Hollywood Canteen (1944)

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This propaganda extravaganza showcases Hollywood in all its glory from the Brown Derby to the Hollywoodland sign and of course the pride and joy of wartime morale-boosting, the Hollywood Canteen.  It’s a bit of a faux reality, Hollywood’s rendition of what real life might actually be like since the Hollywood Canteen did in fact exist.

Historically, it began as an effort by John Garfield and Bette Davis of all people to support the troops and give them quality entertainment from the entertainment capital of the world. Though newsreel footage might serve as a better historical marker (albeit still biased), there’s no questioning the patriotic waves flooding through this picture.

True, even in this film there are anecdotes that point to a slightly different reality. Namely the fact that this was meant to be a Hollywood wide endeavor but all other studios balked and so the lineup is filled out by Warner Bros. catalog of stars and them alone.

Furthermore, it’s easy to surmise that far from being overcome by patriotic fervor, Joan Crawford probably took her role because the alphabetical billing conveniently put her above a couple perennial rivals in Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck.

Even with its authenticity in question, there’s no doubt that the film boasts talent. There’s an inexhaustible array of song & dance from the likes of the Andrew Sisters, Roy Rogers (with Trigger) and Jimmy Dorsey.  The stars also come out in full force with cameos from everyone conceivably under contract to Warner Bros from Kitty Carlisle, Jack Carson, Joe E. Brown, Ida Lupino, Jack Benny, and of course Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet staying in character. Each one provides enough star power to fill in the idle moments around our main love story.

Still, there’s no doubt that Joan Leslie was one of America’s sweethearts and it’s no coincidence that our protagonist falls head over heels for her all the way in the South Pacific. The pair of lovebirds represents all that is seemingly good and upright about American ideals even if she is a movie star and he is only a common soldier.

That makes the prospect of actually meeting her beyond his wildest dreams, but Hollywood purportedly is in the dream making business and so Slim gets his wishes granted. A date with his dream girl is soon arranged by those tactful matchmakers Davis and Garfield.

Robert Hutton is almost uncannily reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart who was at the time leading bombing raids over Germany. It seems little coincidence that he would then land the crucial role as the universal soldier Slim — a man who saw his share of action and is home for a short spell — before heading out on his next tour of duty.

He represents all the boys fighting for not just the Red, White, and Blue but every color and creed. In his very starry-eyed and candid way, he mentions each one as the camera picks each out of the crowd. Curious the only group not mentioned were members of the Japanese-American infantry. Yet another incongruity with the world at large. But the red carpet that is rolled out for him at the Hollywood Canteen is meant to be only a small recompense for all his service to his country.

Delmer Daves’s picture much like Stage Door Canteen (1943) fits the realm of saccharine propaganda, even blatantly so, but if you allow yourself to be carried away by the historical moment it has its certain charms.

True, the Home Front or the Allied cause isn’t quite as unified and squeaky clean as it claims to be just as humanity on the whole and the stars behind Hollywood rarely could hold up to scrutiny. However, there’s still something here that can make you smile. Publicity stunt or not. Maybe it’s the romantic in me that likes to believe there’s at least a kernel of truth in here and if nothing else there’s honest to goodness sincerity.

3.5/5 Stars

Son of Paleface (1952)

Son_of_PalefaceIt’s hard to grow tired of Bob Hope. In many ways, he’s a universal entertainer — transcending time — circumventing the decades with a brand of humor that is timeless. And the same goes for his iconic persona. He can quip with his lips like Groucho Marx but he’s more of a lovable dope. He likes to think he’s clever and when he lets his mouth run off Hope certainly is, in a cheeky sort of way. It’s just his characters who are always dumb.

Whether it was his own stellar ad-libbing or a careful premeditation of calculated gags, there’s no doubt that Bob Hope has staying power. The Road Pictures with Bing Crosby are a testament to that, but in my own personal estimation, Son of Paleface is arguably one of his best films. Ironically, it came as a sequel to the standout hit Paleface from 1948. But for many, the second go-around is markedly better.

Here Hope is reincarnated as a pompous Harvard man, Junior Potter, a young college magnum cum laude who is intent on heading out West to collect on his heralded father’s long-lost fortune. He expects the welcoming committee to be waiting for him, but there’s only a town of locals intent to settle long-standing debts.

There’s also someone else who is quite interested in Junior Potter and most specifically his supposed fortune — the wanted outlaw The Torch. Of course, no one knows that this brazen outlaw comes in the form of sultry saloon owner Mike (Jane Russell) the jewel of every man’s eye. Junior’s not the least among them, not knowing what her true intentions are. He doesn’t mind getting to know her a little better and she obliges, though it doesn’t help he has all the charm of a bad toothache.

Mike’s not the only one masquerading, however, a government agent is undercover as well, bent on catching the notorious outlaw in his/her tracks. Enter Roy Rogers with his trusty steed Trigger stage right. Thus, the stage is set for a classic western showdown dragged through the mud and riddled with jokes thanks in part to Hope. Rogers and Russell are mostly serious but once and a while they offer a quip or two because Hope prompts such a response every now and then.

Frank Tashlin who helped script Paleface a few years before, wanted more creative control and found himself helming the sequel much more to his liking. But this a film propelled by its leads. There’s also are surprisingly good musical numbers starting with the earlier hit “Buttons and Bows” and bolstered by the catchy additions of “Wingding Tonight,” “Four-Legged Friend,” and”Am I in Love?”

It’s true with the great parodies that they know when to go for gags and when to play it straight. There needs to be a clash of tones, a cacophony of the outlandish with the dramatic. Hope supplies the pratfalls and one-liners with his usual aptitude — just like another walk in the park or an Oscar ceremony (he did host 19 times after all). Because it’s exactly that type of material that’s built into his persona free of charge. It flows out so naturally, with extreme ease. Breaking up the action is exactly what we expect from him. There are madcap chase scenes, catcalls and pratfalls,  fourth wall breaking, and numerous prattling asides that Hope fills with his usual wit. I used to watch Hope a lot as a kid and even after so many years it still feels fun.But that’s not to discount Roy Rogers and Jane Russell one bit. They make up a winning western trio indeed.

3.5/5 Stars