Monday, June 16, 2014

The Hollywood Canteen

From Lapham's Quarterly:
When America went to war following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hollywood went to war as well. Quite literally: between 1941 and 1944, over 6000 Hollywood workers joined the service, including 1500 actors. Clark Gable manned machine guns; Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. won a silver star; Jimmy Stewart flew dozens of bombing runs over Germany, rising from private to colonel. It was the equivalent of Will Smith going to Afghanistan and Brad Pitt on the ground in Iraq. The government understand the risk of putting prominent faces in battle, but also understood the stars’ potential as recruitment tools: a recruitment film starring Stewart supposedly prompted 100,000 men to enlist in the air force.

But Hollywood also went to figurative war, partnering with the war office in dozens of ways, some more obvious than others. The “Hollywood Unit” made training films, recruitment films, and newsreels, while various genres and stars were given over to “war production,” meaning a film noir starring a curmudgeonly iconoclast like Humphrey Bogart suddenly became Casablanca, complete with self-sacrificing conversion to the allied cause. Under this wartime production paradigm, The Hurt Locker would have become a celebration of grace under pressure.

Hundreds of stars, however, couldn’t go to war: they were too female, too old, or unable to pass the draft physical. Many of these stars toured the famed USO Circuits; some performed on large theaters on base, while others traveled to the front on the Fox Hole Circuit, giving impromptu performances on makeshift stages just miles from the front. 53,000 appearances by 4100 performers over four years, a figure that boggles the mind. The USO Circuits still operate today (Louis CK famously profiled his visit in an episode of last season’s Louie) but with neither the vigor nor visibility of World War II (or, for that matter, Vietnam or Korea).

All of this information is, to some extent, common knowledge. What people forget about is the sexiest part of the war effort, operated entirely outside of the auspices of the war board: The Hollywood Canteen.

The Canteen was the brainchild of actor John Garfield, a “flag-waving socialist” unable to enlist because of a heart condition, and Bette Davis, the so-called “fourth Warner Brother” and reigning queen of the studio. They wanted a place for troops to have fun before embarking on tour—and for the stars to facilitate that fun. Garfield suggested the idea, but Davis ran with it, finding an abandoned nightclub a block off Sunset Boulevard and calling upon her agent, Jules Stein, to head the financial committee. (Read more.)


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