Stage Door Canteen Critics' Choice
1943 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 132 min. / Street Date ? 2003 / 9.99
Starring Cheryl Walker, William Terry, Marjorie Riordan, Lon McCallister, Margaret Early, Sunset Carson, Dorothea Kent, Fred Brady, Louis Jean Heydt, Jack Lambert, Johnny Roventini, Matt Willis
Guest stars: Judith Anderson, Kenny Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Ralph Bellamy, Edgar Bergen, Ray Bolger, Ina Claire, Katharine Cornell, Gracie Fields, Lynn Fontanne,, Arlene Francis, Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, Hugh Herbert, Jean Hersholt, George Jessel, Gertrude Lawrence, Gypsy Rose Lee, Alfred Lunt, Harpo Marx, Elsa Maxwell, Yehudi Menuhin, Ethel Merman, Paul Muni, Merle Oberon, George Raft, Ruth Roman, Martha Scott, Johnny Weissmuller, Ed Wynn, Lloyd Corrigan, Jane Darwell, William Demarest, Virginia Field, Ann Gillis, Lucile Gleason, Virginia Grey, Sam Jaffe, Allen Jenkins, Roscoe Karns, Tom Kennedy, Otto Kruger, June Lang, Betty Lawford, Bert Lytell, Aline MacMahon, Horace McMahon, Helen Menken, Peggy Moran, Ralph Morgan, Alan Mowbray, Elliott Nugent, Franklin Pangborn, Helen Parrish, Brock Pemberton, Selena Royle, Marion Shockley, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Ned Sparks, Bill Stern, Arleen Whelan, Dame May Whitty.
Bands and Band performers: Count Basie, Xavier Cugat, Benny Goodman, Kay Kyser,
Guy Lombardo, Freddy Martin, Ethel Waters, Peggy Lee, Jack Martin, Sully Mason, Lina Romay,
Cinematography Harry Wild
Production Designer Harry Horner
Art Direction Hans Peters
Written by Delmer Daves
Produced by Sol Lesser
Directed by Frank Borzage
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant has to admit that he thought he was getting a supposedly good Image Entertainment release of this public domain feature, when what was received is a suspicious 'Critics' Choice' disc. The no frills disc originates from Critics' Choice Video, an online DVD retailer that appears to dabble in Public Domain releases of its own.
The price is right, but what we get for our money is a sub-par encoding of a dinged-up 16mm print of this morale-boosting 'war effort' musical extravaganza.
Three female Broadway hopefuls, volunteering as hostesses in a special, USO-like club in Manhattan during the war, fall in love with three lonesome soldiers. Hundreds of stars and personalities keep the soldiers company, and the biggest swing bands entertain them.
Stage Door Canteen is a fairly fascinating parade of famous faces and wartime attitudes. The USO zaniness of 1941 is no joke; the consistently attractive girls here are all doing their bit by spending time with soldiers bound for overseas.
The innocence of Delmer Daves' screenplay borders on the ludicrous. To a man, the soldiers are all boyish, naïve, lovable and noble at heart. The hostesses are all patriotic lasses who assume the 'duty' of being handholding faux-romance dream girls for the GIs, feigning interest in them as a 'comfort' before they go overseas. The attitudes are downright weird. The boys can do no wrong, even when they tease the girls with bold verbal innuendos; the women are ordered up by specs ("I want a blonde, 5'3"!") and have little identity except as generic 'girls.' There are no wallflowers, only luscious babes (the women are clearly the best starlets Hollywood has to offer) and the key guys are cute types mother would love. Lon McCallister, for instance, is a veritable cherub noted for playing page boys and jockeys. The most attention goes to beauty Cheryl Walker, a former Rose Bowl queen. She later became a supporter of
anti-Communist causes. Much is made of the rule that the girls can't date the boys outside of the club, an extra frustration should any real romances be kindled. Considering the way the female flesh is dished up for 'the boys', the Canteen seems to operate like a strangely neutered brothel. Hopefully the soldiers at real USO clubs had a better time.
If that's all there was to Stage Door Canteen this review would be over, because nothing plotwise of interest happens except that kindly officer Jean Louis Heydt keeps giving the guys renewed 24 hour passes to go see their girls again. The only tension Daves can offer in this variety show is to criticize the leading lady using the Canteen for selfish career purposes. She gets a stage role with Paul Muni anyway.
As a star-watching exercise, the show is terrific. The long list of names above are fun to look out for, and everybody is so young-looking!
In this fantasy, the canteen is staffed and operated by the biggest stars in New York. Katharine Cornell does a bit of Romeo and Juliet with a soldier, and the Lunts wash dishes. Everyone on the lists above gets at least a walkthrough, naturally maintaining the notion that their screen and stage personae are their real selves. For instance, Ed Wynn does his silly clown routine as if he really was that person. Stars Tallulah Bankhead and Katharine Hepburn act as big sisters to the aspiring starlets who actually dance with the boys; Hepburn's given the main 'we're doing it for them' speech to the despondent Walker (pictured on the cover above). Younger maidens like luscious Virginia Grey have walk-ons greeting the soldiers.
We're shown a supposed Broadway producer bussing a table (yeah, sure) and lots of character actors wait tables and wash dishes. These range from odd (Ned Sparks ogling Gypsy Rose Lee's chaste non-strip strip number) to chummy (William Demarest) to weird (Otto Kruger tries to swipe some coffee because he lost his ration book). Most of the VIPs are identified ("Hey that's Judith Anderson!") but some smaller players we have to guess at, like an incredibly young Jack Lambert in a bit as a sailor. He became a frequent baddie in westerns and crime pix like Kiss Me Deadly; he can't be 20 here but his famous ugly mug is instantly recognizable.
Producer Sol Lesser released this rah-rah programmer through United Artists, and I'd like to know how the show was put together. Few talents corralled by major studios appear; I'm assuming the likes of Kate Hepburn were free agents. Was the film for profit? I'm sure these stars weren't all paid as the show is put together like a celebrity telethon.
Securing the big music acts must have been Lesser's crowning achievement. Kay Kyser, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie were just as or more popular than the stars, and we get several extended performances with their equally well-known singers. Ethel Waters (so thin!) does a nice song with Count Basie, and Xavier Cugat's captivating Lina Romay is always worth the price of admission. Even more surprising is seeing an incredibly young Peggy Lee belt out a blues song in her silky
smooth style, with an ultracool that wouldn't become the style until after the war.
Some of the acts drag; kulture sneaks in with Yehudi Menuhuin playing Brahms and a woman singing The Lord's Prayer (reeeach for that remote). The same woman's first song is a savage bit of jingoism about shooting down Japs, rat tat tat tat! It's met with big approval but plays much differently now. 1
Savant's favorite surprise moment (aside from Peggy Lee) is a dishwashing gag where Johnny Weissmuller removes his shirt, with a hearty, "Boy, it's hot!" Co-dishwasher Franklin Pangborn, fully into his limp-wristed pansy act, remarks at Mr. Tarzan's muscular chest. Pretty weird.
Critics' Choice's DVD of Stage Door Canteen is no winner in the quality stakes. Without comparing it's unfair to judge, but I'll bet the Image disc is better (it only came out last March, and Savant didn't think to request it). This is really no better than VHS quality taped from television, and therefore you'd be better off waiting for a screening on TCM. The last reel looked a frame or two out of synch as well. But the show only has a few splices and is mostly intact, unlike an earlier Critics' Choice disc that was so bad Savant couldn't watch it. Critics' Choice reinvents the definition of plain-wrap: no extras, no trailer, no scene selections, no nothing.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stage Door Canteen rates:
Video: Fair -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 3, 2003
1.A helpful note from Barry Margolis, 8/27/ 2011:
I read your review of Stage Door Canteen and...that (unnamed) woman who sang the song about the Japs and then The Lord's Prayer was Gracie Fields, probably England's most popular singer at the time. She had just signed a contract to star in a handful of films for 20th Century-Fox, so her presence here is thoroughly understandable. -- Barry Margolis Return