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The Hollywood Canteen Book Available to Purchase

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The Hollywood Canteen Book – a review by Martin Grams Jr.

The Hollywood Canteen was the jewel in the crown of World War II Hollywood. From 1942 to 1945, over three million servicemen came through its doors on their way to fight in the Pacific — some never to return. There, in a converted barn in the heart of Hollywood, soldiers were fed, entertained by and danced with some of the biggest stars in the world. The Canteen was free to all servicemen or women, regardless of race, inviting them to jive to the music of Kay Kyser and Harry James, laugh at Bob Hope’s jokes, be handed sandwiches by Rita Hayworth, or dance with Hedy Lamarr. Knowing they were so appreciated, the soldiers were armed with the kinds of hope and encouragement that would help them win a war.

Lisa Mitchell and Bruce Torrence co-wrote a book about this tremendous morale booster, titled appropriately, The Hollywood Canteen: Where the Greatest Generation Danced with the Most Beautiful Girls in the World. When Bear Manor Media sent me a box of books, with the request of doing a book review, this one caught my eye and I quickly took it with me to the beach as recreational reading. I devoured every page in two days (a feat easily accomplished with any book this size when you have 14 hours each day to read and relax). Here, Mitchell and Torrence did not disappoint my expectations and they cover every aspect you could conceive about the Hollywood play land.

The book documents all business meetings of order, the policies every volunteer had to adhere to (including the avoidance of meeting the soldiers off hours), and a major struggle with the Hollywood Victory Committee whose purpose was to provide a way for actors and actresses to contribute to the war effort through bond drives and various venues to boost the morale of the troops, waiving established union rules regarding usual compensations and procedures. Bette Davis was granted permission to call actors and actresses directly instead of having to put each request through the Committee. Months after the Canteen was established, Davis was summoned to a meeting of the Victory Committee where she was told that the Canteen could no longer call celebrities directly. She explained the minutes of the meeting that granted her permission and the necessary reason why last-minute phone calls were often necessary to fill a void in the Canteen, but the Committee lost the minutes of that meeting. With no other option than to shut the Canteen down, Davis boldly threatened to shut down the Canteen, advise the 42 guilds and unions who were part of the founding of the Canteen, and send a statement to the press if their minds were not made up “by tomorrow morning.” As only Bette Davis could, she turned and left the room. Everyone on the Committee knew that the mighty Bette Davis meant business. At six o’clock the next morning, Davis received a call telling her that the Committee, which had met all night, agreed to let the Canteen continue calling stars directly.

 

What the celebrities did for the soldiers, including performances and autographs, is beyond description within a minor review such as this. But chapter after chapter there are stories of Marlene Dietrich kissing all the soldiers on V-J Day, Paulette Goddard dancing on the floor, Eddie Cantor dressing up as Santa Claus on Christmas… even the radio broadcasts are covered (including photos of Bob Hope and Orson Welles before the radio microphone).

The best part of the book comes from the photo collection of Bruce Torrence (hollywoodphotographs.com). Letters and Certificates of Appreciation from Bette Davis are reprinted. Construction of the Canteen, photos of soldiers lining up outside, celebrities having fun entertaining the troops, celebrities in the kitchen… so many photos they take up half the book. Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra, Paulette Goddard, Hedy Lamarr, Linda Darnell, Mickey Rooney, Danny Kaye, Irene Dunne, Olivia de Havilland, S.Z. Sakall, Sydney Greenstreet, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Deanna Durbin, Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope, Kay Kyser, Leopold Stokowski, Spencer Tracy, Ann Miller, Ronald Colman, Joan Leslie,Herbert Marshall, Basil Rathbone, Roddy McDowell, Jane Russell, Faye Emerson, Red Skelton, The Quiz Kids, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Tommy Dorsey, Merle Oberson, Dinah Shore, Claudette Colbert, Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, The Andrews Sisters, Rudy Vallee, Bob Hope… it is virtually a who’s who among Hollywood in candid photos (no publicity shots here). It’s fascinating to learn that Basil Rathbone’s wife was a volunteer for almost every day the Canteen was in operation. A Hall of Fame wall with Clark Gable’s picture in military uniform recognized his service overseas. Even Bob Hope’s monologue promoting the Hollywood Canteen, from his October 13, 1942, radio broadcast, just ten days before the Canteen opened, is reprinted.

If you love old Hollywood movies, the history of WWII, or find the subject matter interesting, this is a book I highly recommend. You will not be disappointed. Thanks to authors Lisa Mitchell and Bruce Torrence, a missing gap in both the history of Hollywood and WWII has been filled. I only wish a lot more books were published like this. 

 

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