Stage Door Canteen (1943) – full review!
Like its counterpart Hollywood Canteen (1944) this World War II era musical features a fictional lightweight romantic story about a soldier who visits one of the real USO-like dance halls (labeled canteens) that were staffed by Hollywood stars to make our servicemen & women feel special during their leaves. Both were written by Delmer Daves though this one was directed by Frank Borzage. Like the other this one also received Oscar nominations for its Score and one of its songs “We Mustn’t Say Goodbye” (though “Good Night Sweetheart which plays at the end of every night is more memorable!). The story involves several soldiers from the same company who’ve yet to see action that stop in New York on their way overseas. They are fortunate to receive three consecutive 24 hour leaves during which several interweaving stories play out against a backdrop of performances and cameos by stars from film & stage. Unlike Hollywood Canteen (1944) (also directed by Daves) which I saw first there are no consistent hosts (like John Garfield) or hostesses (like Bette Davis) throughout the story nor are the romances with known starlets (like Joan Leslie). The unique aspects of this one are the (e.g. New York Broadway) stage stars which appear some in their first and only movies.
Four servicemen known by their home state’s name each experience their own form of romance during the course of the film. Lon McCallister plays the youngster dubbed California who eventually gets enough courage to experience his first kiss with Marjorie Riordan. Tex (Sunset Carson aka Michael Harrison) spends his time with short Southern belle Ella Sue (Margaret Early). Jersey (Fred Brady) is fortunate that their leave is near his home because he finally gets to the chance to marry his two year girlfriend Mamie (Dorothea Kent) with his three friends as attendees. Dakota (William Terry) is a ladies man with no other family who unfortunately gets hooked up with a disinterested wannabe actress named Eileen (Cheryl Walker) the first night. However once she realizes what the other gals do regarding the value of these canteen nights to these men who were risking their lives for us she and Dakota become engaged. Side note: I thought it was funny that these two were kissing on a piece of dark & light striped lawn furniture that looked remarkably similar to the one that Robert Hutton & Joan Leslie were doing the same in the other film.
As far as the talent and cameos are concerned some of the more memorable performances are: Ray Bolger’s song & dance routine; Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy; Ralph Bellamy as a doorman; Ed Wynn checking hats; Judith Anderson Helen Hayes and Tallulah Bankhead as hostesses; Jean Hersholt’s getting Sam Jaffe to help interpret Russian for some of our allies; Merle Oberon introducing some Chinese fliers in attendance alongside Dame May Whitty; George Jessel doing a telephone routine and Harpo Marx emerging from one; Johnny Weissmuller & Franklin Pangborn and George Raft Lanny Ross & Roscoe Karns on kitchen duty; Tom Kennedy & Alan Mowbray as a waiters; Otto Kruger & Ned Sparks bussing tables; Aline MacMahon serving food alongside Katharine Cornell who does her Juliet routine to McCallister’s Romeo; Allen Jenkins as an MC; Virginia Grey as one of the many “girls” for the soldiers to dance with; William Demarest standing around; Gypsy Rose Lee performing a striptease; Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne doing dishes & serving sandwiches; and finally Katharine Hepburn‘s “keep your chin up” and “do your job” bit at the end. There are several more credited which I didn’t see. Paul Muni also appears in a scene away from the canteen. Additionally the singing of Kenny Baker Ethel Merman & Ethel Waters to the bands of Count Basie Xavier Cugat Benny Goodman Guy Lombardo and more.