When I’m not thinking about robots and our bright, automaton future, I’m thinking about the war (you know; the war.) And when I’m thinking about the war, I’m either crying or utterly boggled. Today, from the front lines of boggling, I bring you: The Hollywood Canteen.
As soldiers shuttled in and out of the Pacific theater via the golden state during World War II, Tinseltown welcomed America’s men in uniform with open arms to the Hollywood Canteen, where they might spend their last night on shore leave enjoying the hospitality of some of the silver screen’s brightest stars. On a good night, you could catch a rousing number by the Andrews Sisters and dance with Rita Hayworth. Cary Grant might bring you a sandwich.
If that doesn’t sound absolutely bananas to you, try to picture that same scenario with a modern lens. A club where, before you ship out, Matt Damon offers you a cigarette, and Scarlett Johansson brought you the pie you’re eating. Jack Black might take the stage for a few rowdy one-liners in a little while, after Bruno Mars croons through a number with the live band. You promised your last dance to Dwayne The Rock Johnson or Charlize Theron. You’ll pay nothing (the eventual “price” of your joining the military withstanding,) and you won’t forget that experience for whatever’s left of your life.
Sounds insane, doesn’t it? There’s a place where celebrities are catering to civilians? It’s not on security lockdown, nobody has restraining orders, there are no drugs or alcohol involved? No Reality Show drama, just actual patriotism and goodwill? Could we have such a place like that in 2016? Absolutely not, 100% No. Celebrity culture (and the worship thereof) is different, military culture is different, American culture on the whole is a totally different circus than it was in 1942. It seems to me a miracle that it worked as well as it did, even then.
Bette Davis and John Garfield dreamt up the Hollywood Canteen as a way of getting the many wandering, waiting servicemen off the California streets, boosting morale while simultaneously highlighting Hollywood as an American institution that supported the country, winning good press at a time when “not doing one’s part” was the cardinal sin. Because stars belonged to studios back then, they were kept on a relatively possessive leash, and when Davis bullied and pressured studio heads (and her friends in the business) to put in hours for their country, how could they say no? Studios lent out their production staffs, stars, their dancers, stylists, cooks, builders, whoever they could spare on a rotating basis, to volunteer at the Canteen and provide for the soldiers that were constantly in and out, and all were welcome. The Hollywood Canteen allowed integrated dancing; Bette Davis saw to it. In large part, it ran on fairly strict, simple rules: circulate widely, be good, no alcohol, and don’t fall in love. That last one seems a little funny, but in the spirit of efficiency it seems reasonable to keep things light, dreamy, and otherwise healthy. The girls were instructed to have a maximum number of dances with the same gentleman so as to not allow them to get too attached. If a soldier was really bent on keeping in contact with his beautiful partner, she might give him a card with her studio’s information on it where he might write her (and, at a time when fanmail was a metric of popularity, this arrangement was mutually beneficial.)
Granted, the experience wasn’t positive for all; it couldn’t have been. Dreams (delusions) were surely dashed in one way or another for many visitors. There were just too many, and memory is so self-selecting (and, it is, after all, Hollywood writing that history for us) that it seems impossible for the Hollywood Canteen to have been as successful as it is written. When it closed its doors at the war’s end, almost three million servicemen had been through. Can you imagine three million people? Three million is not a small number. Three million is a little more than the population of Chicago. The whole city, eating and dancing and enjoying life for a fleeting moment, for free, with Bob Hope and Vivien Leigh, until the war was over.
What would that look like today? If America found itself suddenly embroiled in a horrific, lengthy war, how would Hollywood respond, in the era of cellphone cameras? We’ve seen telethons, we’ve seen big group musical numbers, charity contests, large donations. We don’t run on the studio system any more; the obligations are not the same, and frankly, we don’t have the kind of culture that could support them anyway because we left studios behind for a lot of really good reasons. Someone (George Clooney? Sharon Stone? Bey?) would come up with something, maybe, to bring together a few celebrities here and there to support the war effort, but for a hundred reasons, something even approaching the scale of Bette Davis’s project would fail. There will never be another Hollywood Canteen. It’s astronomical, miraculous even, and truly bonkers that it happened in the first place.