Between 1929 and 1949, studios like Warner Brothers and M.G.M brought together some of their biggest names for a few ‘all-star’ movies. The movies were made for two reasons. One was to show off the diversity, charisma, and versatility of a studio’s players. The other was to thank and support American soldiers fighting the war.
“Hollywood Canteen”, for example, promoted a real restaurant that let soldiers hang out with celebrities. Bette Davis and John Garfield host the festivities at this restaurant they established. Various stars perform within or talk with the movie’s soldier main characters. These films can be hard to watch because their plots tend to be shallow and corny. This flaw is counterbalanced by the pleasure of seeing familiar stars reinforce or contradict their personas. They reveal different sides of themselves and express affection for each other through interactions or impressions.
In my early days as a fan of Old Hollywood, I was always getting excited about discovering stars, movies, and directors for the first time. Through movies like “Hollywood Canteen” and “Thank Your Lucky Stars” I’ve gotten into a different habit. Instead of finding new personalities to love, I’m starting to spend more time getting joy from being surprised by ones I already know. Sometimes I’ll even like a star more than I did in the past because of how well they impersonate a favourite. I wasn’t too fond of Joan Leslie until I saw her homage to James Cagney in “Thank Your Lucky Stars”.
I’m sure memories of working with Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” had some influence on her ability to so amusingly capture the distinctive rhythm of his speaking patterns. I never liked Mickey Rooney much until I saw his Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore impressions in “Thousands Cheer”. Channeling both men, he re-creates a scene from “Test Pilot” and somehow sounds both grotesquely over-the-top and dead-on accurate at the same time.
“Thank Your Lucky Stars” has a dumb, unfunny, insignificant plot that is made endurable by scenes of various Warner Brothers singing, dancing, or just clowning around. Humphrey Bogart kids his tough guy reputation by failing to intimidate plump, blustery character actor S.Z. Sakall (who I will always love because of “Christmas in Connecticut”), then getting flustered when Sakall yells at him. In one of his all time cutest moments on screen, Bogart says to himself, “Gee, I hope none of my movie fans hear about this!”
One of the best scenes in “Thank Your Lucky Stars” presents Errol Flynn singing a song called “That’s What You Jolly Well Get”. He performs with a hammy British accent, bowler hat, and silly fake mustache. Strutting around a pub merrily, Flynn sings to boozehounds about a life of macho adventures and celebrates the action hero typecasting that dominated and advanced his career.
Flynn and Bogart alone made the movie worth watching for me, but my favourite performance in it is from Olivia de Havilland.
Even though I saw de Havlliand in a screwball comedy called “Four’s A Crowd” last year, I always think of her first and foremost as a serious actress, remembering her roles as poised and dignified women in films like “Gone with the Wind”, “The Heiress”, and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. That’s why I got such a kick out of seeing her mug like a cartoon character as she dances next to a singing Ida Lupino (another actress I associate with mature roles) in “Thank Your Lucky Stars”. It’s too bad De Havilland’s voice had to be dubbed. I can forgive her inability to sing because she makes up for it with adorably goofy facial expressions and lip syncing.
“The Adventures of Don Juan” (1948) is another movie that perfectly casts an actress I like in a very different role from what made me like her in the first place. The actress is Viveca Lindfors, who I’ve liked since first seeing her play my favourite kind of movie English teacher in 1985’s “The Sure Thing”. She’s a wise, whimsical soul who encourages students to live and write with passion.
In “The Adventures of Don Juan”, she’s a world away from that performance, playing Queen Elizabeth I of England! Only in the movies can you see the same woman be equally convincing as a 16th century royal and 1980s university professor. As I watched her scenes with Errol Flynn, I kept thinking about how cool it was that Lindfors had the necessary talent and career longevity to believably occupy such contrasting roles and periods in movie history.
Like “Queen Christina”, “The Adventures of Don Juan” sensitively tells the bittersweet story of a queen and commoner whose love is constrained by the values of their society. Lindfors and Flynn play some of my favourite people to ever find themselves in such a dilemma. It takes a woman of considerable beauty, heart, and grace to make one of history’s greatest lovers give up womanizing and choose love instead. Lindfors had all the qualities needed to embody such a woman. So did Mary Astor, who was ideal as Don Juan’s beloved in a 1926 silent picture about the notorious hedonist.
I think “The Adventures of Don Juan” has changed how I will perceive Viveca Lindfors in “The Sure Thing”. When I watch her tell students they should live life to the fullest, I can remember how she did that 37 years earlier as a queen whose beauty and intelligence could understandably captivate the legendary Don Juan.
I learned something from movies like “Hollywood Canteen”, “Thank Your Lucky Stars”, “Thousands Cheer”, and “The Adventures of Don Juan”. They demonstrate why I don’t have to constantly look for new stars to admire. Old favourites can be all I need. It’s a lot of fun finding new reasons to love them and even more fun watching them be loved and respected by their peers.