Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your Classic Movie guys, back again with another meditation about the amazing show biz “canteens” of World War II.
The 1943 film “Stage Door Canteen — A Soldier’s Story” not only provided entertainment for the troops and folks back home, but it captured some of the best entertainers of the era on film so later generations could appreciate them.
Naturally, there were the big bands and band vocalists such as vocalist Peggy Lee with the Benny Goodman Orchestra (pictured above).
But there were also some big Broadway stars who people in the hinterlands (and we nearly 70 years later) might never have seen. People such as Katherine Cornell. Take a look because Cornell made no other films!
She was often touted as the “First Lady of the American Theatre.” But the only record we have of her today are a few brief lines from “Romeo and Juliet.”
In “Stage Door Canteen” Cornell is serving coffee and donuts to a line of servicemen and to a very young Lon McAllister — so impressed at meeting her that he tells the legendary stage actress that he himself performed in the Shakespearean tragedy in high school.
Cornell and McAllister’s character then run through a few lines. It’s a poignant scene.
One of Joe’s favorite bits in the film is a production number by famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
She is dressed as a milk maid but performs, in effect, her sensational strip from her burlesque days. Of course, she begins with having so many clothes on that by the time she’s finished she’s still covered neck to toe, wrists to ankles. But we at least are treated to the wit and personality for which she was noted.
Frank’s favorite is the performance of the Count Basie Orchestra fronted by sassy singer-actress Ethel Waters. (See our blog of Aug. 23.)
Other Broadway notables who perform in the film include Ray Bolger, Ed Wynn and Ethel Merman. And for the more serious in the audience, the movie made room for a spot by famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin.
Sequences for the film were shot in New York and Hollywood.
Through the years of the War the New York Stage Door Canteen entertained thousands of servicemen. There was even a branch of the Stage Door Canteen in Philadelphia (Broadway always had an “out of town.”)
Who knew when “Stage Door Canteen — A Soldier’s Story” was made that it would in ensuing decades morph from light musical and comedy entertainment into a fascinating bit of cultural history?