Sunday, November 16, 2008

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (Warner Bros. 1944) Warner Home Video

Delmer Daves’ Hollywood Canteen (1944) is as much a beloved cornucopia of cherished and iconic bit performances from the Warner stock company as it remains a lovingly produced time capsule from a very special moment in the history of Hollywood.

The film is a sincere attempt to popularize and immortalize Tinsel Town’s contribution to the war effort; the private nightclub first established by Warner’s very own Bette Davis as an exclusive hot spot, where any enlisted solider could mingle with filmdom’s royalty and enjoy a potpourri of grand entertainments.

The sentiment on this occasion is manufactured. For Robert Hutton – who plays the luckiest G.I. in the company – Cpl. Ed ‘Slim’ Green is neither a solider nor an A-list celebrity. But at least in tone of reverence, Hutton manages to capture and bottle up a blithe essence of wonderment and naïveté as a man who has first fallen in love with an image and then, the real McCoy.

Warner’s grand dame Bette Davis – playing herself, as Canteen hostess – sheds her usual bank of bravado in this movie to reveal a meaningful tenderness throughout her performance. When she congratulates Slim on being the millionth man to enter the Canteen, saying “Wherever you go, our hearts go with you” her humility and sense of appreciation for all men serving in the U.S. Armed Forces resonates warmth, compassion and the milk of human kindness, utterly void of cliché or rank sentimentality.

Slim first hears about the Hollywood Canteen from a cook at a local greasy spoon in Los Angeles. After walking his feet off all day with visions of actress, Joan Leslie firmly dictating his heart’s desire, Slim finally arrives at the canteen. In rapid succession he is first greeted by Joe E. Brown and then Barbara Stanwyck. Confessing his puppy dog’s crush over actress Joan Leslie to Brown, Slim’s secret is next leaked to host John Garfield, who wastes no time to inform Bette Davis of this one soldier’s only wish for the evening; to meet Joan Leslie in person.

That wish granted and sealed with an innocent kiss; Leslie is immediately taken with Slim whom she later introduces to her family. Between the bookends of this implausibly romantic wish fulfillment, the film inserts sound bytes and musical performances from a healthy sampling of Warner’s stock company.

Joan Crawford dances. The Andrews Sisters get ‘Corns For Their Country.’ Resident menace-makers Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre intimidate an unruly cadet. S.Z. Sakall has his cheeks tweaked and Ida Lupino attempts to humor a forward pass in French sent to her by Slim’s pal, Sgt. Nowland (Dane Clark), who has absolutely no luck in convincing Alexis Smith of his ‘primeval’ intentions – first quantified in a brief conversation with Paul Henreid.

Sixty-two stars in all reign over a magical weekend of in-house performances at the canteen. Eddie Cantor serves sandwiches and performs the delightfully smarmy ‘We’re Having A Baby’, Roy Rogers sings ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ atop Trigger, Jimmy Dorsey knocks ‘em dead with the ‘King Porter Stomp’ and Joseph Szigeti enlightens everyone with a highbrow performance of ‘The Bee’ before lampooning a bit with comedian Jack Benny.

Other standout musical performances at the canteen come from Dennis Morgan and Joe E. Brown’s rousing and patriotic ‘You Can Always Tell A Yank’; Carmen Cavallaro’s haunting and exhilarating ‘Voodoo Moon’, some truly mesmerizing Flamenco footwork by Rosario and Antonio, and, last but not least; ‘The General Jumped At Dawn’; an impressively melodic swing tune, masterfully carried off by The Golden Gate Quartet.

With few exceptions, the action rarely leaves the canteen stage of floor; the one noteworthy exception being an absolutely riveting performance by Joan McCracken in ‘Ballet in Jive’ – supposedly part of the Warner studio tour won by Slim for being the canteen’s millionth man.

At the time of its release, Hollywood Canteen was the single most popular film of the year. Today, it remains a memorable excursion for the film connoisseur or anyone who simply enjoys witnessing stellar craftsmen and women delighting so regularly in their chosen profession. In short then, Hollywood Canteen is an inspiration.

The same can be said of Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer. Derived from restored elements, the film’s B&W image looks quite sharp and impressive for the most part. The gray scale exhibits exceptional tonality. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are bright, though never blooming.

There are several scenes that exhibit less than perfect image quality; softly focused, with more visible film grain and age related artifacts. However, these moments are few and far between. The audio has also been cleaned up and is represented at an adequate listening level.

This reviewer’s one genuine regret is that with all the ‘Warner Night At the Movies’ extras included on this disc, the studio hasn’t bothered to also include an audio commentary among them. Oh well, minor quibbling I suppose; particularly when there is so much else to admire. Highly recommended!

*Please note: currently this disc has only been made available as part of the Warner Home Front Collection: a three disc set that also includes Thank Your Lucky Stars and Irving Berlin’s This Is The Army.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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