Rixflix A to Z: At War with the Army (1950)

Director: Hal Walker // Paramount; 1:33; b/w
Cast Notables: Dean Martin (1st Sgt. Vic Puccinelli), Jerry Lewis (PFC Alvin Korwin), Mike Kellin (Sgt. McVey), Polly Bergen (Helen Palmer), Jean Ruth (Millie), Angela Green (Mrs. Caldwell), William Mendrek (Capt. Caldwell)
Cinema 4 Rating: 5

I swear that I am going to start a regular series called "Rewriting the Maltin Guide". There is enough bad film advice and misdirection in that book to fill a thousand posts, so even though I actually would never be without a copy (It is, or rather, used to be an invaluable reference guide), perhaps I should start a series sooner instead of later. I have mentioned before that the book has almost no feel for genre whatsoever, but I should also point out that it is a book squarely aimed at the most straight-laced of moviegoers, and thus most of its reviews come off strictly squaresville, baby. And every once in a while, a review -- oh, and dare I mention that Leonard Maltin doesn't even actually write many of the reviews himself? -- will mention a scene or song that really isn't worth mentioning at all.

In the review for At War with the Army, the first starring vehicle for the then-relatively new Martin and Lewis comedy team, the Maltin Guide points out the "memorable soda machine gag". I would like to ask what exactly is so memorable about it? Is it an amazing setpiece of clockwork technology and comic timing like Chaplin vs. the Machine in Modern Times? I ask this because the Chaplin sequence is one of the most famous in film comedy, and it is only hinted at in Maltin's review, whereas he takes pains to point out the soda machine sequence in this one. In a book where one tiny paragraph is allotted to each and every review, it seems a shame that one would waste time on what is actually a wasted opportunity for big laughs when the true heart of the film lies in the musical numbers, both solos and duos, for the film's stars. If one of the most classic comedic scenes doesn't rate a solo mention in the book, why should a subpar one?

I will defy the opinions of friends and acquaintances who fall into lockstep with the "generic" American attitude towards Jerry Lewis, even if at one time he was considered (mainly by himself) to be a comic genius, and state my adoration for the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. The films are cookie cutter by almost any definition, though the later ones start to veer off into different directions, much as the stars would eventually. Jerry does the wacky stuff, Dean does the romantic stuff and a couple of solo songs, and the boys almost always get together on stage to recreate skits and songs from their theatrical act. They bicker and fight but always team up like brothers when the chips are down. The films vary very little from each other, and yet, growing up, I couldn't get enough of them.

This film, however, perhaps due to its status of their first starrer, is not quite there in terms of getting their act together. Because they plugged the stars into a popular play, the basis for their friendship is only hinted at, but never really felt, even when they get together on stage. It feels like at any moment that Dean is going to bust Jerry in the chops, and not just because he outranks him as a character. Even though the film is supposed to be a comedy, this feeling lends a harshness to the film that it can't outrun, and it is exacerbated by the fact that the comedy just doesn't work here. My guess is that the filmmakers just haven't quite figured out how to use Jerry on film yet, and small bits of business that Jerry produces, such as some of his reactions in his actually funny solo, "The Navy Gets the Gravy, but the Army Gets the Beans", don't get the sort of focus that they would get in later films when he would make the same type of faces or gestures. The camera seems reluctant to even try and keep up with the young whirlwind, and its stagnant state produces a mood of ennui in the viewer.

There are funny parts in the film, especially Jerry in hairy-chested drag serenading a drunken officer, well played by Mike Kellin. But that soda machine gag? The set up is that there is a machine in the orderly office that dispenses bottles of pop for a nickel, but every time that someone tries to purchase one, the machine makes a lot of dings and pings and the front of the machine lights up, but then nothing comes out no matter what the officers do. Later in the film, a lone Jerry causes something to barely brush the machine -- and the damn thing comes alive and starts spitting out bottle after bottle! Jerry tries to catch all of the bottles, but then the change dispenser starts dishing out coins like a slot machine. Soda is spraying all over Jerry as he tries in vain to stop the avalanche of bottles.

If it sounds funny, don't let me steer you wrong. It is funny, but it is really not all that memorable. It is a small, funny part of a not particularly funny or polished movie that occurs far too early in their film careers to have worked out their unique chemistry. It, either the film or the scene, hardly belongs in the comedy canon. Perhaps Maltin, who gives the film and unbelievable two-and-a-half stars (which is his rating for "Good"), only felt the scene "memorable" because it was the only part of the film he remembered. And if that is all that you can remember from a film, then you had better revise your ratings system.

And your book...


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