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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Stage Door Canteen (1943)



Reviews and Comments

It's not for everyone, but for me, Stage Door Canteen was a wonderfully satisfying experience: fun and silly, but also moving and sobering. It's one of those patriotic wartime musicals, featuring everymen everywomen making the best of difficult times. There are no traditional heroics here, nothing glamorous or glorified, nothing iconic: and yet, every single character is a hero.

The setting, as the title suggests, is a canteen run by real life stars of the stage and screen playing themselves. Indeed, one of the pleasures of the film, for movie buffs, is the endless parade of talent, ranging from Katharine Hepburn to Johnny Weissmuller to Benny Goodman to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The stars serve free food and/or perform for the men of the armed forces as they pass through on the way to the fronts of battle. More than the food and the entertainment, the men need the human connection, the warmth of comradeship, a reminder of what they'll be fighting for. The humanity of this film comes through in a way I can't quite explain, particularly given how generic the romances, even the characters themselves are. Generic or no, they are true to life, and we recognize ourselves in their hearts, even across decades of cultural change.

Much, probably most of the film is comprised of performances by a rotating parade of Hollywood celebrities, some who had yet to become as famous as they would. The performances are all quite entertaining, and I was impressed by the range: on the one hand, there is concert violinist Yehudi Menuhin playing "Ave Maria" and "Flight of the Bumblebee," and on the other you've got Ray Bolger hamming it up in a routine that's half physical comedy, half tap dance. Then, telling jokes on the sidelines, there's Ed Wynn, a man who could not possibly be unfunny if he tried.

Amidst the gaiety, the sobriety of the situation is not lost: the film knows well that not all of the men leaving for war will return from it. It wisely spares us the drama of who does and who doesn't. The soldiers are everymen, remember: the film isn't about specific characters but about the courage, passions, fears, and dreams of all who sailed across one ocean or the other to fight for their country. For every character here, there were dozens in real life, some who made it and some who did not. I should mention that the film is quite international: besides Americans, British, Australians, and Russians are represented, and in an age where many films reduced the roles of Asian characters to stereotypes, soldiers in the Chinese army are portrayed with great honor and respect.

As I began, this film may not be for everyone. I can see those who have little interest in the times or in classic Hollywood longing for a heftier story and more theatrical drama. But for others, this film will be a precious and fun little time capsule.

Note: Many versions of this film run 93 minutes, severely cut from the original and proper 132 minutes. If you're going to see the film, try to see the longer cut. The shorter one removes a number of the performances, which is sort of missing the point.