17 October 2002 | gaityr
Big stars, small cameos, good film...
STAGE DOOR CANTEEN, of course, is set during WWII, and its main locale is the canteen of the film's title that is run and staffed by stars of the cinema and stage. The New York version of the Hollywood Canteen set up on the West Coast by Bette Davis and others, the Stage Door Canteen welcomes the boys in uniform when they're on leave, giving them a little comfort, a little entertainment, a little taste of home. Although STAGE DOOR CANTEEN really is about the big-name entertainment involved (with cameos by top-billed stars like Katharine Hepburn, Harpo Marx and Ray Bolger among others), it tries also to tell a heartwarming tale of the bravery of the boys who must fight, if necessary to the death, so that the rest of their country might live in peace. The loyal and brave Dakota (William Terry) stumbles into love with the initially selfish, haughty Eileen (Cheryl Walker); young California (Lon McAllister) keeps missing out on his first kiss with Jean (Marjorie Riordan) and Tex (Sunset Carson) wants to go back west with Ella Sue (Margaret Early) when the fighting's done. It all revolves around the idea of the boys having something--someone--to fight for overseas, someone to write home to, someone to come home to.
In that sense, the film succeeds; I was actually rather moved by the final words each boy left for his girl at the end of the film. That doesn't mean the film isn't a little saccharine though; it *has* to be--it was meant to be a morale booster during the 1940s (including, as it does, songs about shooting down Japanese planes and marching into Berlin). It rides on the strong wave of American patriotism at the time, reflecting and hoping to add to it, and even hints at an internationalism unheard of these days (the crowd cheers for Russian soldiers and carries Chinese pilots on their shoulders in tribute to their bravery). If you strip it of these time-bound scenes, however, the message and the courage remains, which is what makes STAGE DOOR CANTEEN still a film that one can enjoyably sit through not just for the glamorous star cameos. It's sweet when California keeps trying to kiss Jean and missing out (including an incredibly frustrating final attempt when someone cuts in on them when they're dancing!), and you feel just as dejected as Eileen must when she realises that Dakota *isn't* coming back this time. (Let us, for now, leave aside the fact that I can't seem to find a redeeming quality in Eileen beyond the fact that she's willing to break the canteen rules to make it up to Dakota for being mean to him at first.)
The big-name entertainment in STAGE DOOR CANTEEN really can't be faulted: there are appearances by the orchestras of Benny Goodman, Xavier Cugat and Count Basie (to name just a few!); cameos by Merle Oberon, Katharine Cornell and Alan Mowbray; and a pretty literal striptease that ends way too soon for the boys' liking by Gypsy Rose Lee. My favourite numbers would be 'We Mustn't Say Goodbye' and 'Don't Worry Island', alongside Yehudi Menuhin's beautiful rendition of 'Ave Maria' (unfortunately given under some quite terrible lighting) and the very funny opening act with Edgar Bergen and Charlie. As, essentially, the final act, Hepburn gives her few words great weight and is as striking as ever with her five minutes (tops!) of screen time.
All in all, STAGE DOOR CANTEEN is great fun to watch. It'd be even better fun if one knew all of the people making cameos in it--I could only half-guess at most of them, and I'm sure I missed many many others. A sweet, patriotic film made with a very definite purpose, and if you make allowances for that purpose, it's easy to accept the overdoing of the message, and appreciate the film for what it is... good, clean entertainment!