Star-Studded Musical Celebrates US Servicemen

The Stage Door Canteen was a real basement club in New York City. Located in the 44th Street Theater, the club was a free recreational center for both US and Allied servicemen during World War II. It was a place where lonely soldiers on leave and at loose ends far from home could go and relax. Once at the Stage Door Canteen, servicemen were treated to food, entertainment, and companionship all provided completely free by the stars of stage and screen. The celebrities cooked and served the food, cleaned the tables, circulated among the boys in uniform, and provided band music, singers, and comedy routines to delight the boys on leave.

In addition to celebrities galore, the Stage Door Canteen also had dozens of lovely girls next door. These young ladies were to sit with, talk with, and dance with the servicemen. But there were also strict rules of no fraternization. The women were to be friendly and approachable and make the lonely men feel at home but the gals were not allowed to kiss the guys and they were definitely forbidden from meeting up with the men away from the club. The Canteen wanted to give the servicemen a little taste of back home but it was all kept completely G-rated.

The Stage Door Canteen experience was turned into a film with the same name in 1943. The movie has a storyline that follows four servicemen (all known by their home state: Dakota, California, Jersey, and Tex) and the girls of the Canteen. Dakota romances Eileen but she is resistant to his charms, very young California has yet to have his first kiss, Tex is in search of a Southern flower, and Jersey plans to marry Mamie (they’ve been dating for two years). But the real stars of the film are the celebrities from stage and screen. Some of the film stars are easily recognizable: Tallulah Bankhead, Katherine Hepburn, Edgar Bergen, Harpo Marx, Ray Bolger, Johnny Weissmuller. Some of the stars of the stage are also still remembered: Ethel Merman, Gypsy Rose Lee. But many of the one time luminaries of the Great White Way are completely unknown to modern audiences. Stage Door Canteen also features some of the biggest and most popular of the Big Bands of the era and their charismatic leaders: Count Basie, Xavier Cugat, Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, Kay Kyser, Freddy Martin. The bands and their music are fantastic. They play romantic dance music, popular tunes, funny songs, excellent violin performances, and poignant hymns. And the servicemen come and go, some to never return home, as the music plays.

Count Basie, Edgar Bergen, Gypsy Rose Lee, Johnny Weissmuller (shirtless)

Stage Door Canteen is set at the real Canteen but was not filmed there because the real club was simply too busy to stop their work for filming. The movie is full of excellent performances and music. The stories of our four servicemen and their girls are sweet. But the movie never lets you forget that these men in uniform are all waiting to go off to fight and die. Some of these boys are very, very young. They are lonely and worried. But all are determined to face the coming battles head on. And the girls and entertainers of the Canteen are just as determined to give the boys one last good memory.

Some modern movie fans may find the whole thing a little corny. But the real people of the time were just as dedicated and determined. This is the generation called the Greatest Generation and they deserve the title. But it’s also not all just old time patriotism. In some ways this film resonates with our world today. There  has been a lot of upheaval in the last few years. The last few months have been full of resistance and change. Actress Katherine Hepburn has a very powerful speech at the end of the film. She is speaking to a Canteen girl, and to a World War II audience, but, in many ways, she could also be speaking to people today:

“Yes, that’s right, we’re in a war and we’ve got to win. And we’re going to win. And that’s why the boy you love is going overseas and isn’t that maybe why you’re going to go back in there and get on your job. Look, you’re a good kid, I don’t wonder he loves you.  He knows what he’s fighting for. He’s fighting for the kind of world in which you and he can live together in happiness, in peace, in love. Don’t even think about quitting. Don’t stop for a minute working, fighting, praying until we’ve got that kind of world. For you. For him. For your children. For the whole human race. Days without end. Amen.”

She is right. Just like the men and women of the Greatest Generation, we must get on our job and never think about quitting until we build the world we want.

Stage Door Canteen runs two hours and eleven minutes. It is filmed in black and white and some scenes are rather dark but mostly the video is clear and easy to watch and the audio is excellent. The film is mostly music with scenes of our servicemen and Canteen girls interspersed. A full list of the many, many celebrities can be found at Wikipedia. IMDB also has a list of celebrities and it also has a list of the music and songs.  There was another Canteen movie made the next year, in 1944, called Hollywood Canteen. Like Stage Door Canteen, Hollywood Canteen was set in a real club. This second movie is not a sequel, just a similar movie but set at a Canteen on the west coast. Unfortunately, Hollywood Canteen is not in the Public Domain although the Internet Archive does have a trailer that runs just under four  minutes. Stage Door Canteen is FREE in the Public Domain and can be watched online or downloaded at the Internet Archive.

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