At War with the Army
On a regular basis, I received packages from a number of studios and distributors offering preview copies of the latest films and television series. Upon opening these packages are faced with this that run the gamut from some of the largest blockbusters that only a few months prior and dominated the box office listings, to up to civil titles that no one not proactively following the festival circuit would even have heard of. While many of my friends are anxious to come over, while I’m watching the hits that generated incredible amount of buzz, I find myself most anxious to tear open the independent titles or lesser-known releases. Recently, I have been receiving screeners from a distributor known as ‘Film Chest’. So far, I’ve only received a couple of offerings, but judging by this admittedly small sample size. I am going to be looking for their return address label in the future. One of their discs was quintessential film noir movie from 1945, the Golden age of the genre. The second, considered here, was a light comedy infused with musical numbers; ‘At War with the Army’. I seriously doubt that any but the most committed cinematic aficionado would be familiar with this type. I happen to remember it from its airings on afternoon television. Primarily targeting housewives who have finished their domestic duties and have caught up with the stories and kids will bored with the current selection of cartoons, these timeslots populated with films that the stations were able to achieve rights to broadcast. In the case of this film, there has been a long history of disputes over ownership originally stemming from side effects of the then dominant studio system that basically made the top movie stars into indentured servants, albeit remunerated to a degree above what that term usually implies.
Startlingly in the 30s and continuing well on to the 50s the most popular type of film was the musical comedy. This was not the type of musical comedy that you would associate with the stage. It was a situational comedy liberally interspersed with musical numbers. This gave rise to a number of teams; entertainers that could provide a leading man, a crooner and a popular comedian. Team such as the Marx Brothers star in many such films with the story would stop providing time for musical number. One of the most popular teams was that of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Their ‘Road To’ films left a legacy of some of the funniest comedy bits and love songs that hit the pop charts on a regular basis. A similar team, featured in this film, was Martin and Lewis, with this being their initial outing as a team. Dean Martin was the handsome crooner, a male singer that specialized in love songs that would have the female fans in a state of near catatonic adoration. This the Martin had already had established his recording career, and his popularity on the recording charts. Partnering with them was a man that would leverage his exposure in these films into one of the most successful careers of any movie comedian, Jerry Lewis. He would continue on long after this team dissolved to become an icon of comedy and one of the most readily recognizable people of his time. One aspect, the studio system of that time was the major film studios would enter into a direct competition frequently utilizing the same methodologies as their rivals. In many cases such as this, the result was pushing each other to better movies.
Regardless of the studio backing the film, these team efforts followed a pretty stringent formula. Whatever the basis for hierarchy necessary for the story, the handsome singer always had a rank higher than that of the comedian. In this instance, Dean Martin portrayed the noncommissioned officer, 1st Sgt. Vic Puccinelli, while Jerry Lewis took on the role of Alvin Korwin. It was not uncommon for the comedian to be given a name conducive the zany antics while the leading man costar received the moniker more distinction. There was another little subtle reason for this. A significant portion of the audience had not that long ago returned home from World War II. Most served as regular soldiers that could readily identify with the Pfc. rank undertaken by Mr. Lewis. A considerable amount of the humor was generated at the expense of a superior officer. This was something that allowed the former serviceman to not only identify with the character, but perhaps observed a secret desire aimed that a former officer in his life. As an extension of this another undercurrent of military-based movies of this nature was the American acceptance of diversity that was our greatest strength over enemies touting their master race. Inevitably, the comic figure was a screw up who would initiate the mayhem that drove most of the comedy and indeed the story as a whole. At the end of the film, the soldier everyone dismissed as a nitwit would be the one who would save the day; proving that even the silliest American is better than the best outflows could offer. While this was not an overt plot of the story, assistance of this theme for so many movies demonstrated an underlying intention.
The film is set towards the end of the war in Europe, 1944, unfolding in an army post stateside in Kentucky. As initially, Vic and Alvin will partner together in a nightclub act. But hostilities broke out the two friends, like many American young men enlisted in the armed services. Although they both started out of equal rank Vic found himself promoted to 1st Sgt. a couple of grades above Alvin making him his superior. On base, Vic is assigned to a desk job in the headquarters something he finds exceedingly boring and the boys of any potential for action. He wants to go overseas. The combat post that the only way to do that is to receive a promotion to warrant officer. Alvin has his own desire for change. He wants to receive a pass off base so that he can return to his family to visit with his wife and new child. At this point, the formula demands it contrivance of some sort as to segue into the pair performing nightclub act. The sole purpose of this is to find a somewhat logical way to bring a song and comedy routine into a film extensively about the military. Another popular ploy was to use the USO, the service dedicated to entertaining the troops at military installations around the world. As with other themes that are woven throughout the film, these entertaining segments demonstrated that the military was concerned with the emotional and psychological health of the troops by providing such entertaining diversions. Alvin and Vic may have had more pressing matters on their mind, but had to take time out to reverse the act in order to satisfy the demands of Alvin’s platoon sergeant, Sgt. McVey (Mike Kellin), who himself is under pressure to provide a superior act.
It was always a part for an upcoming actress in movies of this sort. In this specific case, it introduced a young woman named Polly Bergen, a familiar face not only in subsequent Martin Lewis movies, but films running the gamut of genres and ultimately a regular panelist on a popular TV game show. It was a common practice for the studios to use films with well-established personalities as a means introduce and promote prospects from their stables of upcoming talent. This film had the usual assortment of light drama and comedy was frequently based on slapstick, physical humor. One of the notable cases here has Jerry Lewis, one of the great physical comedians of all time, battling an obstinate Coca-Cola machine. In later years, there were a number of people who divided Lewis’s humor as overly silly and impossibly ridiculous. That is really a pretentious use of hindsight. This is the type of comedy that not only the public craved but that they had a dire need to receive. At the time these movies were made America was transitioning from an all-consuming devotion to winning the war to an aftermath that juxtaposed an unprecedented prosperity with the Cold War; the threat of communist infiltration. With some serious matters constantly in the newspaper headlines and on the television news a touch of silliness was precisely what the country needed. To this end, Mr. Lewis made a significant contribution. While they never achieved the paramount position traditionally held by, Hope and Crosby, the team of Martin Lewis remains formidable in the list of song and comedy partnerships. Besides the historical value intrinsically part of this film retains its appeal, in nostalgic fashion way type of movie that enthralled the generation. Thanks, ‘Film Chest’ movie such as this, you talk about cinematic heritage, can be preserved and enjoyed by future generations of cinephiles.