Monthly Archives: January 2014

Arms and the Hams: ‘Stage Door Canteen’

Original poster.

Original poster.

There were a lot of morale-boosting musical revue pictures made during World War II. They featured as many big stars as could be crammed into a two-hour running time and usually had a gossamer-thin plot to give a bit of organization to the various numbers. “Thank Your Lucky Stars,” “This Is the Army,” “Hollywood Canteen” and “Stage Door Canteen” all followed this plan. “This Is the Army” was originally produced on Broadway and is the only one that was filmed in color. But “Stage Door Canteen” is the one that I feel holds up the best. Unhappily, the picture has not been restored or remastered, so the quality of the image and the soundtrack have suffered more than the others.

“Stage Door Canteen” begins on an army transport train as it speeds toward the New York City area. This clip introduces us to the soldiers known as Dakota, California, Jersey and Texas aboard that train as it rumbles across Ohio. Several years ago, when Alfred Uhry was the guest programmer on TCM, he selected this picture and singled out this scene as having special meaning for him. I wish I could remember his exact words, but he mentioned that when he saw the picture as a boy, the girls on the train platform in their clear vinyl raincoats looked to him like angels. I confess I hadn’t thought of that before, but now whenever I see this scene, I wonder how I could have missed that image. They do look like angels as they take the GIs’ letters and hand out free packs of cigarettes. The tune that’s being played on the harmonica is “Don’t Worry Island,” which shows up later in the picture, played by the Freddy Martin Orchestra.

Soldiers Come to Town

There’s a weird linguistic usage that is often employed in these wartime pictures: young men and women constantly refer to themselves in a slangy form of the third person, especially when they talk about their hopes and future plans. Technically speaking, this is a rhetorical device known as antonomasia, in which an epithet substitutes for a proper name (for example, the substitution of “that paperhanging son of a bitch” for “Hitler”). Antonomasia is generally used to refer to others. The usage that I’m describing is unusual because the characters who employ the device use it to talk about themselves. In this particular scene, there are two examples of this curious use of antonomasia: “Sometimes a fella feels like he’d like to write to somebody,” (read: “Sometimes I’d like to write to somebody”) “Kinda makes a guy wish he had a nice girl he could kiss goodbye,” (read: “I wish I had a girl to kiss goodbye”). Odd as the usage is (or at least as odd as I think it is), it is common to many plays, screenplays and songs written in the thirties and forties; it shows up repeatedly throughout “Stage Door Canteen.” I’ve never been able to tell if this is simply a stylistic convention of the period, or if people actually spoke that way in those days. It sure sounds corny, but I can’t help liking the sincerity with which such lines are delivered. It’s a distancing device, intended to let “just folks” heroes and heroines express ideas about themselves that the authors worry are more exalted than their characters’ stations in life warrant. It allows them to be highfalutin and common at the same time. Sort of.

Delmer Daves wrote the script. (He also wrote and directed “Hollywood Canteen.”) “Stage Door Canteen” is no less corny than the other morale-boosting revues, but perhaps because it’s from a small studio and set in New York City, it’s less slick and seems more heartfelt. Of course I don’t take “Stage Door Canteen” as an accurate picture of how it actually was, but I like to think it’s how it must have felt. It’s also quite well acted by the non-celebrity actors and actresses, few of whom managed to have much of a career after the War.

Heartbreak

One unusual element that “Stage Door Canteen” has is heartbreak; it has heartbreak in spades. Other pictures in this genre avoided anything approximating grim reality. Here are two examples:

The Royle Treatment (a/k/a The Heave-Ho)

This scene comes early in the picture. I’ve always been crazy about Selena Royle, but I must say the girl, Marion Shockley, is also wonderful. It’s a shame she didn’t have a bigger career, and much of it prior to this picture was frittered away on a wretched series of shorts about an intrepid heroine by the name of Torchy. I’ve seen several of them on TCM; they are dreadful. Shockley was married to Bud Collyer, who was for many years the host of “To Tell the Truth,” and the voice of Superman(!) on the old cartoon series.

The Valiant Brother versus the Blankety-Blank Japs

In this clip, Jean, one of the young hostesses from the Canteen, reads her brother’s letter aloud to her roommates (they’re also hostesses). The actress is a Warners contract player named Marjorie Riordan. Pay particular attention to the gorgeous underscoring, which is used beautifully, perfectly: it supports the emotionalism without forcing it; when the development settles down, the tune that emerges is “We Mustn’t Say Goodbye,” a ravishing melody, which we will hear Lanny Ross sing about a half hour after this scene. Notice, too, the nice composition and lighting.

Marjorie Riordan’s biggest role came a year later, when she played the adult daughter of Claude Rains and Bette Davis in “Mr Skeffington.” In the fifties, she became disenchanted with the acting profession, which she found intellectually unsatisfying. She went back to school to study the psycho-dynamics of stammering before she moved on to the field of clinical psychology. I mention this because her reading of the letter suggests that, quite apart from her talent as an actress, she’s extremely intelligent. The text of the letter is full of sentimental clichés and is specifically intended to jerk tears. But Riordan fights the tears; occasionally she is nearly overcome by emotion as she reads, but then she pauses for a moment and continues in an even voice. It’s a remarkably skillful and restrained performance, and it often moves me to tears but never makes me feel as if I’ve been had. She was 22 years old when this scene was shot, but her technical skill is that of a much more experienced actress.

I’m also impressed by Cheryl Walker, who plays Eileen, a seemingly heartless Broadway hopeful. She’s the one character in the picture who goes through an emotional and psychological transformation, and she does it beautifully and believably. Unfortunately for Cheryl Walker, like most of the other young unknowns in this picture, her career never took off.

Brushes with Greatness

The biggest selling attraction in the Cheer Up the Home Front genre was always the crowds of famous movie stars, singers and musicians. Another thing that sets “Stage Door Canteen” apart from the others (aside from the higher quality of young actors) is its large number of theatrical stars and New York personalities, many of whom rarely made motion pictures.

A Few Moments with the Lunts

This clip is not terribly interesting, except that it’s one of the rare screen appearances by the Lunts (a/k/a Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne), who were unquestionably the most celebrated and well-liked married acting couple for most of the mid-twentieth century. They were famous for their ability to keep performances fresh after a thousand performances and two years of touring the sticks. (A famous acting lesson tells of how Lunt once complained after a performance: “Why have they stopped laughing when I ask for a cup of tea? The line used to get a big laugh . . .” Fontanne replied, “Because you’re asking for it. You used to ask for a cup of tea.”) They even come close to making this inferior-grade stuff seem witty and fresh.

Katharine Cornell

“Stage Door Canteen” is the only motion picture Katharine Cornell ever appeared in. She did a couple of live television shows, but no other pictures. In her time — running from the twenties to the mid-fifties — she was one of the two or three most celebrated stage actresses in America. She was talented and extremely well-liked. She gave Christopher Plummer his first big break on Broadway. Here is a shrewdly observed passage about “Kit” Cornell from Plummer’s excellent memoir, “In Spite of Myself”:

Guthrie [McClintock, Cornell’s husband/business partner/director/manager] could never turn Miss Kit into a great actress. No matter how skillful his presentation of her — she remained always the same — fine, noble, sympathetic, in everything she portrayed. But by bringing those qualities of hers to the surface he had, intentionally or not, turned her into a great star and a great “boss.” She ruled her little kingdom like a queen and as she worshipped goodness to obsession, so she believed everyone in it to be good. When one of her lambs decided to stray from the path of righteousness, she simply refused to believe it; and if some outsider dared criticize her “brood” she turned a deaf ear and a cold shoulder.

Listen to her speak Shakespeare, and she is almost equally reluctant to let one of her iambs stray. (That’s a joke, not a dig.)

Plummer must surely be right: Cornell was probably not a great actress, but she is, as he says, “fine, noble, sympathetic.” I love the whole idea of her, and I think she speaks the lines beautifully. Like Jane Cowl, Lynn Fontanne and several other actresses of that era, Cornell offers a glimpse of what “great acting” looked like before the Method changed American acting almost overnight. Cornell is obviously way too old to be swanning about on a moonlit Veronese balcony, but she’s incredibly poignant and romantic. On the other hand, whenever I see this one scene she did for the movies, I can’t help thinking of her private life and of what Ethel Merman once said about Mary Martin to an admirer of Mary Martin, “Ya know, she’s a big dyke!” Speaking of which:

The Merm Marches through Berlin

Here’s Ethel Merman at the peak of her Broadway popularity, singing a jingo tune. I particularly like the lines “The Devil put on a diff’rent face/Came to plague the human race . . .” When did it become unfashionable to demonize the enemy? I suspect it was probably around the time of the Mỹ Lai massacre, but I’m only guessing. At any rate, because the technique hasn’t been used in decades, when I come across an example of it, it always gives me a little thrill of conscience-stricken pleasure. This clip begins with a youngish Georgie Jessel, some years before he became America’s Toastmaster General. His celebrity mystified me when I was growing up, but now I find his brand of low-brow Jewish humor absolutely hilarious.

Merman was not much of a looker . . . ever. This picture was made in 1943; twenty-three years later, when she starred in a revival of one of her biggest hits, wags along the Main Stem dubbed the show “Granny Get Your Gun.” The stories about her saltiness are almost numberless. Here’s my favorite. During the month or so that she was married to Ernest Borgnine, a Hollywood big shot producer invited her to lunch. When she came home afterwards, Borgnine was watching TV. “How’d it go?” he asked, uninterested.

“SWELL!” she said, “He said I have the eyes of a teenager, the complexion of a twenty-year-old and the legs of a twenty-five-year-old!”

Borgnine’s face grew dark. “Howbout yuh sixty-year-old cunt?”

“You were never mentioned.”

Gracie Fields Sings of Japs and Jehovah

This is surely the weirdest pairing of numbers in the whole picture. British star of stage and screen, Gracie Fields, emerges from a wooden crate, sings a jingo tune, “Three Jap Planes,” then, almost without pausing for breath, lunges into “The Lord’s Prayer.” I like both performances enormously; Frank Borsage staged “The Lord’s Prayer” nicely: the soldiers all rise to their feet as soon as they hear prayer in the smoky air, then bow their heads when she sings “Amen” — except for one young soldier in the center, which I take as evidence of inclusiveness not usually found in pictures of the period. Wearing her cardigan like a cape, Gracie Fields looks like a beefy, road company Deborah Kerr in “Tea and Sympathy.” I haven’t an ounce of religion in me, but I find the scene very touching. The astonishing bad taste and the depiction of the sneaky, unsportsmanlike Jap give the semi-religious sentimentality enough astringent wrongness to keep it from cloying. (“The Lord’s Prayer” was cut out of the British release. Hmm.)

The effort to demonize the dirty, skulking Jap was even more intense than it was for the lousy Kraut/Hun bastard. It was everywhere. In Hollywood pictures, high ranking Nazis were portrayed as rakish, debonair devils (Conrad Veidt, for example: venomous, but extremely attractive and witty); the Japanese were invariably portrayed as a terrifying, brutal sub-species with beaver teeth and thick, steel-rimmed spectacles. “Fibber McGee and Molly,” one of the most popular wartime radio shows, sold bonds with the slogan, “Every time you buy a bond,/You slap a Jap across the pond.”

Ah, so! They don't make posters like this anymore . . .

Ah, so! They don’t make posters like this anymore . . .

Though Gracie Fields never caught on in America, she was a huge star in England, and one of the most beloved women of her time, universally known as “Our Gracie.” When she became gravely ill in 1939, the story was front page news all over England. She was born in 1898, over a fish-and-chips shop in Rochdale, Lancashire. When she left England to be with her husband in America (Italian-born, he was declared an enemy alien in Britain when Italy joined the War), she was vilified in the British press as a traitor. They never mentioned the amount of work she did entertaining Commonwealth troops. When she toured British munitions factories during the War, most of her audiences were initially hostile, but (according to eyewitness accounts) in every case, she completely won them over by the end of her second number. Witnesses say that the effect she had on British audiences was terribly moving.

Ray Bolger

Bolger is a rather freakish talent: he’s a spazz attack in tap shoes and he raises exuberant brainlessness to a high-ish art. I don’t think I’ve ever liked him better than I do in this number. (I’ve excised the whole of his comic interlude between his two dance routines: it’s worth seeing, but it makes for a longer clip than serves my purpose here. The complete version can be found on YouTube.) His tapping is fiendish, fast and funny; his hold on the audience is extraordinary — you can see that these guys love him. And like “Seinfeld” decades later, his entire act is really about nothing. I find this routine irresistibly charming — it’s so incredibly cheerful and committed, extravagant and idiotic. The song is by Rodgers and Hart.

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy

Perhaps it’s due to my early exposure to Michael Redgrave’s harrowing portrayal of a ventriloquist in “Dead of Night,” or perhaps it’s the lifeless limbs and haunches that make me find puppets so unsettling, but whatever the reason is, I’ve always recoiled from them and all their pomps. Nevertheless, Charlie McCarthy really makes me laugh even while he gives me the creeps; when I was a child, he scared me batshit. I continue to hate Mortimer Snerd: I find nothing at all funny about the agonies of self-consciousness suffered by this horny-but-timorous mental defective with Jheri Curl locks and Jerry’s Kids limbs.

I first began to like W.C. Fields when I heard him, on a recording of an old Chase & Sanborn Hour, invite Charlie McCarthy to come to his place to take a piggyback ride on his buzz-saw. I’d have liked him even better if he’d extended the offer to McCarthy’s longtime companion, Mortimer Snerd. I’m amused by the way Bergen flings them away when he’s through with each in his turn: he slips the suddenly cataleptic Charlie off his arm and pats his shoulder lovingly, but Snerd he roughly tosses over backwards. I wonder if Edgar Bergen didn’t have a shame-faced crush on the cruel Charlie and find Snerd’s slavish adoration oppressive, while Charlie despised them both — a tab show “No Exit.” I have long had a mystery plot in mind in which a Los Angeles coroner’s report discloses the presence of an unidentified monocle and Mortimer Snerd’s splinters in the murdered Bergen’s ahem, and traces of sap in his stomach, while Charlie McCarthy is still at large.

Lanny Ross

Completely forgotten now, Lanny Ross was an amazing fellow. As you will hear, he has a beautiful tenor voice, full of ardor; his intonation and phrasing are perfect. He sang for the Yale glee club and took a law degree at Columbia University, and paid for everything with the money he made from his singing engagements. I find him very appealing. He has unmistakable class.


Wow, this song always knocks me out! I couldn’t believe that it didn’t win that year’s Oscar for Best Song — that is, until I saw what the competition was that year. A partial list of the nominations: “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” “My Shining Hour,” “That Old Black Magic,” “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old,” “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” and the winner, Alice Faye singing “You’ll Never Know.” “We Mustn’t Say Goodbye” is a terrific number, but it wasn’t robbed.

Katharine Hepburn Does Her Bit

The young unknowns in “Stage Door Canteen” are generally as good or better than the celebrities they support. Take a hinge at this scene at the very end of the picture. Eileen, as if competing for the goody-goody prize, outdoes her Canteen girlfriends by marrying Dakota, whom she’d been snubbing through most of the picture. But before they can get them colored lights goin’, he’s shipped off to Europe, where, presumably, he’ll personally murder that paperhanging son of a bitch. Here’s what happens when Katharine Hepburn overhears the virgin bride’s lament. Hepburn gets through the material with authority and speed, but the real heart of the scene is in Cheryl Walker’s performance. Hepburn does most of the talking, but Walker gives the star her full attention and responds beautifully.

“Days without end, amen,” says Miss H. To which I reply, “Days without end . . . ahem.”