Friday, July 5, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #33: "Never Wave at a WAC" (1953)

American hot WACs: Those dizzy dames won't leave soldiering to the menfolk in Never Wave at a WAC (1953).

"You know the glamour gals have stopped glamorizing. They're working in defense plants, wearing slacks. And some of the fine chicks are cutting out every day, joining the WAVES and the SPARS and the WACs."
Louis Jordan ("You Can't Get That No More," 1943)

The flick: Never Wave at a WAC (RKO Radio Pictures, 1953) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.1

Director: Norman Z. McLeod (The Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers and Monkey Business; W.C. Fields' It's a Gift; Bob Hope's Road to Rio and Paleface; also Topper, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, etc.)

General Omar Bradley
Actors of note:
  • Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday, The Women, the title role in Auntie Mame)
  • Paul Douglas (A Letter to Three Wives, Panic in the Streets, lots of TV anthologies)
  • Marie Wilson (Babes in Toyland, Satan Met a Lady)
  • William Ching (In a Lonely Place, D.O.A.)
  • Arleen Whelan (Young Mr. Lincoln)
  • Leif Erickson (On the Waterfront, Invaders from Mars, Sorry, Wrong Number, The Snake Pit; shot down twice in WW2)
  • Charles Dingle (Little Foxes, Duel in the Sun)
  • Lurene Tuttle (Niagara, Sweet Smell of Success, Parts: The Clonus Horror; played Sheriff Chambers' wife in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho; did an ungodly amount of TV work)
  • Regis Toomey (The Big Sleep, Guys and Dolls, Hitchcock's Spellbound, much more)
  • General Omar Bradley ("the Soldier's General" portrays himself here; famed Army field commander in WW2 and last to receive five-star status; was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time he made this movie)
  • Olan Soule (voice of Batman from 1968 to 1984; ubiquitous film/TV character actor; Hitchcock's North By Northwest, TV's Dragnet and The Andy Griffith Show, literally hundreds more credits)

Other notables: The score was composed by Elmer Bernstein, only his sixth movie. He did a couple hundred more over the next half-century, including Ghostbusters, To Kill a Mockingbird, Airplane!, The Great Escape, The Man with the Golden Arm, National Lampoon's Animal House, Stripes, Trading Places, The Magnificent Seven (probably his most famous score), and too many more to mention. Repeatedly hired by John Landis and Martin Scorsese. Won his only Oscar for Thoroughly Modern Millie, but was nominated ten more times. Worked his way up from Robot Monster to The Ten Commandments in just three years.

Roz Russell
The gist of it: Haughty Washington D.C. socialite Jo McBain (Russell), daughter of a prominent senator (Dingle), joins the Women's Army Corps in the hopes of reuniting with her boyfriend, Lt. Col. Sky Fairchild (Ching), at his post in Paris. The senator promises his daughter she'll be commissioned as an officer, but when she gets to Fort Lee, VA, she finds out she'll be serving Uncle Sam as a regular private. While constantly infuriating her superiors with her unorthodox ways, Jo does make friends with another unlikely recruit, ex-showgirl and pinup girl Clara Schneiderman (Wilson), who wants desperately to bury her past as "Danger O'Dowd" and who immediately takes to army life.

Sky promises Jo that she can still get her commission if she'll just be on good behavior during basic training, and for a while, she does try to do just that. But her ex-husband Andrew (Douglas), an ex-Army man and now a research scientist with whom Jo has a combative relationship, shows up at Fort Lee and decides he needs female soldiers for some tests he's running on various fabrics and goes out of his way to make sure Jo is one of the test subjects. He puts Jo through all kinds of endurance tests until she finally snaps. In front of her commanding officers, she slaps Andrew across the face and goes on a tirade about military life. After a hearing in which Andrew sticks up for Jo and places the blame on himself, our heroine is dismissed from service without graduating from basic training. Now "free," she's supposed to marry Sky, but she just can't leave the WACs -- or Andrew, for that matter -- behind her.

Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin
My take: Children of the Eighties might remember Private Benjamin, a 1980 Goldie Hawn vehicle that spawned a 1981-1983 TV series with Lorna Patterson. That hit movie was about a spoiled, silly woman who joins the U.S. Army and drives her superiors to distraction with her antics and general incompetence. People tend to forget that Goldie Hawn leaves the military midway through Private Benjamin and spends the last part of the movie mired in a lame story that has her almost marrying but then jilting total sleazeball Armand Assante.

Never Wave at a WAC, its title a reference to two organizations that were created so women could serve during World War II, plays like a 1950s  version of Private Benjamin, only without the unnecessary Assante character. Like Judy Benjamin after her, Jo McBain drops out of the Army and almost forsakes her patriotic duty for marriage, but both women ultimately discover that military service has changed them for the better and that they are now stronger and more independent because of their experiences in basic training.

The main difference is that Judy Benjamin is a directionless flake at the start of her movie, while Jo McBain is a force of nature from the moment we meet her. Roz Russell's first big scene in this movie is at a high society party she's hosting for all the movers and shakers in Washington. She glides from room to room, politicking, gossiping and networking like a seasoned professional. This was a few years before Ms. Russell would play her signature role, Mame Dennis in Auntie Mame, both on Broadway and onscreen, and it's easy to see Never Wave at a WAC as sort of a prequel to that famous film.

The real fun of a story like this is, naturally, the opportunity to see a unique individual whose quirky personality clashes with the rigidity of military life. That same basic idea has been the basis for, I'd estimate, a gazillion other movies, TV shows, cartoons, and comics -- everything from Beetle Bailey to Gomer Pyle USMC to Laverne and Shirley in the Army. Even Dobie Gillis and Maynard G. Krebs enlisted for a season of their show! This film is, plain and simple, Auntie Mame Joins the Army. Jo McBain arrives with lots of luggage and her own car at basic training and seems to regard the barracks as a kind of eccentric hotel, with the commanding officers as her personal servants. She calls lots of people "dahhhling" instead of "sir" or "ma'am" and frequently (and loudly) demands to speak to "someone in charge" whenever things don't go her way. In a war, she'd be about as useful as Lovey Howell from Gilligan's Island... until she learns her lesson.

I think by now you have an idea of what this film is like. If that description appeals to you, by all means watch Never Wave at a WAC. But you could skip it without missing anything vital. Incidentally, young Elmer Bernstein does establish himself as an up-and-comer with his witty and versatile score for this film. His music here is both comedic and militaristic, a combination that would serve him well many times in the future, particularly on Stripes (1981), another misfits-in-the-service comedy.

Is it funny: Sure, why not? This movie rests almost entirely on Roz Russell's broad shoulders. She is the star around whom the other characters all orbit, and the script seems tailor-made to suit her brassy-yet-refined personality. She's one of the few actresses who can make an air of regal superiority seem vaguely appealing. In the sidekick role, ditsy blonde Marie Wilson is just average in a role that Marilyn Monroe would have knocked out of the park. Wilson's romance with "singing sergeant" Noisy Jackson (Erickson) is largely a laughless, time-wasting enterprise.

I suppose the movie's funniest scenes are those in which Andrew puts his ex-wife through test after test in rain, snow, mud, freezing temperatures, etc. Russell proves a surprisingly adept physical comic here. If any image sticks with me from this movie, it'll be Jo McBain tromping around in snowshoes on a treadmill.

My grade: B

P.S. - In terms of stereotypes, Louise Beavers is back as yet another domestic. As far as I can remember, other than a personal assistant, Jo McBain's servants are all black. But this might be reflective of the reality of the time, and the characters are not presented in a demeaning or exaggerated way whatsoever.