Movies We Like
A great tradition which essentially disappeared when the studio system collapsed was what one might call the variety film. The variety film was a kind of cinematic vaudeville show—a hodgepodge of comedy bits, some singing, dancing, and whatever else a cast of players under contract could fill out the average running time of a movie with. They were goofy, hurried, made on the cheap, and meant to be light entertainment. A great example of this would be International House (1933), a film about a hotel in "Woo-Hoo" China where W.C. Fields, Bela Lugosi, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Cab Calloway all cross paths in very silly ways.
A variety film with the same spirit as International House but with more urgent purpose was Hollywood Canteen which chronicled a day spent at the famous club for GIs during World War II. The Hollywood Canteen originally came to exist through the efforts of Bette Davis and what she created with it really represented Hollywood at its best. From its opening day the Canteen was staffed with movie stars who volunteered their time nightly to serve GIs coffee and donuts or sign autographs. Girls came to dance with GIs and it was possible to see famous orchestras or comedians on a nightly basis there. Hollywood Canteen was made at Warner Brothers and the film features an all-star cast of contract players at the studio during the mid-1940s. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the entertainment world of the time with delightful cameos from everyone from Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino, and Joan Crawford to Jane Wyman, John Garfield, the Benny Goodman Orchestra, Roy Rogers, the Andrew Sisters, and many more.
In some ways this type of film is completely anachronistic as movie stars nowadays are reluctant to think of themselves as "entertainers." The spirit of these films is better exemplified in current terms with the kind of thing Leno and Letterman do night after night. But what is so endearing about Hollywood Canteen is the sense of "we're all in this together" that exudes from the entire project. The war effort was on and Hollywood stepped up to do their part. The Warner brothers cared deeply about fighting fascism and doing something to help in any way they could. All profits from the film reportedly went to the war effort. Perhaps the genuine lack of cynicism in the whole project is what is the most hard to imagine in today’s Hollywood.
(You can find Hollywood Canteen included in the Warner Bros. and the Homefront Collection box set which also contains Irving Berlin's This Is the Army and Thank Your Lucky Stars.) _____________________________
Hollywood Canteen was nominated for three Oscars: Best Score - Musical, Best Song, and Best Sound.