Friday, April 5, 2013

Bette Davis: A Great American On- and Off-Screen in "Hollywood Canteen"

Today marks Bette Davis' 105th birthday.  Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I first became acquainted with Davis' work from her appearances in horror thrillers she made later in her career.  It was when I started watching the classics she made during the 1930s and 1940s, that I grew to truly appreciate her as one of the great stars of the classic era of Hollywood.  Unlike other people, who tended to focus on her more overt roles where she played aggressive and unsympathetic characters, I actually preferred the movies--such as "The Old Maid" (1939), "All This, and Heaven Too" (1940) and "Now, Voyager" (1942)--where she played more subtle and low-key roles, the kind of women who would sacrifice themselves for the people they loved.  After reading several biographies of Davis, and hearing plenty of stories about her, I go against the grain and feel that those roles, which allowed her to demonstrate warmth and vulnerability, probably reflect who Davis was as a human being rather than the "b-tchy" roles she seems to be more identified with.  No doubt she was a larger-than-life personality who didn't suffer fools gladly, but I also always sensed that she was a woman who indeed had heart. 

One reason why I tend to see Davis in a sympathetic light, compared to others who prefer to see her as a diva, is because of her admirable work during World War II in helping to organize and run the Hollywood Canteen.  For the uninitiated, the Canteen was a club in Los Angeles, located in Hollywood at 1451 Cahuenga Boulevard, that provided food, dancing and entertainment free of charge to military personnel from all the Allied nations.  Movie stars, as well as entertainment industry personnel who worked behind the scenes, volunteered their time at the Canteen every night after work.  Stars not only provided entertainment on-stage, they also waited on, prepared meals, cleaned up, and danced with the service members.  Davis, along with fellow Warner Brothers contract star John Garfield, founded and organized the Canteen and operated as its President from the time it opened its doors on October 3, 1942 until it closed three years later on November 22, 1945.  As such, it's understandable why Bette Davis indicated in interviews that her participation with the Canteen was one of the proudest accomplishments of her life.

Davis' involvement with the Canteen was amazing for several reasons.  She was able to operate and volunteer at the Canteen at night while filming many of her classic movies at Warner Brothers during the day.  She did not get paid for her efforts, and was instrumental in ensuring that many studios, guilds and unions donated their resources to the club.  Most importantly, Davis did it out of a selfless interest in ensuring that military personnel passing through Southern California on their way to being deployed would have a place to relax and enjoy themselves and feel appreciated for their duty and sacrifice to their country.  There are still celebrities who entertain for the troops today, but I can't help but get the feeling that some (but not all of them) do it because it provides a good photo op.  In contrast, I feel the stars of the classic era of Hollywood were more sincere in helping the troops--whether by volunteering at either the Hollywood or the Stage Door Canteen, or entertaining overseas, or going on war bond tours to help raise money to fight the war--because they all came from either rural or modest backgrounds and still remember what it was like to be a regular person before becoming a star.

Ironically, even though we idealize the stars of the classic era of Hollywood as being larger-than-life, I think many of them still had enough of a connection to their roots that they felt they were the same as everyone else in the country who had a stake in Allied victory over the Axis nations.  That's why stars like James Stewart, Robert Montgomery, Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., William Holden, Robert Stack, and Clark Gable served in the military during the war, and why many of the remaining stars on the home front made significant contributions to support the war effort.  It's one thing to fly in, do a show for service members for a few hours or a few days, and then fly back out.  It's another thing entirely to volunteer several nights a week after work on a regular basis for at least three years to cook, serve food, dance with, and spend time socializing with service members up close.  Davis and the stars of the classic era of Hollywood distinguish themselves from many current stars because of the personalized touch they put into contributing to the war effort.

As a result of the success of the real-life Hollywood Canteen, Warner Brothers, Bette Davis' own studio, decided to make a film based on it.  Davis and John Garfield played themselves in the film and many stars under contract to Warner Brothers made cameo appearances throughout.  As a film "Hollywood Canteen" (1944) is a rather underrated musical comedy, written and directed by Delmer Daves, that tells the story of Army corporal Slim Green (Robert Hutton) who was wounded while serving in the South Pacific and is currently on leave in Hollywood, California with his buddy, Sergeant Nolan (Dane Clark).  Slim wants to see movie stars while he is on leave and is told that he should head over to the Hollywood Canteen for food and entertainment.  Slim's favorite movie star is Joan Leslie (playing herself) and asks Jack Carson while visiting the Canteen what it was like to work with Leslie.  When Bette Davis, John Garfield, and Jane Wyman all learn about Slim's infatuation with Joan Leslie, they call Joan Leslie away from the party she is hosting to come immediately to the Canteen where they stage an introduction between Slim and Leslie.  Slim is overwhelmed at meeting his idol and even gets to kiss her.  When he tells his buddy Sergeant Nolan all about meeting Joan Leslie and the other stars, a disbelieving Nolan insists that Slim bring him to the Canteen the next night.  Nolan is as overwhelmed as Slim was the night before, flirting with Ida Lupino and Alexis Smith and dancing with Joan Crawford.  Nolan even meets and falls in love with a junior hostess (Janis Paige) who works during the day as a guide at Warner Brothers studios.

The next night, Slim returns with Nolan and becomes the millionth man to visit the Canteen.  As a result, he is given a free hotel room, free car, the opportunity to visit any studio in town, and the opportunity to have a date with any movie star of his choice.  Slim, naturally, chooses Joan Leslie as his date and the two begin to get to know each other and is even invited by Joan Leslie to come home and have dinner with her family.  On his final night in Los Angeles, before being deployed again, Slim gives an inspiring, heartlfelt speech at the Canteen acknowledging the contributions of service members from all nations and different races in contributing to the Allied war effort.  Slim waits for Joan Leslie to arrive to take him to the train station, but her car has run out of gas.  Slim leaves her a note thanking her for her kindness and that, even if this was just meant to be a publicity stunt, it doesn't matter to him because she helped bring him more happiness than he ever expects to experience again.  At Union Station, just as Slim and Nolan's train is about to leave, Joan Leslie arrives at the last minute, after hitching a ride, to kiss Slim, bid him farewell, and assure him that their friendship will continue after he returns from the war.

A whimsical, idealistic comedy that would likely be scoffed at by cynical, younger viewers, "Hollywood Canteen" works by virtue of the genuine sincerity that characterizes the whole enterprise.  Even though there are some critics who label the movie as a self-satisfied piece of Hollywood propaganda, I don't agree because the stars playing themselves in the movie come across as sincere and humbled about spending time with military personnel who are about to be deployed in service to their country, knowing that there is a strong likelihood that they may not return safely.  As such, there is a bittersweet, melancholy air that hangs over "Hollywood Canteen" as we grow to care about Slim and Nolan and the other military personnel we meet throughout the movie who we hope will survive the war.  Robert Hutton is touching as the naive, open-hearted Slim Green.  Hutton's performance avoids being cloying or overly sentimental because of the humility that he instills in the character.  Slim never comes across smug or entitled about his good fortune in encountering all his favorite stars at the Canteen, and feels that his experiences merely reflect the experiences of all the other military personnel in attendance.

In the amazing and touching speech that Bette Davis asks Slim to make before all the military personnel in attendance before he deploys again, Slim says "Fellas, I guess any of you who were here last night and saw how I was lucky enough to be number one million were kind of ashamed of me.  All I said was 'Golly.'  I know I let you down.  That's why I wanted to come back here before I shove off tonight.  I happen to be number one million, but I just represent every fella who's ever come here.  Gosh, I might have been a soldier, a flier, or a sailor of the British commonwealth of nations.  Or a Chinese air cadet here to learn to fly.  I might have been one of our good friends from Russia.  Or one of our own colored boys.  I might have come from the Philippines across the Pacific.  Or down under from New Zealand or Australia.  Or maybe been a free Frenchman.  I might have been one of the boys from South America, or from our next door neighbor Mexico.  Or escaped from Norway or the Netherlands or Denmark or Greece or Poland or Czechoslovakia or any of the countries.  I might have been wearing kilts like a Scotsman, but believe me if I was you could see my knees shaking right now.  So I was all you fellas rolled up into one when they made this short leave in Hollywood into some kind of paradise for me.  We've seen people we've dreamed of up close.  And we found them all as real as they are famous.  They wait on us, they wash our dishes.  Gosh, they come up here every night to make us laugh or even choke up a little.  But whatever they do they make us forget for a while where we've been, or where we're going.  Still, I think we'll remember longest that most of us arrived here lonely.  But after coming to the Canteen, we weren't lonely anymore.  So, Miss Davis, when I just said 'Golly' last night, I was feeling as grateful as all the boys are.  Except that we can't put it into words.  So instead of saying 'Thanks' we just say 'Golly' and never forget."  Davis humbly responds "You've given us something we'll never forget.  And wherever you go, our hearts go with you."

The scene is notable because, rarely in other movies made during the era, will you get such a direct acknowledgement of the contributions made by African Americans and other ethnic groups to the Allied war effort.  Throughout "Hollywood Canteen," you see service members of different races and nationalities socializing and interacting with one another.  However, it should be noted (unless we get too idealistic) that African Americans are still seen dancing only with other African Americans, and Caucasians are still seen dancing only with Caucasians, etc.  This reminds us that the history of progress throughout society is always characterized with stipulations.  In my opinion, director Delmer Daves was attempting to dramatize a moderate image of racial equality in the movie to the best of his ability.  Nevertheless, he deserves some kudos for being as cutting-edge and revolutionary as possible at the time considering how notions of equality and integration were still decades away from becoming fully accepted.  It's because of scenes such as these that the movie ages better than one might expect, and reflects Bette Davis' expressed intention for the real-life Canteen to include African Americans as well as Caucasians among the military personnel who visited because they were risking their lives to defend their country as much as anyone else.  And where else are we going to see such great leading ladies from the classic era of Hollywood all featured in one movie?  In addition to Davis, you've got Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, and Jane Wyman all making appearances (though not all at the same time).

I am not sure how Bette Davis felt about the movie version of "Hollywood Canteen," but I have no doubt the feisty and tenacious Davis worked hard to ensure that any movie based on the club she organized and ran honored the efforts of the volunteers, and the service members who visited it, in an appropriate manner.  As odd as it may sound, Bette Davis playing "Bette Davis" in the movie "Hollywood Canteen" is one of my favorite Davis performances.  Like Joan Leslie, who also gives a good performance playing "herself" in the movie, Davis has a substantial role in "Hollywood Canteen" and does not merely play a cameo.  As expected, Davis comes across as a confident, larger-than-life grande dame who is also warm, sympathetic, and kind.  Davis projects a disarming, sincere sweetness in the movie that she is not given enough credit for.  What strikes me about Davis' performance in the movie is that, even though we sense her immense pride in the Canteen, we also sense her genuine humility about it.  In "Hollywood Canteen," Davis never comes across as self-satisfied about her accomplishment, and behaves throughout the movie in a way that demonstrates that she always remembered that the purpose of the club was to honor the service members who visited, and not about honoring herself.  I am fully aware of Davis' reputation for feuding with co-stars, directors, and studio heads, but I sincerely believe that, in this particular instance in her life, Davis humbly set aside her personal concerns to do something for the greater good.  As such, her acting performance in this movie, ranks alongside her work in "The Old Maid," "All This, and Heaven Too" and "Now, Voyager" as among the most subtle and sympathetic performances throughout her career.  More importantly, Hollywood Canteen, the real-life service members club as well as the movie based on it, offers compelling evidence demonstrating the extent to which Bette Davis was both a great actress and a great American.


  1. Hooray for Bette Davis. Thanks for the great analysis, history lesson, and insights. Brilliand and Bravo!

  2. Bette Davis' illustrious movie career certainly outshone her charity work but she is also known as a co founder of Hollywood Canteen. These times are so far away & so long past, they seem also mythical & surreal. But they also were magical times that gave Hollywood a deeper & more endearing meaning than being merely Tinseltown