Stage Door Canteen is a film I have known about for years, just because it appears on so many actors’ filmographies. I finally got around to seeing it, even though it is pretty much what I expected it to be—a string of short cameo appearances with only a shadow of a plot to hold them together.
The real Stage Door Canteens where nightclubs set up during World War II to entertain US servicemen waiting to be dispatched overseas, and Allied service troops on leave in the US. The entertainment, and even the food counter staff, was covered by volunteer celebrities, who were “doing their bit” for the war. Similarly, the film is cast with everyone from Katharine Hepburn to Harpo Marx. Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, is surprisingly good in his dance comedy number, but many of the cameo appearances are so short, you barely have time to recognize who is on the screen before they are gone again. There are musical numbers from Benny Goodman, Count Bassie, Xavier Cugat, and classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, which give the viewer a nice look at these performers from an era far before the dawn of music videos. Famed burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee also puts in an appearance, but it is unclear how much she had to tone down her “strip tease” act (in which she leaves on a majority of her clothing).
The somewhat thin plot that holds together all the vignettes has to do with a rule that apparently existed at the real canteens, prohibiting the young women who worked there to dance and talk with the visiting serviceman to accept dates with them outside the canteen. Two of the volunteers, who are also roommates, are sweet on two soldiers, one of whom has never kissed a girl and the other who first comes off as arrogant but who turns out to be a sweet boy from the sticks. The girls find themselves wanting to bend the rules a bit, which gets them in trouble until Katharine Hepburn steps in to remind them what the Canteen is all about. There are a few other scenes that are somewhat awkwardly inserted to remind viewers that the Chinese, the Russians, the Australians were on the same side as America, and there were also African-American soldiers in the war.