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Hollywood at War: The Hollywood Canteen

On December 7, 1941, as World War II was raging on in Europe, the Imperial Japanese Navy led a suprise military strike against the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Commencing at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian Time, the attack was carried out by 353 Japanese fighter planes, bombers and torpedo planes in two waves, launching from six aircraft carriers. All eight U.S. Navy battleships stationed at the base were damaged, with four sunk. All but Arizona, which exploded beyond repair after being hit by four armor-piercing bombs, were later raised and six were returned to service for the remainder of the war. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship and one minelayer. In addition, 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed; 2,430 Americans were killed (1,177 on Arizona alone) and 1,178 others were wounded. The Japanese losses were significantly lighter: 29 aircraft and five midget submarines lost, 64 servicemen killed and one sailor captured as a prisoner of war. The attack on Pearl Harbor came as a profound shock to the American people and led the United States to declare war on Japan on December 8. Three days later, both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy declared war on the U.S., which was instantly reciprocated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Jules Stein, Al Ybarra, Bette Davis and
John Garfield planning the construction
of the Hollywood Canteen (1942)
After America effectively entered World War II, all Japanese employees of all the Hollywood studios were removed to so-called «relocation camps,» while thousand of technicians, drivers, actors and more immediately enlisted in the armed forces. Within a few months, 70 percent of all Hollywood families had members in the military, including many movie stars who sacrificed their careers to serve their country. For instance, James Stewart and Clark Gable joined the Army Air Forces; Tyrone Power joined the Marine Corps; and Henry Fonda, Robert Montgomery, Wayne Morris and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. all enlisted in the Navy.

John Garfield had attempted to enlist in the armed forces at the onset of the war, but was rendered 4-F (unfit for duty) due to a heart condition resulting from a childhood bout with rheumatic fever. Frustrated, he turned his energies to supporting the war effort. He became interested in the idea of setting up a West Coast counterpart to the Stage Door Canteen, which had opened in New York in March 1942 as a club offering food and free entertainment for American servicemen. Over lunch at the Warner Bros. commissary, Garfield approached fellow studio contract player Bette Davis, his co-star in Juarez (1939), and told her about his concept of a Canteen to be run solely by members of the Hollywood film community. When he asked Davis to become the Canteen's chairwoman, she enthusiastically accepted.

As President and Vice-President of the Hollywood Canteen, Davis and Garfield spent weekends studying the rigorous process of turning their dream project into a reality. One of their first tasks was to obtain the support of every guild, union and craft organization affiliated with Hollywood's entertainment industry. In June 1942, Davis and Garfield arranged a meeting of several people who were committed to getting the Canteen operating. They began by appointing a Board of Directors and electing a slate of officers, which were selected from representatives of the 42 guilds and unions who had lent their support. Classical pianist Carroll Hollister and American Federation of Musicians executive J. K. «Spike» Wallace joined Garfield as Vice-Presidents; film art director Al Ybarra became Treasurer; and Jean Lewin, an active member of the Screen Office Employees Guild, became Secretary. Davis also enlisted the help of Jules Stein, the powerful founder and head of Music Corporation of America (MCA), which represented the actress as her theatrical agency. As a man who dreaded making public appearances, Stein initially refused to participate, but Davis eventually persuaded him to work as the Canteen's business manager. Years later, she said, «Without Jules Stein, there would never have been a Hollywood Canteen.»

Volunteers entrance at the Canteen (1943)
After weeks of searching for a suitable building where they could establish the Canteen, Davis and Garfield found an old livery stable at 1451 Cahuenga Boulevard, which had housed a series of ill-fated nightclubs before closing down in 1937. They leased it for $100 a month for the duration of the war, plus six months, and marshaled 14 guilds and unions to donate the labor and materials to renovate the building. A large group of Hollywood's motion picture craftsmen, including carpenters, electricans, plumbers, painters and set decorators, volunteered their services and immediate cooperation. In addition, thousands of feet of lumber, multiple barrels of nails, gallons of paint, miles of electrical wire, hundreds of yards of concrete and scores of plumbing fixtures were given freely. All of this material was used to construct a new stage, a large service counter, a kitchen facility, a lighting control room, a lobby and a few offices. Cary Grant also gave a piano of his own, while studio head Jack Warner shipped in linoleum. The food, beverages (no alcohol allowed) and cigarettes were to be donated by Southern California distributors.

Because the Canteen would be run by people with nine-to-five jobs, its hours would be from 7 p.m. to midnight, in two shifts, Monday through Saturday; and on Sunday, from 2 to 8 p.m. It was figured that approximately 300 volunteers would be needed nightly. These would include junior and senior hostesses, busboys, kitchen help, doormen, cloakroom clerks, stage staff, band members and celebrities who would serve sandwiches and coffee, as well as provide entertainment. The Canteen's officers and directors agreed that the volunteers should be solely from the entertainment industry, although anyone affiliated with the Hollywood studios and related guilds and unions would also be welcomed. The Canteen was to be used exclusively by enlisted soldiers and sailors of the United States and Allied nations, as well as women in all branches of service. A servicemen's uniform would be his ticket of admission into the Canteen and everything there would be completely free of charge.

Marlene Dietrich pouring coffee
The Hollywood Canteen opened on October 3, 1942, with a glorious gala show hosted by Eddie Cantor that featured the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Rudy Vallee's Coast Guard Band and comic interludes provided by the popular duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. From that night on, the Canteen was usually filled to the brim with about 2,000 servicemen, who were asked to stay only an hour on the premises, so as to make room for others waiting outside. Significantly, the Canteen was not segregated, although black and white servicemen tended to remain in their own separate groups and space.

Almost all of Hollywood's greatest stars volunteered their time at the Canteen. Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Greer Garson, Betty Grable, Hedy Lamarr and Olivia de Havilland served coffee, cakes and sandwiches and took turns dancing with the servicemen. Fred MacMurray, Basil Rathbone and even Garfield himself worked as busboys, while Joe E. Brown — who lost his son Don during the war — Bing Crosby and Bob Hope provided entertainment. Other celebrities who donated their services at the Canteen included Joan Fontaine, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Shirley Temple, Gary Cooper, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Only Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin remained inexplicably aloof from the proceedings at Cahuenga Boulevard.

The popularity of the Hollywood Canteen inspired Warner Bros. to produce a film of the same name. The studio constructed an exact replica of the Canteen on one of its soundstages and gathered the talents of 62 stars to play themselves in a story loosely scripted by Delmer Daves, who also served as director. The point of the film was to show the Canteen in operation and showcase the Warner Bros. «stock company» exactly as they might be performing there on any given night. As such, the plot of Hollywood Canteen (1944) is virtually non-existent. Two wounded soldiers, Corporal «Slim» Green (Robert Hutton) and his friend, Sergeant «Brooklyn» Nolan (Dane Clark), are sent stateside to recuperate before being reassigned to active duty in the South Pacific. Upon arriving in California, they visit the Hollywood Canteen, where it is announced that Slim is their one-millionth guest. The prize is a fun-filled weekend that includes a date with his dream girl, actress Joan Leslie. In turn, Brooklyn gets to dance with Joan Crawford, who had recently signed with Warners after parting ways with MGM.

Robert Hutton, Bette Davis and John Garfield
in Hollywood Canteen
Throughout the film, Davis and Garfield give talks on the history of the Canteen and many of the celebrities take time out from their hospitality services to entertain. For instance, Jack Carson and Jane Wyman perform «What Are You Doin' the Rest of Your Life» with Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra; Roy Rogers and Trigger offer their rendition of «Don't Fence Me In»; the Andrew Sisters sing «Getting Corn For My Country»; and Jack Benny and classical violinist Joseph Szigeti perform a comic fiddling duel. Hollywood Canteen premiered at the Strand Theatre in New York on December 15, 1944, receiving a general release at the end of the month. Although the film opened to mixed critical reviews, its all-star cast and wartime appeal made it the fifth highest-grossing picture of the year, taking $4.1 million at the box-office. Warner Bros. donated 40 percent of the film's profits to the real Hollywood Canteen. 

A controversy arose from Hollywood Canteen regarding its attitude towards servicemen. Edwin Schallert, the film critic for the Los Angeles Times, was especially disturbed by a scene in which Paul Henreid baits the character played by Dane Clark in what was supposed to be a comic routine. He also expressed his distaste for a scene in which a soldier cannot believe his luck when Hedy Lamarr tells him that she is indeed Hedy Lamarr. Kevin Starr shares Schallert's opinion, arguing, «Not a single serviceman in Hollywood Canteen emerges with any discernible autonomy when fortunate enough to meet a real live Hollywood star from Warner Bros. They melt, rather, in grateful awe before these representatives from the kingdom of enchantment. Hollywood Canteen was not a film, even a sappy film, about how brave these young men were as they headed into harm's way. Hollywood Canteen was, rather, a celebration about how good Hollywood was to be on hand personally to send them off.» In fact, a group of enlisted men at the time, outraged by the film, signed a joint letter to the press protesting this «slur on the intelligence and acumen of every member of the armed services.» 

When President Harry Truman made his historic announcement on August 14, 1945 that the war was over, Hollywood — like the rest of America — exploded with excitement. More than 3,000 servicemen flooded into the Canteen and spilled out into the streets of Hollywood in an enormous public celebration. Soon after World War II ended, the Canteen's doors were closed; its farewell performance was on the night of November 22 and starred Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Jerry Colonna. By this time, the Canteen had entertained an estimated three million servicemen, averaging 100,000 soldiers and sailors a month, and still had $500,000 left in the bank. Despite whatever controversy the film might have generated, the Hollywood Canteen was an important part of the war effort. By allowing servicemen the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to socialize with their favorite stars, the Canteen made them forget — even just for a night — the grim reality that awaited them overseas. In later years, Bette Davis said, «There are few accomplishment in my life that I am sincerely proud of. The Hollywood Canteen is one of them.»

Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 by Kevin Starr (Oxford University Press, 2003)
Hollywood Remembered: An Oral History of Its Golden Age by Paul Zollo (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2002)
Movieland: Hollywood and the Great American Dream Culture by Jerome Charyn (New York University Press, 1996)
The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler (Simon & Schuster, 2006) 


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