Ethel Waters is on a very long list of popular and revered celebrities who appear in the 1943 film, Stage Door Canteen. The title refers to an actual New York City location that was staffed and operated by members of the American Theatre Wing. Its purpose was to offer refreshments and entertainment to enlisted folks who were on leave or on their way to war. Sol Lesser (producer of all the Tarzan movies from the ‘40s and ‘50s) wanted a film that combined the basic elements of a documentary with a dramatic screenplay involving fictional characters and have it all take place in a legitimate nightclub. Stage Door Canteen is that brainchild.
It’s not exactly a musical, but neither is the film an authentic revue. Instead, it has the feel of a Grand Hotel with a live radio show going on in the ballroom. Short scenes depicting a host of celebrities helping out with chores or passing out food are interspersed with cameos from comedians and character actors such as Ed Wynn, William Demarest, George Jessel, Hugh Herbert, Edgar Bergen and his puppets. All of them stay within the structure of a comedy sketch. One of these sideshows happens at the kitchen sink with the always very fey Franklin Pangborn and “Tarzan” Johnny Weissmuller. It’s going to take them a while to scrub down all those dirty plates. “My goodness,” exclaims Pangborn, “but it’s hot in here. Beastly hot. I’m suffocating!” Weissmuller agrees, takes off his shirt, bares his chest, and says, “Now I feel natural!” Franklin lets out a high-pitched Tarzan yell, beats his chest, and then collapses into Johnny’s arms.
All nineteen musical numbers appear to be done in one take. TV wasn’t around yet, but the cinematography of Harry Wild calls up memories of American Bandstand and The Lawrence Welk Show. It all looks very familiar. It’s the splicing-in of the romantic plot lines and the suggestion that all the visiting troops are shipping out the following morning that makes the film – what it is. Towards its conclusion, as violinist Yehudi Menuhin steps up to play the “Ave Maria” – you know it’s time to pack up your troubles in your old kit bag.
Around the planet, it was the very worst of times. But in those hours before reporting for duty, all the GIs knew that top notch bands were playing fast and hard over at the Stage Door Canteen and that stars from Broadway and Hollywood were eager to dance and load up their plates. The film tells us that – depending on the day and time – a soldier might be doing a rumba with Xavier Cugat and his orchestra or playing it cool with a fox trot from Guy Lombardo. The food was free, there wasn’t an ounce of liquor in sight, and – wait! – look over there. It’s Ray Bolger – “Scarecrow” from The Wizard of Oz – doing a whole routine on a new song by Rodgers and Hart. Tallulah Bankhead has corralled six different uniforms and burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee is getting ready to drive the boys wild. How far will they let her go in a situation like this? With her backstage is Ethel Merman. Last season, Merman belted her way through 500 unplugged performances of Panama Hattie and now she’s in the new Cole Porter show over at the Alvin, Something for the Boys. Grabbing the crystal ball and fast-forwarding to 1959, we see that Ethel will be back on Broadway in the role of her friend’s pushy mother, “Rose” in a new musical by Jule Styne. What were the odds of that happening? But for now, the famed stripper and her futuristic stage mother are in the same crazy quilt film.
The screenplay by Delmer Davies (Hollywood Canteen, Dark Passage, An Affair to Remember) weaves together a kind of super reality with a contrived plot featuring lesser known actors as some of the anxious soldiers and a few hot starlets having second thoughts about the Canteen’s kibosh on acting-out certain moments to remember. It’s complicated. But there goes Harpo Marx with his squeeze horn and here comes Allen Jenkins (later “Officer Jenkins” in I Love Lucy) to introduce Ethel Waters along with Count Basie and his orchestra. After a bit of entrance fanfare, it suddenly gets very quiet.
“When you sang me a love song, you used to make me sigh,” go her lyrics by Al Dubin. “When you called me, I followed and followed you till I – was swallowed by – quicksands. It was the Devil who brought you to me, now I’m caught in those quicksands – that keep dragging me down.”
Ethel flashes a look toward an audience member on the left side of the screen. It’s one of her “you know what I’m talkin’ about, oh, yes you do” type expressions. It was a trademark of Ethel Waters – that look of inner knowing, of confidence and universal common sense. “Quicksands,” she sings, “I knew your love couldn’t last, here am I sinking fast in those quicksands – that keep dragging me down.”
Composer James Monaco and lyricist Al Dubin produced six of the numbers used in Stage Door Canteen. Perhaps their toughest assignment was writing the song that would be performed by Ethel Waters – a number that no one else in the cast could do, that was totally hers in style, energy, range and carnal appeal.
Track 8 of our series, Ladies of the Nightclubs, puts the spotlight on a lady who made her spontaneous debut in a Philadelphia nightclub in 1913. Ethel was only 17 at the time, but this brief encounter catapulted her into the professional nightclub circuit and by 1933 she was the highest paid performer on Broadway. Her classic recordings from the 1920s, “Dinah” and “Am I Blue” [see JEANETTE MacDONALD and The American Songbook] were still in circulation when she appeared in Vincent Minnelli’s 1942 MGM musical, Cabin in the Sky, singing “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” and “Taking a Chance on Love”.
“Quicksands” sits a bit outside this ballpark. But the performance of it reveals a whole lot about Ethel Waters. Monaco was completely familiar with Miss Waters’ early Jazz recordings and her large vocal range. Her previous success with the songs of Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, and “Fats” Waller told lyricist Al Dubin that she was anything but shy and knew how to get the point across fast. Considering that the sequence involved no choreography, no moving about from one end of the stage to the other – nothing other than to have her stand in front of a live stationary mic and sing till it’s over – Ethel was free to relax, let out her extraordinary vocal range and coat every lyric with sweet lovin’ and savory nuance. Watch the exchange between her and Count Basie and the response of a particularly attractive horn player.
At the final chord, the assembled folks at the Canteen give Ethel and Count Basie a well deserved standing ovation. The song was captured to perfection. As far as we can determine – neither artist ever performed it again.