Friday, October 19, 2012

Lacking Wacky: "The Wackiest Ship in the Army" (1961)

In this WWII comedy, Jack Lemmon plays a young lieutenant who finally gets command of his own ship- a small sailboat with an inexperienced crew. Rick Nelson is his second in command, and the ship must sail. This lightweight comedy is not terribly funny, but not bad, either.

The breezy feel of the film is helped by an almost complete lack of plot. Lemmon takes the boat through dangerous waters watched by the Japanese, picks up an Australian spy who tracks Japanese navy positions from the jungle, and sails him to the jungle. The ship is captured, but our heroes escape and return back to base.

Aside from the Japanese, the only other conflict is between Lemmon and the ageless Richard Anderson, who plays a hard nosed commander ready to take over the sailboat.

The film works mostly because of Lemmon. He is so good and so likable here, you forget little things like a romantic subplot that never pans out. Nelson even finds a chance to croon a song, giving us a break from the loud, unsubtle musical score.

Despite the title, most of the humor here is derived from the men's war situation; not anything terribly wacky happens. There are laughs, two running gags involve people knocking themselves on the head, and a funny one involving Lemmon's quest for a decent cup of coffee. Another light moment that is not pounded into the ground- the men dress as natives, complete with grass skirts and coconut shell bras, to fool the enemy into thinking they are a local trading ship. The scene is funny without being racist and offensive.

The suspense about the mission is often undermined by a reliance on stock footage to show battle scenes. This is a comedy, yet we are watching actual footage of war, and this is a little unsettling. When director Murphy is allowed to shoot his own action sequences, they work, especially the cruise through the mined harbor.

"The Wackiest Ship in The Army" spawned a television show, and that is about the level of the script. This is nothing that will change your life, but watching Lemmon's comic skills and good nature make this an enjoyable enough time filler. I slightly recommend it. (* * * *) out of five stars.