Hollywood Canteen (1944)

Hollywood Canteen (1944)

Hollywood Canteen (1944). 124 minutes. Directed by Delmer Daves. Starring Robert Hutton (as Slim Green) and Dane Clark (as Sergeant Nolan). Also starring as themselves: The Andrews Sisters, Jack Benny, Joe E. Brown, Eddie Cantor, Kitty Carlisle, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Jimmy Dorsey, John Garfield, Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Henreid, Joan Leslie, Peter Lorre, Ida Lupino, Joan McCracken, Roy Rogers and Trigger, S. Z. Sakall, Barbara Stanwyck, and Jane Wyman.

Hollywood Canteen is a World War Two-era propaganda film that takes place in the real Hollywood Canteen, a wartime nightclub for G.I.s that operated from 1942 to 1945 and was staffed by Hollywood superstars. Inside the canteen, the most glamorous names in the film industry performed menial labor by preparing food, waiting tables, and cleaning up after guests, and provided entertainment on a main stage. The movie Hollywood Canteen offers us a glimpse of what a canteen guest’s experience might have been like while also promoting the war effort and the studio that produced the film, Warner Bros. It is a mediocre movie, but it is an interesting cultural artifact in at least one regard: unlike other World War Two propaganda that focuses on portraits of the troops, Hollywood Canteen centers on cameos of Warner Bros. stars—lots of them. As a result, it largely functions as Golden-Age eye candy that provides a surreal opportunity to see the great stars of the 1940s all assembled in one place.

The plot is minor and mainly exists to support the movie’s numerous vignettes with famous people. American G.I. Slim Green is stationed in the South Pacific with his friend Sergeant Nolan. Slim’s girlfriend has not written to him in over a year, and in the evening when the troops are shown a new Joan Leslie film, he is intrigued by the actress. While on leave in Los Angeles, Slim discovers the Hollywood Canteen, where none other than Leslie is working. Slim encounters stars on staff who serve the club attendees and watches musical acts on the center stage, emceed by canteen founders Bette Davis and John Garfield. The club arranges for Leslie to kiss Slim. The next night, Slim is the millionth patron at the canteen and wins a weekend with Leslie. The papers run false stories about the two being engaged, but it is clear they are developing feelings for each other. More performances and vignettes ensue at the canteen. Soon it is time for Slim to ship out, and he nearly misses saying goodbye to Leslie, but she meets him just as his train is departing and tells him she will see him again.

Hollywood Canteen is papered wall to wall with celebrities (including a large percentage of the cast of Casablanca)—many of them doing the unexpected and mundane, which I must admit was both surreal and delightful to see. We watch as Barbara Stanwyck serves up milk and sandwiches and Paul Henreid washes dishes. S. Z. Sakall is the doorman who lets guests squeeze his cheeks, and Joe E. Brown shows off his famously silly mouth by munching on a doughnut in front of the troops. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet creep out a G. I. by behaving according to type. We also get to see Nolan flirt in bad French with Ida Lupino, who speaks the language expertly, and dance with Joan Crawford. Sprinkled in with the actor cameos are musical interludes with more stars: Roy Rogers sings and does some dressage with his horse Trigger on the club floor, Jack Benny plays classical violin, and The Andrews Sisters sing in harmony.

Cameos, by their nature, offer only limited insight into the stars who appear in them. As a movie that primarily seeks to entertain through cameos and vignettes, Hollywood Canteen is stunted in this regard, but it also provides us with an opportunity to meditate on how cameos work. The Hollywood Canteen cameos tease us with glimpses of celebrities at work and in nature, promising us a measure of truth. But the cameos also generate protective distance between us and the rehearsed and groomed stars who are playing at playing themselves. The Lorre-Greenstreet encounter is a good example of this: Lorre reaches into his jacket for a cigarette at one point but looks as if he is pulling out a gun in a threatening move. He scares off his interlocutor, then turns to Greenstreet and wonders what the problem is. He is performing a version of his famous creepy persona, not appearing as the authentic Peter Lorre who at the movie’s end remains a private person, unencountered by us. The movie’s cameos are all contained within a performative world, much like the stage that the canteen world revolves around—although the stage performances are more clearly demarcated and have cleaner stops and starts.

Perhaps the assertion that everything on screen is performative will not be controversial to those who are deeply steeped in film studies. But even to a general audience, the Joan Leslie storyline will likely seem to cross over into especially weird fictive territory. At this point in her career, Leslie had acted in High Sierra (1941), Sergeant York (1941), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and Hollywood Canteen attempts to broaden her appeal by featuring her as Slim’s love interest over the course of many scenes. Leslie thus appears in more than just a cameo, but she is not merely playing a romantic lead either. Rather, she is performing a full-on fictional rendition of herself who falls in love with Slim. In fact, the more we see of her on screen (for example, at home and with her movie family, which is made up of actors), the more obviously fictitious her story becomes. In this way, Hollywood Canteen demonstrates that even prolonging and developing cameos into more extensive portrayals does not imbue them with greater veracity; and given that Hollywood Canteen is a propaganda film that is keen to convince us of its wartime message, it struggles more than most to seem true or accurate.

You might say that Leslie is sort of leasing out a version of herself for the wartime amusement of individual canteen men or the larger cultural and political forces that drive propagandistic rhetoric, or both. She is the foremost case of this but she is not alone. There are many other women in the film who staff the canteen and flirt with customers, presumably out of a sense of duty. The women who are brought forward to kiss the millionth attendee Slim are reminiscent of the real Hollywood Canteen’s prize for its millionth attendee—a kiss with famous pin-up star Betty Grable. Joan Leslie herself is pointedly employed by the canteen to show Slim a good time for a weekend, and it is strongly implied that this weekend will involve romance. The movie is strictly family-friendly, and it does not take pains to suggest it has a flourishing sexual dimension, but we might wonder: to what extent are the ladies of the canteen, both real and fictional, employed for their low-key sexual services? The hint that a kind of benevolent prostitution for a good cause is involved vaguely lingers in the background.

The movie gives no whiff of a reluctance to comply on the part of the women. On the contrary, everyone in Hollywood Canteen is eager to serve, polite, and accompanied by good-natured smiles. Paul Henreid will scrub plates, and S. Z. Sakall will let strangers grab his cheeks. The Andrews Sisters will dance until their feet hurt and then will sing about their corns. Even an actress with a reputation for being a diva, such as Joan Crawford, will submit to entertaining the troops with grace and kindness. That is to say, Hollywood Canteen is a decent piece of propaganda, but not exclusively for the United States military. True, there are moments where the movie does achieve credentials as wartime propaganda, bent on disseminating an idealistic view of American life and the American war effort; for example, there is the performance of the song “You Can Always Tell a Yank” and the movie’s final shot of Bette Davis’s disembodied head imploring troops to visit the canteen. But Hollywood Canteen is primarily a promotional piece for the studios and Warner Bros. in particular, apart from the war effort. As we watch stars humbling themselves, doing menial work in spite of their obvious glamour, and interacting with ordinary people they have never met before with elegance and charm, Hollywood Canteen encourages the view that Warner Bros. stars are more like us than we might think, more familiar than we might already know—relatable, worthy of our affection and patronage. That is a message that benefits the studio with or without a war.

The movie is thus a long advertisement for uncomplicated goodness and generosity, but it also sells something else that is more patently bizarre: Hollywood Canteen at one point suggests that Warner Bros. stars bound together in a common mission have extraordinary powers. As the result of a war injury, Slim’s friend Nolan relies on a cane to walk, but after a night mingling with Hollywood royalty at the canteen, he inadvertently leaves his cane there and does not realize that he has been without it until later that night as he undresses at a serviceman’s hostel. Using both legs, he runs around the room, proclaiming the healing powers of the canteen. Surely we are happy for Nolan, but even the joking suggestion that the magic of the Warners stars has cured him is a bit much to take, even in a propaganda film. I was just grateful that Bette Davis did not emerge from a bunk bed to personally congratulate Nolan on his new-found agility and offer him a beautiful canteen girl to kiss in celebration.

Given that nearly every one of its shots features a cherished star of the 1940s, Hollywood Canteen has the potential to be impressive. In reality, it is not very deep. Its cameo-laden nature is both its selling point and its downfall, but I must admit I was mildly amused by the movie in spite of its shortcomings. Hollywood Canteen demonstrates that even mostly sans plot, a Golden-Age extravaganza is hard to look away from.