Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #15: "The Admiral Was a Lady" (1950)

That's right! Edmond Wanda and O'Brien Hendrix are together at last in The Admiral Was a Lady.

The flick: The Admiral Was a Lady (United Artists, 1950) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.6

Director: Albert S. Rogell (Universal's The Black Cat [not the Boris Karloff film, but the comedy-mystery with Basil Rathbone], In Old Oklahoma)

Actors of note
  • Edmond O'Brien (The Wild Bunch, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)
  • Wanda Hendrix (Ride the Pink Horse, Prince of Foxes)
  • Rudy Vallee (I Remember Mama, Unfaithfully Yours, famed megaphone crooner of the 1930s)
  • Richard Erdman (Stalag 17, Tora! Tora! Tora!, played Leonard on Community)
  • Steve Brodie (Out of the Past, The Giant Spider Invasion, The Wild World of Batwoman)
  • Johnny Sands (Orson Welles' The Stranger, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer)
  • Hillary Brooke (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Man Who Knew Too Much)

"Wandafull." Get it? Huh?
The gist of it: Wisecracking Jimmy Stevens (O'Brien) and his three pals (Brodie, Sands, and Erdman) were once a combat crew in WWII. Now the war is over, and they're back home doing everything they can to avoid work -- getting $20 a week from Uncle Sam, scrounging cheap (and past its sell-by date) food wherever they can get it, living in an abandoned aircraft plant (which they've converted into a mini-palace), and running any number of penny-ante scams.

Their slothful lifestyle is threatened, though, by jukebox tycoon Peter Pedigrew (Vallee) who threatens to put them to work—no! anything but that!—unless they can make sure a man named Henry marries pretty little Jean Madison (Hendrix), an ex-WAVE whom Jimmy kiddingly nicknames "the Admiral." But Henry turns out to be a tough guy to track down, thanks to Pedigrew's scheming ex-wife Shirley (Brooke) who has selfish reasons for keeping Jean and Henry apart. Meanwhile, Jimmy and "the Admiral" are getting awfully chummy, if you catch my drift, even though she can't abide his cheapskate lifestyle.

My take: Like Here Comes Trouble, The Admiral Was a Lady is a comedy focusing on the troubles our servicemen faced when they came back home and returned to civilian life. But Admiral is considerably more sentimental than Trouble, and it occasionally aims for poignancy. And that, in my opinion, is precisely where this film disappoints. Jimmy and his crew seem to have a swell thing going at the beginning of the story, but the script provides them with sad, serious backstories that detract from the overall enjoyment level of the flick. Admiral predates Phil Silvers' Sgt. Bilko by five years and Hanna Barbera's Top Cat by eleven, but what made those TV shows fun is that Bilko and T.C. never even considered going legit and giving up their scheming habits.

In a way, Admiral sort of echoes Peter Pan, especially the Disney animated version from 1953. Jimmy is the Pan figure, the eternal boy living a life of ease, and his buddies are like the Lost Boys, his enraptured followers. Unfortunately, this makes "the Admiral" the Wendy Darling of the story, i.e. the sensible woman who reminds Peter and the Lost Boys about the conventional, respectable lives they should be leading. Pedigrew is Captain Hook, the scoundrel who's too ineffectual to be much of a threat as the villain. I guess the sexy, duplicitous Shirley is the closest thing this movie has to Tinkerbell, since she and "the Admiral" have a bitchy, competitive relationship over a man.

I didn't find "the Admiral" all that alluring, even though every guy in this movie falls in love with her instantly. The ads above make her look like a scantily-clad sex bomb, but she's much more prim in the movie. She can be a lot of fun when she lightens up and starts enjoying life, though, and there are a couple of funny scenes in which she can no longer keep her anger and frustration in check.

Sgt. Bilko
Is it funny: Mildly so. I got a good chuckle out of The Admiral Was a Lady about once every five or ten minutes. Mainly, I liked seeing all the crazy little scams Jimmy was always trying to pull, like pretending to be a sophisticated millionaire in order to take a yacht out for a test drive or sneaking into a Broadway show at intermission or getting one of his buddies a job as a lifeguard so the gang can live it up at a ritzy country club (where you have to take a blood test just to be considered for membership!) once a week. But the Admiral sets the boys on the right path, and the fun kind of peters out. Giving Jimmy and his pals weepy backstories doesn't help matters either.

What's wrong with a comedy just being silly from beginning to end and letting its characters learn nothing? Groucho Marx wouldn't have sold out the way Edmond O'Brien seems to do in this picture! And if Bilko and his men had as sweet a setup as the guys in this movie do, they'd never let some dame louse it up.

My grade: B-

P.S. - Yet another stereotype-free comedy! We're on a roll! And, yes, there have been female admirals, but it would take another couple of decades.