the two films. But to paraphrase Spencer Tracy, those who do appear are "cherce." Let's take a look at the professional dancers who entertain the troops in our two movies.

The Dancers

Ray Bolger

Ray BolgerThe wonderful thing about Ray Bolger's appearance in Stage Door Canteen is that you really get to see his tap expertise and sheer stamina as a dancer, yet still appreciate how exceedingly funny he was. Best known as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, Bolger was an established vaudeville and Broadway star by the time he first made an impression on the movie public in the 1930s. During the next two decades he made a few highly successful returns to Broadway (By Jupiter, Where's Charley?), while appearing in about 20 motion pictures.

A slim, gangly fellow with a gaunt face and eccentric hoofing style, Bolger was usually cast as a comic second lead in movies. After appearing onstage with Bert Lahr in the musical comedy Life Begins at 8:40, he starred in the Broadway production of Richard Rodgers' and Lorenz Hart's On Your Toes in 1936.

Bolger was a sensation in the role of Junior Dolan, the music professor and dancer who finds himself mixed up with Russian ballet dancers and gangsters. He stopped the show with his character dancing in George Balanchine's jazz ballet Slaughter on 10th Avenue. (To see Gene Kelly's campy, sexy adaptation of the theme and music, see the Rodgers and Hart biopic Words and Music).

In Stage Door Canteen, Bolger is again delivering a Rodgers and Hart song—in fact, the last one the team wrote together—as he sings the clever lyric of "The Girl I Love to Leave Behind". The setup for his performance comprises a couple of bumptious encounters with a tough Marine (George Mathews), with whom Ray pretends a threatening air. When he finally orders the soldier to "Take off that coat!" one fears for his safety—tall Ray may be, but the leatherneck is decidedly a more massive guy.

The Scarecrow in The Wizard of OzBut the dancer is merely donning the coat as his costume for a lively spoof of a soldier's experience with rifle drills. Bolger's facial expressions and manner here make the routine funny even to a civilian, so I can only imagine how endearing it must have been to young men who actually had had orders barked at them while they wearily wielded heavy gunstocks.

A bugle call provides his cue for a military drumming rhythm that Bolger executes with his feet, displaying a dance style we didn't see him use as the Scarecrow (though it still retains its eccentric quality)—loose and limber action with his long legs while he keeps his upper body in stiff soldierly posture.

Handing off the gun, he engages with his entire figure, executing a vigorous tap dance with intricate syncopation—all the more remarkable when one notices in how few shots the number was filmed. As he winds it up and brings the humorous bit with the Marine back into it, he's got you in the palm of his hand. And what a smile!

In addition to his frequent aid at the real Stage Door Canteen, Ray Bolger traveled to the South Pacific with the USO in 1941 and was famous for his fund-raising prowess during a number of bond tours across the United States. Look for him in these other film musicals—Rosalie, The Harvey Girls, Look for the Silver Lining, Where's Charley? and April in Paris.

Joan McCracken

Joan McCrackenIt is perhaps ironic that one of our few chances to see stage performer Joan McCracken is her frenetic performance in Hollywood Canteen, because she was not thrilled with the movie itself (her film debut) nor with the dance director of the number, LeRoy Prinz.

Part of her objection was the exaggerated "bumpkin" quality of the role, mis-inspired no doubt by her famous turn—or, more accurately, by her famous "fall"—in the long-running Broadway hit Oklahoma. After a comic bit during Agnes DeMille's Many a New Day ballet, the talented ballet and jazz dancer became known as "The Girl Who Falls Down."

In Hollywood Canteen's "Ballet in Jive", conceived as a spoof of the jitterbug craze, she skitters about goofily and was apparently directed to mug quite a bit. In addition she is dressed in a ridiculous and demeaning costume, but she still manages to combine sophisticated (and unbelievably energetic) balletic ability with vibrant modern moves.

I first took notice of Joan McCracken while watching the colorful MGM remake of Good News, which—like the original 1930 film—was based on a hit Broadway musical of 1927. Set on a college campus in the days of the co-educational student—and let's face it, the implication of the word "co-ed" was pretty much "female interloper!"—this DeSylva-Brown-Henderson opus was fluff, but so fun and high-spirited that its lack of plot was forgivable. I found the heroine's saucy sidekick (McCracken) more appealing than the heroine (June Allyson), and after watching her gracefully tear up the floor in the number "Pass That Peace Pipe", I was thoroughly enamored of the short-legged, beautiful pixie Joan McCracken.

By coincidence, during both these dance numbers McCracken happily consumes some ice cream—a symbol of the little-girl quality she often exuded (and ultimately grew tired of, as it caused her to be typecast and perhaps not taken seriously as an actress).

Alas, these were to be Joan's only two feature film appearances. Although she did some television work, it was primarily in a non-dancing capacity, and only those fortunate enough to have seen her on the stage witnessed most of her greatest achievements.

McCracken had dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a dancer. Nonetheless, for all her childlike demeanor, she was exceptionally well read and interested in art, and became a close friend of Truman Capote and other writers and artists. (Capote in effect became her ex-husband's second spouse.) Cognizant of a dancer's short professional life, she even studied at the Actors Studio and won high praise for a few dramatic roles onstage and on television. She was a diabetic diagnosed at the age of 20, and the disease combined with a heart ailment to claim her life in 1961. She was 44.

Interestingly, Joan McCracken felt that the storyline of Hollywood Canteen was somewhat demeaning to soldiers, portraying them as naive and dopey in comparison to the sophisticated stars who sometimes seemed to be so nobly deigning to entertain them. As both her brother and then-husband Jack Dunphy (in the 1950s Joan would marry a struggling young dancer named Bob Fosse) were both fighting overseas at the time, this was understandable.

To read more about Joan, check out The Girl Who Fell Down, a thoroughly researched and entertaining biography written by Lisa Jo Sagolla.

Rosario and Antonio

Rosario and AntonioSpanish dancers Rosario and Antonio began working together as children, originally appearing in public at the Liege Exposition in Belgium in 1928, when Rosario was 10 and Antonio was only seven years old! As international performers they were called "Los Chavalillos Sevillanos" by Spaniards and Latin Americans and—after their U.S. debut in 1940—"The Kids from Seville" by North Americans.

Antonio Ruiz Soler (sometimes his movie credit is given as Antonio Lopez) went on to become a celebrated star of the Andalusian Gypsy style of dance known as flamenco. After he and Rosario went their separate ways in 1952, he formed a dance company and went on to choreograph numerous works, combining folkloric with classical and modern flamenco styles, and ultimately becoming the director of the National Ballet de Espana.

Rosario was born Florencia Perez Padilla in Seville. During her long partnership with Antonio, she performed in Portugal and Andalucia, for exiles in France during the Spanish Civil War, and in Buenos Aires with Carmen Amaya's dance troupe. Antonio and Rosario developed solos to add to their repertoire after the Amaya troupe went on tour, becoming the headliners at Buenos Aires' Teatro Maravillas. They then moved on to Mexico, Cuba, and a stint at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.

The Kids from SevilleThe dancers appeared at Carnegie Hall and even recorded a collection of Songs and Dances of Andalucia for Decca Records in 1942.

Rosario created dances too, including a series to the coplas of the poet Garcia Lorca. Not long before her professional separation from Antonio, Rosario made a film with him in Madrid and also danced "El Puerto" from the Suite Iberia by Albeniz. Her own experience as a manager of dance groups was a bit rockier than Antonio's, but she continued to perform around the world, reuniting from time to time with her former partner.

Rosario's and Antonio's great talents as choreographers and dancers are in evidence in the fiery precision of the dance they perform with Carmen Cavallaro and his Orchestra in Hollywood Canteen. Beating impossibly fast rhythms with their heels and toes and striking dramatic attitudes, they gaze at each other intensely and prove that the formal and disciplined flamenco is at the same time an incredibly sensual dance. At times he seems like a proud matador moving swiftly aside to make way for her advances, though her swirling grace scarcely brings to mind a bull!

In addition to Hollywood Canteen, the film credits of Rosario and Antonio include Ziegfeld Girl, Sing Another Chorus, and Pan-Americana.

Next Month: The Bands

We could hardly have dancers, either on stage or on the canteen dance floor, without the musicians that made the joint jump. Meet us here next month for the lowdown on the plentiful swing orchestras to be heard and seen in our two Canteen movies.



 

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