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The Wackiest Ship in the Army

You'd have to be really optimistic to expect great things from a movie that contains a derivation of the word "wacky" in its title. And The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960) isn't one of the great masterworks in cinema history, but it's a surprisingly enjoyable service comedy that features Jack Lemmon in full Ensign Pulver mode. Perhaps the strangest thing about this unassuming little picture is that it was shot in CinemaScope. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) makes sense in Scope. But The Wackiest Ship in the Army?!

Hollywood has always had a thing for war comedies featuring rickety ships and oddball characters with names like "Cookie" who try to keep them afloat - and this one, which is based on a true story, is no exception. Lt. Rip Crandall (Lemmon) is given command of the USS Echo, a dilapidated hunk of metal and rivets. Crandall and his government-issue crew of rookies and wash-outs are assigned the mission of transporting an Australian spy to a Japanese-held island. Crandall disguises the Echo as a native vessel, and - with the help of his untested second in command, Ensign Tommy Hanson (Ricky Nelson) - tries to quietly creep past the Japanese fleet.

During their journey, the crew experiences dramatic confrontations with the enemy...and, yes, wackiness sometimes occurs. Let's just say that you get to see a group of grown men dress in coconut bras and grass skirts. It's like something out of a Bob Hope luau special, which is only fitting. The Wackiest Ship in the Army was later turned into a TV show, although it was blown out of the water by a more successful series, McHale's Navy.

By this point in his career, Lemmon had already won an Oscar for Mister Roberts (1955), and had appeared in such classics as Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960.) So it's a little odd to see him in such an assembly-line type of comedy. Nevertheless, he brings his usual hyper-tense sense of focus and humor to the role. Wilder once said of him, "Jack is different from 90% of the actors in the business, whose first thought is 'What¿s in it for me,' who spend months discussing a movie deal in terms of fringe benefit Cadillacs to take them back and forth to the studio. Jack is interested in finding the best possible part and doing the best possible job."

Nelson, who was trying to break away from his fresh-scrubbed image as the youngest son on TV's Ozzie and Harriet, is a little out of his depth with such a brilliant performer at his side, but that was also the case when he appeared in Rio Bravo (1959) with John Wayne. However, he does get to perform a spirited rendition of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" (a song first introduced by Billie Holiday in the film, New Orleans, 1947). Nevertheless, it wasn't long before he dropped acting altogether and focused solely on his music. He fared much better in that area, and was posthumously inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

Producer: Fred Kohlmar Directed by: Richard Murphy
Screenplay: Richard Murphy
Editor: Charles Nelson
Music: George Duning
Art Direction: Carl Anderson
Principal Cast: Jack Lemmon (Lt. Rip Crandall), Ricky Nelson (Ensign Tommy Hanson), John Lund (Commander Vandewater), Chips Rafferty (Patterson), Tom Tully (Capt. McClung), Warren Berlinger (Sparks.)
C-100m. Letterboxed.

by Paul Tatara

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