In addition to being a huge music fan, I’m also a bit of a film buff, and as we’re knee-deep in the summer blockbuster season, I like to cleanse the palate by watching some classics from the golden age of Hollywood. Recently my selection was the 1944 musical “Hollywood Canteen”, an utterly corny, but entertaining celebration of the movie industry’s efforts to support the troops during WWII and based on an actual place.
Located at Hollywood and Cahuenga Boulevards (now the location of Amoeba Records!) and founded by actors Bette Davis, John Garfield and talent agency executive Jules Stein, the original Hollywood Canteen was a nightclub exclusively for US and allied forces servicemen on leave (wearing your uniform was the only way to get in the door).
It was staffed by volunteers from the entertainment industry, from actors, singers, directors and producers to technicians, publicists and secretaries. Many famous film stars, from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman to Marlene Dietrich and the Marx Brothers, would volunteer their time to work there as greeters, cooks and wait staff, in addition to performing on the club’s stage and even mingling and dancing with the G.I.s (as gals like Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford do in the movie).
The film, written & directed by Delmer Daves, follows a serviceman who becomes the millionth visitor to the Hollywood Canteen and wins a date with his silver screen crush, starlet Joan Leslie (playing herself).
In between this hilariously unrealistic plot (Joan even invites the soldier to her house at the end of the night!), there are a bunch of fun musical numbers that show off a variety of ’40s-era entertainers.
Jimmy Dorsey’s legendary big band serves as the house band at the club, while the Andrew Sisters and Roy Rogers trade versions of “Don’t Fence Me In” (where Roy’s horse Trigger shows off some fancy dance moves).
Roy’s frequent co-stars the Sons of the Pioneers sing their trademark cowboy tune, “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds.” Hungarian virtuoso Joseph Szigeti and one of my idols, Jack Benny, perform a decidedly lopsided violin duet. Pianist Carmen Cavallaro offers a stellar mambo version of “Voodoo Moon“, where his fingers literally dance across the keyboard, while flamenco dancers Rosario and Antonio dazzle with their feet.
Vaudeville-bred comedic singers Eddie Cantor and Joe E. Brown do what they do best. And perhaps the biggest revelation to me, the Golden Gate Quartet, a gospel-flavored vocal group known for their unique arrangements, perform “The General Jumped at Dawn“.
Sure, the film is hokey and a bit self-congratulatory. But it is an interesting time capsule and a fair tribute to the folks who made the actual Hollywood Canteen a reality, serving as a pretty amazing way for Hollywood to thank the troops for their service. It’s hard to imagine such a thing existing in a post-TMZ world, but somehow it seems worth remembering on the eve of our nation’s birthday the way that entertainment, especially music, can help out during times of struggle.
Bonus video: Peter Lorre & Syndey Greenstreet (of Maltese Falcon fame) Save an Andrew Sister from too much dancing:
ERIC J. LAWRENCE