Monday, March 06, 2017

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Hollywood Canteen' (1944)

In my ongoing (albeit recently slowed) efforts to cover the entire Bette Davis canon, I've always skipped over 1944's Hollywood Canteen whenever it showed up on TCM, because all I read about it was that Davis' role was little more than a cameo. But thanks to the episode of Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This podcast about the movie and the real-life Hollywood Canteen, I learned that Davis' connection was a lot stronger than I previously thought. The truth is that Davis really doesn't make much more than a cameo in the movie, but she's one of the driving forces behind the fascinating Hollywood Canteen project, and so while she's not credited as a producer on the film, she's in some ways responsible for its entire existence.

As a movie, Canteen isn't particularly good, although it's a fascinating historical artifact for anyone interested in classic Hollywood (which is why it was a perfect subject for YMRT). Davis and John Garfield founded the actual Hollywood Canteen in 1942 as a haven for members of the military spending time in Los Angeles awaiting deployment overseas. It recruited cast and crew from Hollywood studios to work as everything from entertainers to waiters to dishwashers in a nightclub that was free to anyone enlisted in the military service (including women and service members from allied foreign countries). It's the kind of apparently uncomplicated patriotism that would never happen in Hollywood today (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), and the movie reflects the wholesome positivity that the project was meant to embody. It's more or less a feature-length version of a "buy war bonds" ad, albeit with as much propaganda for Hollywood itself as for the war effort.

The thin plot involves two soldiers, Robert Hutton's Cpl. Slim Green and Dane Clark's Sgt. Nowlan, on leave from the Pacific theater for a few days before shipping back out to war. They hang out at the Canteen, where Slim inexplicably charms all the celebrities and becomes the beneficiary of loads of special treatment, including a weekend spent with starlet Joan Leslie (who was a big name at the time but has since been mostly been forgotten). Meanwhile, Nolan eventually hooks up with a sassy studio messenger girl played by Janis Paige, who displays far more personality and independence than the saintly Joan. All of this stuff takes up maybe a third of the movie and just sort of trails off at the end; it's strange that Slim and Joan (playing herself, like the dozens of other celebrities in the movie) have a traditional romance, since it seems to imply that going to the Canteen allows soldiers to hook up with famous actresses. And Joan is portrayed as such a sweetly wholesome young woman (she lives with her parents and won't allow Slim to accompany her inside the house when they're not home) that the movie's contrast with Hollywood debauchery borders on self-parody.

The rest of the movie is devoted to musical performances at the Canteen, from acts including Roy Rogers, the Andrews Sisters, dancers Antonio and Rosario, Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Cantor and more. Some of these performances are entertaining (the Andrews sisters are fabulous) and some are kind of a chore (a dreadful bit featuring Jack Benny and a famous violinist goes on forever), but they're all more fitting for a variety show than a movie, even a musical revue. There are also numerous patriotic speeches, mostly from the cameo-ing celebrities (whose names are conveniently announced by the main characters). Davis plays an almost entirely expository role, showing up every so often to explain the purpose of the Canteen or to award Slim some new, entirely undeserved perk. She's upbeat and friendly, which is a bit off-brand for her but makes sense given that she's there solely to promote this huge charitable endeavor she's in charge of. It's not a notable onscreen role for her, but it's a pretty impressive document of one of her biggest offscreen achievements.

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