During the Second World War, most stars worked to support the fight. Jeanette MacDonald joined the American Women’s Voluntary Service (AWVS). Rita Hayworth donated the bumpers off her car for scrap and replaced them with wooden ones. Many, many actors, directors, and crew members, like Jimmy Stewart and George Stevens, enlisted in the Armed Forces. There were tours of camps and hospitals to entertain the troops. The Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast special programs such as Command Performance, a request show for the servicepeople overseas.
The big stars were, of course, expected to be the most visible, and Bette Davis was no exception. In fact, she was so active that the Department of Defense presented her with the Distinguished Civilian Service Award in 1982. Bette went on bond tours alongside other stars such as James Cagney and Judy Garland, where she used her bad girl persona to great effect. According to Wikipedia, she was able to pull in two million dollars in two days, plus another quarter of a million for a picture of herself in Jezebel. Bette also did public service announcements such as this slightly extreme one…
…or novelties like this one-off musical number in the all-star extravaganza, Thank Your Lucky Stars (Yes, that is Bette’s real singing voice):
However, the Hollywood Canteen is Bette’s biggest contribution to the war, and one people still talk about. Originally John Garfield’s idea, the Canteen was to be a place for servicemen and women to relax and have fun with the stars while they were in the Los Angeles area. All the studios contributed to the project, but Bette and John were at the helm, with Jules Stein working quietly in the background. They threw themselves into finding a location, coordinating volunteers, booking entertainment, and securing food from donations and local restaurants.
The Canteen was located at 1451 Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood. The building had previously been a livery stable, and then a succession of nightclubs. After a major overhaul, the Canteen opened to great fanfare on October 3, 1942. Over 3,000 industry professionals were on the Canteen’s volunteer roll, ready to wait tables, dance with soldiers, serve food and perform. I hate to keep bringing Wikipedia into this, but they do have a list of the bigger names who took part. Everything was free to those in uniform, and the club was fully integrated and international. The Canteen was like a party every night, with raffles, music, skits, and lots of dancing. Believe it or not, Bette even took a pie in the face once (Yep, I hear ya. Pics, or it didn’t happen 🙂 ).
Over the course of the war, the Hollywood Canteen served approximately three million servicemen and women. It closed on Thanksgiving night, 1945, and according to the L.A. Daily Mirror, the building was demolished in December of 1966. Robby Cress of the wonderful Dear Old Hollywood took this photo of the site in 2009:
Fortunately for the rest of us, not to mention posterity, Warner Bros. released a film of the same name in December of 1944. Through the eyes of a fictional soldier named Slim Greene (Robert Hutton), the moviegoing public got a taste of what the average serviceperson experienced when visiting the Canteen. There is a plot, but it’s merely incidental, as the film is mostly a revue of some of the performers who were volunteers.
Slim (Robert Hutton) and his buddy, Sergeant Nolan (Dane Clark) are two wounded soldiers stationed on an unknown island in the South Pacific. Slim fills his time dreaming about Joan Leslie. When Slim and Nolan are sent to Hollywood for a short leave, Nolan wants a beer, but Slim wants to see the sights, so they split up for the day. While wandering around town, Slim finds his way into the Hollywood Canteen, and meets star after star after star. Via an improbable series of events involving a red claim ticket, Slim gets a kiss from his dream girl, Joan Leslie. A dazed Slim meets up with Nolan later, and Nolan is a little-hard pressed to believe Slim when he hears about his day.
The next night, Slim and Nolan go to the Canteen together, and basically by a freak accident, Slim is also the millionth man to enter. A line of girls comes up to kiss him, including Joan Leslie, naturally. As the Millionth Man, Slim’s won free admission to any nightclub, a hotel stay, a studio tour, a rental car, and just when it seems things can’t get any better for him, Slim finds out he has his pick of girls to be his date (One guess who he asks). Slim, again in a daze, can only stammer out, “Golly.” It doesn’t take much for Joan to get Slim out the door later. They have a sweet little almost-romance over the next couple of days, and he gets to meet her family. Literally–Joan Leslie’s real-life sister has a cameo.
While this part of the film may seem like a long shot, it does have a basis in fact. The actual Millionth Man was Sergeant Carl Bell, who entered the Canteen on September 15, 1943. He received a kiss from Betty Grable and Marlene Dietrich was his escort.
Meanwhile, Nolan is by no means idle. After a bumbling attempt at speaking French to Ida Lupino, he gets a bit of advice from Paul Henreid that can be summed up in four words: We are subconsciously primeval. Okeydokey. Nolan apparently is a bit fuzzy on what “subconsciously primeval” means, but when he meets who he thinks is a young starlet (Janis Paige), it all suddenly becomes clear.
Hokey? Yeah. Fun, though.
The music in Hollywood Canteen is fantastic, and it runs the genre gamut. Among the acts featured are the Andrews Sisters, of course, as is Jimmy Dorsey and his Band, Carmen Cavallero and his Orchestra, Eddie Cantor, Kitty Carlisle, Roy Rogers, Joseph Szegeti, and Jack Benny. The film also showcases dancers Rosario and Antonio and schtick from comic Joe E. Brown. Plus, it briefly ventures outside of the Canteen for a glimpse of Warner Bros. during the war, with Joan McCracken dancing the “Ballet In Jive.”
Initially, the film was supposed to be a joint effort like the real-life Canteen, but studio executives balked at loaning out so many stars at once. As a result, every Warner Bros. star or contract player who could work it into his or her schedule was in Hollywood Canteen. Bette Davis and John Garfield are on hand to run the show, including emcee duties, and to explain the history of the Canteen. Bette also voices what was no doubt a common sentiment among the Canteen workers and Hollywood in general: “You’ve given us something we’ll never forget. Wherever you go, our hearts go with you.”
Even though the film is a tad unrealistic, its star wattage is dazzling, and gives a lovely snapshot of the marvelous job Bette Davis, John Garfield, and hundreds of others did at the Hollywood Canteen. No one who entered the place will ever forget it. No one who caught a little of Bette Davis’s energy during the war will ever forget it, either. I’m sure everyone who came in contact with her was tremendously grateful.
That finishes my Day Three, and as always, Crystal has more Bette at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Thanks for reading, and a big shout-out to Crystal for hosting this great blogathon! Hope we can do it again next year. 🙂
This film is available on Amazon.