Since it was two of Warner Brothers’ biggest stars, Bette Davis and John Garfield (pictured above), who were the inspiration behind The Hollywood Canteen, it seemed only natural that that studio would make the film.
Hey, a profit-minded studio head never let an altruistically-motivated venture go to waste.
Warner’s supposedly tried to launch the movie as a multi-studio effort on behalf the troops, drawing on the star benches of each including Fox, Paramount and MGM. But when the other studios balked at loaning our their biggest stars, Warner’s decided to go it alone.
With 1944’s “Hollywood Canteen“, writer/director Delmar Daves decided to use the story of the one millionth serviceman to enter the Canteen as the basis for his plot. The soldier, portrayed by Robert Hutton (pictured above left), would win a date and fall in love with a star. His buddy, played by Dane Clark, would have to be content with a dance with Joan Crawford.
Warners wanted their hottest box office star Ann Sheridan for the lead, but she refused the part saying it was it was cruel for the studio to suggest to soldiers that they could meet and fall in love with a star, and that their love would be reciprocated.
Contract player Joan Leslie, reasonably big at the time but almost forgotten today, was cast. She did not have Sheridan’s power to refuse. Sheridan had a point, to be sure, although at least one big star we know of (Hedy Lamarr) met one of her future lovers (another actor) at a Canteen function.
In “Hollywood Canteen,” Davis and Garfield explained what the Canteen was, and why they’d founded it. Hollywood was always good at self promotion.
As with “Stage Door Canteen — A Soldier’s Story,” and “Thank Your Lucky Stars,” filmgoers were treated to several production numbers from noted entertainers, such as The Andrews Sisters. But, unlike the performers in “Stage Door Canteen,” all of the key players (including Jack Benny) in this film were already known to movie audiences.
A special treat: Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, that marvelous “The Maltese Falcon” duo, reunited onscreen again.
“Hollywood Canteen” was nominated for three Academy Awards (again unlike it’s Broadway counterpart). It didn’t win in any category. Wartime patriotism, it seemed, had its limits.
Still, the movie is worth seeing for its historical perspective. Imagine, a time when the biggest Hollywood stars voluntarily took it upon themselves to personally mingle and socialize with — and entertain — troops in uniform.
Although the famous “Canteens” are gone, at least they’re immortalized on film.