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Dance Floor Democracy at the Hollywood Canteen: An Excerpt

Dance Floor Democracy at the Hollywood Canteen: An Excerpt
Theatrical release poster, Stage Door Canteen. (wikimedia/commons)

By    |   Sunday, 09 November 2014 12:04 PM

An excerpt from the book Dance Floor Democracy: The Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen by Sherrie Tucker. Copyright Duke University Press, 2014.

The Hollywood Canteen was the most well-known of the Hollywood nightclubs where civilian women danced with soldiers. Some accounts of racism, sexism and inequality clash with the club’s portrayal in the 1944 comedy, Exiting the Canteen, starring Bette Davis and John Garfield.

Nearly all of the films in this genre reward the special soldier with a special hostess who breaks the rules just for him, by meeting him outside the walls of the Canteen or USO. Resolution requires tension, provided in this film by a sequence of delays and missed connections that obstruct Slim and Joan’s goodbye. When she fails to show up at the Canteen, Slim writes her a letter of thanks, sharing that even if her love was not for keeps, she has made him happier than he has ever been before. However, Joan is sincere in her affections— she is only delayed by typical war time shortages. She has run out of gas! She pushes her car, but the gas station itself is out of gas. Slim heads off to the train station, where military men and civilian women are kissing their goodbyes all around him, including Brooklyn and the script girl. The two buddies board the train.

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At the eleventh hour, Joan bursts into the station, having gotten a lift from an army captain. She runs alongside the train and promises to sit with him in the garden swing after the war. Whereas the military police and Shore Patrol officers at the Hollywood Canteen on-the-ground were supposed to discourage such rendezvous, in the universe of the movie it is a helpful MP who lifts the hostess so she may kiss her favorite GI while the train pulls out of the station. The starlet-sweetheart-to the-troops is also a deluxe model of the traditional girl- next- door who loves him for himself.

Conflict Resolution (the Movie)

As the movie nears its big finish, little remains unresolved. The stars have entertained the soldiers, who have in turn thanked the stars. Each soldier protagonist has paired off with the appropriate hostess. Race isn’t a problem according to this particular slice of war time Los Angeles. No one has been rejected from, or hurt on, the dance floor. Civilian actors are patriots and heartthrobs at the same time, retaining their masculinity. Politics are set aside. Anti-communist Hutton interacts nicely with leftist Garfield and liberal Davis in a film produced by conservative Jack Warner. If a friendly atmosphere is proof of democracy, then the film seems to imply that Warner Bros. should monitor the state and not the other way around. The only problem pending resolution is the world conflict, an issue that exceeds the frame.

By this logic, the soldiers must return to combat, fueled by the friendliness of the motion picture industry, and fight even harder. With dreams of beautiful Hollywood hostesses dancing in their heads, the soldiers will know more than ever before why they fight, and will do so with valor.

In fact, the original treatment and early scripts envisioned the film’s conclusion back where it began, “somewhere in the jungle.” Only this time Slim and Brooklyn were to bear no signs of their former injuries. Healthy and strong, they were to crouch in camouflage fatigues, wearing combat helmets, rifles ready. There they were to huddle, fondling their mementos from the Hollywood Canteen. Working-class Brooklyn was to boast to fellow soldiers about the movie stars he dazzled. Idealized soldier-next-door Slim was to savor a private moment with a photograph of beloved girl-next-door movie star Joan Leslie. He was to gazes into her eyes, shining from the eight-by ten-inch glossy she signed for him, “with love.” He was to smile when he found red check 77 folded inside the envelope. Fortified by Canteen memories, the two soldiers were to raise their rifles and charge into a rain of bullets.

Fade Out.

Hollywood’s place in the battle was to be clear to all— not only as a company town full of friendly people but as a defense industry that produced the stars behind the men behind the guns. Hollywood was to be revealed as America’s sweetheart, inspiring the troops to fight bravely by screening whatever dreams seemed to make the sacrifices worthwhile, even when actual girls- next- door failed to write and wait. However, this is not the ending that survives in the film, nor in national memory.

The combat ending was exchanged for the gentler one in which the likeable protagonists do not get pummeled with bullets (reminding audiences of theirs worst fears and losses). As in the early treatments, Brooklyn and Slim still board the troop train that will take them to San Francisco for their next orders. Joan Leslie still races to the station and kisses Slim through the train window. The soldiers still return to battle.

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Then, instead of following the soldiers into dangerous territory, the film returns us to the aerial view of the Canteen that accompanied the opening credits. Only this time soldiers, sailors, and Marines are exiting rather than entering the club.

Superimposed over this tableau a close-up of the face of Bette Davis fades in, the size of the screen, a la the title character of the Wizard of Oz, only very, very sincere. To all the soldiers, she repeats the lines she told Slim at the end of his speech. After he thanked the stars for helping the soldiers forget, she said— and she now repeats—“You’ve given us something we’ll never forget. Where ever you go, our hearts go with you.”

Most viewers, at the time as well as today, will not have danced with the FBI and Warner Bros. Archives, and will not know what else has been forgotten in order for this version of Canteen memory to represent the “something we’ll never forget.” That Davis and Garfield, and many others, had fought for mixed- race dancing to be allowed at the
Canteen; that Davis had toured as part of black USP troop with Hattie McDaniel at the request of the Negro Subcommittee of the HVC; that Garfield had not gotten the scene he was eager to do with a black soldier— these happenings are covered by screen memory, in both the Freudian and Hollywood senses. The memory of Davis and Garfield’s preferential treatment of one type of soldier participates in the screen memory that forgets difference and struggle by covering it over with another picture of “what happened” that blocks other possibilities. After viewing this film, one would hardly believe that just months before the film’s release Bette Davis had been honored by the NAACP- affiliated Committee for Unity in Motion Pictures as the white actress having done most to harmonize and create goodwill between the races in Hollywood.

Surely Bette Davis was thinking of more people than Slim Green when she promised that Hollywood would never forget, but the overall impact of the film is one of a monolithic Hollywood patting itself on the back and an idealized soldier held up above all the rest. This film that flies as a memory of simpler times, innocence, and friendliness as the American democratic spirit of World War II was, in fact, critiqued in its day by many members of what would later be called “the Greatest Generation.” A reviewer for the Daily Mail, May 19, 1945, found “something slightly ugly in the spectacle of fighting men being encouraged to work up on distant battlefields an emotional frenzy over some pretty actress, returning home, and being kissed out of the depths of her patriotism.” Even the “honored guests” depicted in the films rubbed many actual soldiers the wrong way. Time printed a letter of outrage from four soldiers who listed “foxhole” as their return address. “It was as though we’d been taken into a millionaire’s home, treated like uncouth fools to whom a debt was unfortunately owed, then sent back, dazed by the splendorous kindliness of the mighty, to our six-by-three lives.” A Private Joseph Wynn, writing to Jack Warner from “Somewhere in New Guinea,” called the film “an insult to the intelligence of every serviceman” and offered the suggestion that when “shooting a picture about men in the service, I think it more advisable getting the viewpoints of a serviceman who’s undergone the experiences in accordance to the script.” I wonder if Private Wynn might not have preferred Daves’s original treatments in which the film began and ended with its protagonists in mortal danger— a framework that acknowledged the cognizance of soldiers and loved ones? Working with the Warner Bros. Archives, I am struck with how much dissonance is preserved in corporate memory. National reruns of the war musical style repeat the genre’s consensus aesthetic while obstructing critical memories of difference, competing interests, and mixed outcomes that are also so much a part of filmmaking, Canteen running, and war memories of multiple publics. This national memory version presents a different behind the scenes drama than that of the state: most of the scrambling about race is aimed at adding diversity to the film rather than criminalizing as un- American the people who advocate for racial mixing. However, the end is eerily similar. The multiracial dance floor still promotes a white ideal dyad that appears to float at naturally to the top. The promise of that ideal seals a vision of a postwar normal. The universes are different, but the results intertwined.

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The film Hollywood Canteen didn’t invent the war musical or star system, but its makers adhered to a model that sought a smooth finish in which every response to emergency appears intentional, coherent, and mutually beneficial. In this way, the war musical approach to swing culture as war memory succeeds by excising any admission of uncertainty, power, difference, and struggle. What if the film had been made along a different aesthetic, one that privileged torque as the democratic potential of swing?

An excerpt from the book Dance Floor Democracy: The Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen by Sherrie Tucker. Copyright Duke University Press, 2014.

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The Hollywood Canteen was the most well-known of the Hollywood nightclubs where civilian women danced with soldiers. Some accounts of racism, sexism and inequality clash with the club’s portrayal in the 1944 comedy, Exiting the Canteen, starring Bette Davis and John Garfield.
dance floor democracy, sherrie tucker, hollywood canteen, bette davis, john garfield
Sunday, 09 November 2014 12:04 PM
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