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Wednesday
May072014

A Year with Kate: Stage Door Canteen (1943)

Episode 19 of 52 of Anne Marie's chronological look at Katharine Hepburn's career.

In which Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, and a stripper walk into a bar…

Ain't you heard? There's a war on! Two years into the Second World War, Americans were fulfilling their patriotic duty, finding ways to serve and protect. The message at the front: fight back the enemy. The message at home: support our troops! But how does a movie star fulfill her patriotic duty? The answer came in the form of the Stage Door Canteen (and its West Coast cousin the Hollywood Canteen, which would get movie treatment in 1944). Any serviceman in uniform could come to the Stage Door Canteen, eat and dance for free, and maybe catch a glimpse at the stars, who volunteered to bus tables, play host, and entertain the servicemen free of charge. Stage Door Canteen was produced by the American Theatre Guild (distribution by RKO), and boasted 48 huge stars and 6 boisterous big bands to entertain the troops and boost morale at home.

Unfortunately, time marches forward, and of the 48 stars formerly so easily recognizable, most have been forgotten to time and old Looney Toons caricatures. Even I, expert though I am, as knowledgeable as I am humble, only can name about half without first scouring IMDb. However, I know that all of you are just as geeky as I am--if not moreso. So, instead of just listing my top 10 favorite cameos from this film, I've created a brief quiz. How many of these 11 stars can you name? (The first one is a gimme.)

 11. We're almost at the halfway point. If you don't know who this is, then frankly I don't know why you're reading this. (Unless you just really like my writing, in which case please continue!) This Oscar winning actress is trotted out in the last few minutes of the film to give the heartbroken lead some  Yankee patriotism. She's the only cameo who actually advances the plot (what little of it that exists). I'm guessing that's because the American Theatre Guild was not heavy on instantly-recognizable stars like our lady on the left, and so saved the big guns for last. We've spent the last 19 weeks obsessing over her. Who is she?

 10. This woman's name is synonymous with Broadway. Just about every major songsmith wrote for her, including Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim. Here's a brief list of Broadway shows she opened, thanks to her overwhelming vocal ability and equally large personality: Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, Red Hot And Blue, and Panama Hattie. She would eventually end up starring in a musical based on the life of the #1 lady on this list. She's the hostest with the mostest! Who is she?

 

9. This athletic dancer seemed to be boneless (and brainless) when he pulled off his comedic-yet-graceful dance routines. Best known for his straw-headed role in a Judy Garland musical made three year prior, he'd actually team up with Judy again in Harvey Girls and later work with her daughter Liza Minelli in a documentary called That's Dancing. If he only had a brain, maybe you'd recognize him. Who is he?

8. Only on radio could a ventriloquist whose lips moved become such a smash success. In her autobiography Knock Wood, Candice Bergan would describe the dummy on the left as a "brother." The dummy on the right was her father. Together, this ventriloquist and his dummy would be stars of TV, Radio, and Film. Never mind how bad the jokes were. Who were they?

7. A trained Vaudevillian by the time talkies arrived, this comedian is best known for his collaborations with Disney. First, he was the physical model and voice actor for the Mad Hatter. Next, he got stuck on the ceiling in Mary Poppins. He actually delivers my favorite punchline in that film: "I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith" "What's the name of his other leg?" He loved to laugh (ha ha ha ha!) Who was he?

6. She's the second EGOT winner, and the first woman to win all four. She won two Oscars, one Emmy, one Grammy, and two Tony Awards between 1932 and 1980. Her first Oscar was for The Sin of Madelon Claudet, and her second was for a supporting role in Airplane 38 years later. She was the First Lady of American Theater. Who was she?

5. I wouldn't blame you if you missed this one. It's difficult to recognize this actress when she's not whispering suicidal thoughts into the ear of Joan Fontaine or lovingly stroking the personal effects of her long-dead employer in Rebecca. But look! It's almost uncanny. She wears colors! Mrs. Danvers is smiling! Who is she?

4. A true theatrical star knows how to make an entrance, and boy does this star make an entrance in Stage Door Canteen. You hear her before you see her - her iconic voice floating over a pack of men around her. She refuses to turn all the way to the camera, making hers the most maddening cameo in the bunch. No wonder Margo Channing is rumored to be based on her. She did Thornton Wilder, Lillian Hellman, Radio and talk shows, but her biggest movie credit is the Hitchcock oddity Lifeboat. DAHLING! Who is she?

3. No introductions are needed for this comedian, which is good because the famous mute couldn't give you one. By the time Stage Door Canteen was released, the biggest hits for this actor and his brothers--Duck Soup, A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races--were already in the past. A Night In Casablanca would come out the next year to little fanfare. Though he played the dumb brother, he was a member of the Algonquin Roundtable and wrote a beautiful autobiography, proving he was anything but dumb. He was in an episode of I Love Lucy. Who is he?

2. Career-wise, this actress wasn't the most interesting. She had two big roles: She starred in Wuthering Heights opposite a very studly Laurence Olivier, and in The Scarlett Pimpernel opposite a surprisingly dashing Leslie Howard. Her origins are shrouded in mystery. Her mother was of Asian Indian descent, though she tried to hide it all her life. Instead she claimed to be from Australia, although there was only proof of her visiting there once or twice. She ran away to find Heathcliff on the moors. Who was she?

1. My favorite cameo in the entire film. A stripper so famous she could do her act in a Hays Code censored movie. She combined wit with sex and put the “tease” in “striptease.” She had a TV and radio career arguably more successful than her “legitimate” younger sister, June Havoc. Eventually this ecdysiast’s memoirs inspired one of the greatest American musicals of the 20th century. She had no talent. "Honey, to be a stripper all you need is no talent!" Who is she?

These are only a few of the talents packed into the film's two hour runtime. Also featured are Ethel Waters, Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee, Ralph Bellamy, Johnny Weissmuller, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine, and many more. It's a window into time. Nevermind that time has lost the importance of the names or shown the film's quality to be severly lacking. Put it in perspective. Just think of how much more interested folks in the future will be of New Year's Eve, if only because it gives them an idea of who was popular in the early 2010s. On that slightly depressing note...

how many of those 11 stars did you name? 

Previous Weeks: A Bill of DivorcementChristopher Strong, Morning Glory, Little Women, Spitfire, The Little Minister, Break of Hearts, Alice Adams, Sylvia Scarlett, Mary of Scotland, A Woman Rebels, Quality Street, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, Keeper Of The Flame,

Next Week:
Monday, 5/12: Katharine Hepburn's 107th birthday!
Wednesday, 5/14: Dragon Seed (1944) - In which Katharine Hepburn dons yellow face for the war effort

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Reader Comments (12)

My guesses (I pinky swear not to cheat and look these up).
11. Duh
10. Ethel Merman
9. Ray Bolger
8. Edgar Begman
7. Guy who was the Mad Hatter in the Disney Alice Ed Wynn (?)
6. Agnes!
5. Judith!
4. Greta!
3. Harpo!
2. No idea
1. Gypsy Rose

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

the second one is Merle Oberon. but isn't 6 Helen Hayes? otherwise Christine is correct.

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterabstew

oh and 4 is Talulah Bankhead...

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterabstew

I got them all (I'm sure) except for the rubber faced actor from Mary Poppins. I'd also guess Ed Wynn, though I only really know his son Keenen Wynn.

PS wasn't Merle Oberon called "that Singapore Streetwalker?"

You guys are good! I'm honestly not surprised. I'll post the official answers at 8pm EST.

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

11. Hepburn
10. Ethel Merman
9. Ray Bolger
8. Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy
7. Ed Wynn
6. Helen Hayes
5. Judith Anderson
4. Tallulah Bankhead
3. Harpo Marx
2. Merle Oberon
1. Gypsy Rose Lee

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

As promised, here are the answers. Bravo Brad for getting 100%

11.) Our own Katharine Hepburn
10.) Ethel Merman
9.) Ray Bolger
8.) Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy
7.) Ed Wynn
6.) Helen Hayes
5.) Judith Anderson
4.) Tallulah Bankhead
3.) Harpo Marx
2.) Merle Oberon
1.) Gypsy Rose Lee

Did anybody have some favorite cameos from the movie that I left out?

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Pooey! I always get Jack Haley and Ray Bolger's names mixed up. Otherwise, I got them all, which feels awesome. Judith Anderson in profile remains fantastic.

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

I didn't have a chance to read the article until now so I hope it doesn't sound jerky that I knew them all without looking at the answers. Just one small correction though Anne Marie, Helen Hayes won supporting actress for Airport not Airplane.

I wouldn't say I love this movie but I like it a great deal and it was entertaining with a lot of talent on display, something that whoever is foolish enough to look back at New Year's Eve will not find there.

The main story is mile high corn but with that amazing cast roll so what. The two performances that stood out in particular for me were Peggy Lee, incredibly saucy and sexy, and Ethel Waters. Some of the stars are a bit stiff but that's natural considering most of them where primarily stars of the stage not screen. Kate is brisk and efficient which is all her sequence really requires.

My favorite moment: the utterly charming scene between Katharine Cornell and Lon McCallister where they perform an impromptu bit of Romeo and Juliet.

The film is without any real meaning in Kate's filmography but I'm glad she participated since it keeps it a viable record for future audiences of rare or in some cases the only recorded appearance of many stage legends who would otherwise be completely inaccessible.

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

That week went fast! I was aiming to watch this movie before you wrote it up, since I've been curious about it for years, but alas the version I downloaded didn't work and I didn't get around to tracking down another one.

Anyhow, fun writeup as always. I got all the answers other than 8 and 1.

I'm terrified of Dragon Seed. I doubt I'll be able to stomach the film. But very much looking forward to the write-up.

May 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

It's not from the movies, but in the late 60's/early 70's, Judith Anderson toured in Hamlet...playing Hamlet himself! (My high school English class went to see it.) She wasn't bad.

May 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBill_the_Bear

Love this idea as a way to write up Stage Door Canteen! I have a strange affection for this one - when I was younger and just starting to get into classic Hollywood, I took this out from the library one day. I saw all the stars on the cover and just about died. It's not really a good film in the traditional sense, but I just loved looking at all the stars I had heard/read about and wondering which of the other people in the film were stars and which were just lucky to be in their presence. I was in awe, quite frankly. I love the film to this day for being so unabashedly movie star-centric and not really caring about anything else. The reason it works and things like New Year's Eve don't is because they really played off the stars' established personas and just let them be stars. I don't think a single one of them was "acting" in Stage Door Canteen, just saying their lines as themselves - and I LOVE that.

May 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

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