Veteran’s Day Musical Monday: “Stage Door Canteen” (1943)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

Stage Door Canteen (1943)

Stage Door Canteen (1943) –Musical #138

United Artists

Frank Borzage

Lon McCallister, Marjorie Riordan, Cheryl Walker, William Terry, Sunset Carson, Margaret Early
Judith Anderson, Kenny Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Ralph Bellamy, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Ray Bolger, Helen Broderick, Ina Claire, Katharine Cornell, Lloyd Corrigan, Jane Darwell, William Demarest, Gracie Fields, Arlene Francis, Virginia Grey, Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, Hugh Herbert, Jean Hersholt, Sam Jaffe, Allen Jenkins, George Jessel,Otto Kruger, Gertrude Lawrence, Gypsy Rose Lee, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Aline MacMahon, Ralph Morgan, Harpo Marx, Elsa Maxwell, Helen Menken, Ethel Merman, Peggy Moran, Alan Mowbray, Paul Muni, Merle Oberon, Franklin Pangborn, George Raft, Selena Royle, Martha Scott, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Ned Sparks, Ethel Waters, Johnny Weissmuller, Dame May Whitty, Ed Wynn, Count Basie, Xavier Cugat, Lina Romay, Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee, Kay Kyser, Guy Lombardo

Gypse Rose Lee performs for the soldiers at the Stage Door Canteen

Gypse Rose Lee performs for the soldiers at the Stage Door Canteen

The film follows young women (Riordan, Walker, Early) who volunteer at the Stage Door Canteen in New York. Volunteering involves dancing with soldiers, talking to them and serving food. However, the canteen has strict rules-no dating servicemen. Eileen (Walker) admits to only volunteering, because she is hoping to be discovered as an actress by one of the celebrities. But her selfish ways are shaken when she meets soldier Dakota (Terry). Innocent soldier, California (McCallister) doesn’t have a girl back home, writes letters to his father and has never been kissed. He meets Jean (Riordan) at the canteen and tells her she has given him his happiest moments since he has joined the service.
The majority of the film is made up of cameos by famous Broadway and Hollywood stars including Gypsy Rose Lee, George Raft, Johnny Weismuller and Katharine Cornell. The romances are a backdrop for the performances, stringing the film together.

Eileen (Walker) and Dakota (Terry) realize they are in love at the Stage Door Canteen

Eileen (Walker) and Dakota (Terry) realize they are in love at the Stage Door Canteen

-The real Stage Door Canteen was on 44th Street in New York, but the movie was filmed in Hollywood.
-Stage actress Katharine Cornell’s only film appearance.
-The story line was inspired by the Irving Berlin song “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen.”
-A portion of the money that the film made was donated to the Stage Door Canteen. “Stage Door Canteen” was the top grossing film of the year, making $4,339,500, according to George Raft: The Films by Everett Aaker
-Katharine Hepburn’s only musical film, though she is never in a musical number.
-Peggy Lee’s second film appearance
-Ruth Roman’s first film appearance.

Jean (Riordan) gives California (McCallister) his first kiss

Jean (Riordan) gives California (McCallister) his first kiss

-Katharine Cornell plays a scene from Romeo and Juliet with Lon McCallister.
-Cornell gives a young British soldier cake and an orange. He is overcome with joy because of the orange and says “I haven’t seen one of these in two years. It’s like Christmas!” Tear worthy.
-Katharine Hepburn gives Eileen (Walker) a talking to of why she needs to continue serving in the canteen even though her fiance is fighting overseas. Probably the most dramatic scene of the film.
-Ventriloquist Edgar Bergan with his puppets Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.

Notable Songs:
-“The Girl I Love to Leave Behind” sung by Roy Bolger
-“She’s a Bombshell from Brooklyn” performed by Xavier Cugat and Lina Romay
-“We Mustn’t Say Goodnight” sung by Lanny Ross
-“Sleep, Baby, Sleep in Your Jeep” performed by the Guy Lombardo Orchestra
-“Quick Sands” performed by Count Bassie and Ethel Waters
-“Goodnight Sweetheart” performed by Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo and sung by Kenny Baker
-“Ave Maria” performed by violinist Yehudi Menuhin

My Review:
I love this movie. Before seeing this movie for the first time several years ago, I wasn’t familiar with stage stars such as Helen Menken or Katharine Cornell. But the film opened shows the other side of entertainment, showing the past celebrities of the east coast. Though the main story line is brief and thin, I still enjoy it. A boy and girl becoming attached after dancing and talking all night and the boy not knowing if he will return from the war? I think that’s believable.
The movie also has several scenes that are very touching and make me tear up: the British boy having an orange for the first time in two years, Lon McCallister getting his first kiss. Yep, the waterworks are running.
If you are looking for a film with a strong plot line and character development, “Stage Door Canteen” probably isn’t for you. But if you are hoping to get a glimpse into the past-to see how soldiers may have spent their leave and what songs and stars were popular-this movie is 2 hours and 10 minutes of your day well spent.

Elkin goes to war and Hollywood

Fred Norman, 19, in 1943 when he enlisted.

I met one of the last Americans to see Churchill, Stalin and Truman together and who also has met several Hollywood stars.

            On Wednesday, I was excited about the interview and wore a skirt and turtleneck rather than my usual outfit of jeans.  I wanted to show respect to this particular interviewee.

            It was already a crazy morning after driving 20 minutes to a wreck and I was running a little late for our 10 a.m. appointment.

            I pulled up to a beautiful ranch style home, I later found out he and his wife built it in 1954, and was greeted at the door by 88-year-old Fred Norman before I even rang the doorbell.

            I’d seen younger photos of him and he looked basically the same-still wearing his hair in the 1940s wave style and a few pounds heavier.

            “Hello!!” he happily said inviting me inside. We sat down and started to talk about his war years.

            Norman was in the 3rd Army, sixth division (or Super Six) that fought under General George S. Patton. Under Patton he fought in the Siege of Bastogne to relieve the U.S. 101st Airborne Division who was surrounded by the German in the Battle of the Bulge (this is shown in the 1948 film “Battleground”).

            Norman was with the American, French and British forces who went into Berlin, Germany after the Russians.  He was also there with hundreds of other soldiers and tanks that lined the Autobahn as Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin rode into Berlin for the Potsdam Conference that determined Nazi Germany’s punishment.

            “Churchill had his daughter Sarah with him and Stalin was in the biggest limousine I’ve ever seen,” Norman said.  “Truman road up in a convertible and I slipped out of rank and snuck into the forest to take a picture. I’m probably one of the last people living to see those three together. I was 21 at the time and it was 66 years ago so there can’t be many of us left.”

            Born and raised in Elkin, N.C., Norman was 19-years-old and a student at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when he was drafted into the Army. He was sent to California for basic training before going overseas to England.

            After the war, Norman married his sweetheart since the fourth grade, Nan ‘Hon’ Johnson. She passed away in 2007.

Fred Norman and his division in front of their tank in Bastogne. I said he was like Van Johnson in “Battleground.” He got bashful and said “I don’t know about that”

“When I got out of the Army I said, ‘Nan we aren’t having any long engagement, we’ve been engaged since the fourth grade,’” Norman laughed.  “Hon and I were married for 62 years and we had a great life. Someone may go but the memories never leave.”

            Towards the end of the interview I asked if he saw any movie stars or went to the Hollywood Canteen while he was in California for training.

            “I saw a bunch of stars when I went to Hollywood, but I don’t think you’d know anything about them,” he said.

            I quickly said I was actually a big movie fan. Mr. Norman smiled real big and we talked an extra 30 minutes about people he had seen at the Canteen and during the 1940s and 1950s.

            “I remember seeing Joan Blondell at the Hollywood Canteen-she was real famous at the time. That was a really great thing they did for us,” Norman said. “I also saw Frank Sinatra, he was mine and Hon’s number one.”

            Norman and a friend used to travel to New York City to see the Lucky Strike Radio Hour and listen to Frank Sinatra sing.

            “The girls just went crazy for him. I asked my friend ‘What has he got that we haven’t got?’ Every time he would move the girls would go crazy,” Norman said. “He was sitting on a stool and knelt down to adjust his loafer and the girls went ape. They did the show again two hours later for California audiences and I’ll be doggoned if those girls waited another two hours to listen to Frank again!”

            Norman also saw big band leader Kay Kyser several times since they both went to UNC Chapel Hill, but at different times.

Fred Norman and a friend at the Hollywood Canteen in 1944.

While overseas he saw Marlene Dietrich perform.

            “See what the boys in the backroom will have,” he sang thinking about the famous song Dietrich sang. “World War 2 was so different. Everyone was so dedicated. I don’t believe anyone would do that now.”

            In Berlin, Norman saw one of the most modern theaters he had ever seen. It had 12 doors that lead to every row of seats and an elevator stage.

            “The elevator stage rose up and there was Mickey Rooney,” he said. “I didn’t know how small that rascal was! He came out and said, ‘I know you are all going to tell me to get off my knees, but this is as tall as I get.’ He gave quite a show.”

            Norman met many incredible actors that we have lost today, but most importantly I’m thankful for what he did for our country. He fought under one of the greatest generals our country will ever see, and is the sweetest man I have ever met.

            For a long time, Norman didn’t talk about his war experiences.

            “I didn’t talk about the war for many years after I got home. Nobody did, I didn’t even talk to daddy about it,” he said. “It wasn’t until Tom Brokaw came out and said we needed to tell our stories that I did. I don’t mind telling some of the anecdotes, but there are a lot of things I saw that I just don’t want to talk about.”

            I’m proud that I was able to talk to him, and that I consider this man a friend.

            Thank you Fred Norman, and all the other veteran’s who have served our country.

Fred Norman today showing off his Nazi helmet and flag he captured during WW2.

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Do you remember the forgotten man: Veterans Day edition


Joan Blondell in “Gold Diggers of 1933” singing “Remember My Forgotten Man”


Veteran’s Day was originally known as Armistice Day when the armistice was signed between the allies and the central powers at the end of the Great War in 1918.

Those who served in World War I are often called “the forgotten men.” In Hollywood history, we frequently highlight those who served in World War II, so I wanted to take a look at those who served in The Great War, or World War I.

Their service is what started Veterans Day, originally Armistice Day, when the armistice was signed in the eleventh month, the eleventh day and the eleventh hour. Don’t forget the forgotten man.

Fighting with the Allied Powers

Richard Arlen, Humphrey Bogart, Walter Brennan

Richard Arlen– Served as a fighter pilot with the Royal Flying Corps, but never saw combat.
Humphry Bogart– Served in the U.S. Navy on the Leviathan.  He had an injury on his face and mouth which left him with his lisp, according to the website “Star War.”
Walter Brennan– Injured by a gas attack during WWI which permanently affected his vocal cords.


Clive Brooks, Maurice Chevalier, Merian C. Cooper


Clive Brook-Served in the British Army
Maurice Chevalier– Enlisted in the French army and was wounded, captured and taken prisoner by the Germans in 1914. He spent two years in Alten prison camp.
Merian C. Cooper– Fighter pilot for the United States


Ronald Colman, Walt Disney, Cedric Hardwicke


Ronald Colman– Fought in the British Army. Was wounded/gassed in Messines.
Walt Disney-Was only 16 during World War I, but lied so he could serve in the Red Cross.
Cedric Hardwick-Stage actor till career interrupted by the war. Served the British Army.


Buster Keaton, Charles Laughton, Herbert Marshall


Buster Keaton– Was a Corporal in the U.S. 40 Division in France
Charles Laughton– Joined the Army as a private in 1917. Served with the Huntingdonshire Cyclist Regiment, and later with 7th Bn. Northamptonshire Regiment in the Western Front. A casualty of mustard gas.
Herbert Marshall-Lost part of his right leg in the war and wore a wooden leg for the rest of his life. May notice a limp in some of his movies.

Ken Maynard, Victor McLaglen, Adolphe Menjou

Ken Maynard– Fought in the U.S. Army
Victor McLaglen– When the war broke out, McLaglen joined the Irish Fusiliers and fought in the Middle East and serving as Provost Marshal (head of Military Police) for the city of Baghdad.
Adolphe Menjou– Captain of the Ambulance Corp in France


George O’Brien, Pat O’Brien, Jack Pickford


George O’Brien– Served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Fleet where he was also the Heavy Weight Boxing Champ.
Pat O’Brien– Enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1918
Jack Pickford– (brother of Mary Pickford)  U.S. Navy Reserve in 1918. Almost court-martialed for a scandal when he accepted bribes from draftees who wanted light shore duty.  His mother had a secret meeting Wilson’s personal secretary, Joseph Tumulty. Tumulty requested Jack to be discharged to make movies in support of the Army Air Corps.


Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone, John Monk Saunders


Claude Rains-Served in the Scottish Regiment in England.
Basil Rathbone– Second Lieutenant for the Liverpool Scottish. Received the Military Cross in 1918 for bravery.
John Monk Saunders– (Hollywood Writer) Served in the Air Service.


William Desmond Taylor, Ernst Thesiger, Warren William


William Desmond Taylor– Fought in the Canadian Air Force
Ernst Thesiger– Fought in the British Army
Warren William– Fought in France with the U.S. Army

Fight with the Central Powers

Fritz Lang, Bela Lugosi, Sig Ruman

Fritz Lang-Soldier in the Austrian Army and fought in Romania and Russia.
Bela Lugosi– Was an infantry lieutenant in the Hungarian Army
Sig Ruman-Served in the Imperial German Forces

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