powered by AFI
The inimitable comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who made 16 pictures together over their wildly successful careers, play hapless soldiers dealing with the absurd logic of Army bureaucracy in Hal Walker's loopy comedy, At War With the Army (1950).
Martin and Lewis's third screen pairing, this spoof of military life features inspired comic bits, like a base commander's nosy wife who has more information on Army affairs than her husband, and soldiers who speak a bizarre language of numeric code. While the rest of the Army fights the glamorous Good Fight abroad, this cast of olive drab losers labor at desk jobs pushing papers and passing the time on the home front.
Martin is cast in typical fashion, as a smooth-operating ladies man, Sergeant Puccinelli, who longs for a more exciting overseas assignment. And Lewis reverts to type as the luckless, pratfalling Private Corwin, who ladles beans in the mess hall and begs his pal and superior Puccinelli for a weekend pass to visit his pregnant wife.
As usual, the phenomenal chemistry between Lewis and Martin dictated the course of the film, with Lewis providing the physical comedy and Martin operating as the aloof straight man who broods, "I don't dig this Army at all." Though their rank separates them at work, in leisure Puccinelli and Corwin are an unstoppable team of musical-comedy performers who entertain their fellow soldiers and a fair share of officer's wives with their song-and-slapstick shtick. In one of At War With the Army's best bits of comic business, Martin and Lewis also perform a tongue-in-cheek spoof of Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald's musical number from Going My Way (1944).
In addition to some prototypically seductive Martin musical numbers, Walker's At War with the Army has fun with the rigmarole rigidity of Army life, spoofed in Lewis's perverse, disorderly physical comedy. Though written by a Yale drama student, James B. Allardice, At War With the Army makes no Ivy League pretensions as it wallows in slapstick, like Private Corwin's disastrous run on the base obstacle course. Lewis is featured in hijinks aplenty including Private Corwin dressing in drag to escape to town, falling into a sudden faint when he receives an Army vaccination, and leaping into Puccinelli's arms when he's startled by the gruff demeanor of a visiting Colonel.
Critics of the day tended to single Lewis out for special note in the film, implying or stating outright that Martin was dead weight in an unequal partnership with the talented Lewis. Though the New York Times made note of the "masterful mugging of Mr. Lewis," few could see Martin's more subtle contribution to the film as the jaded, sangfroid Sergeant Puccinelli.
But Dino's partner of 10 years begged to differ, recognizing Martin's invaluable role as straight man, in enhancing his own manic, over-the-top brand of comedy. "What made Jerry so funny but the guy next to him?" Lewis noted. "And I can honestly say that I'd have been nothing without Dean." History tends to bear out that claim. It wasn't until Martin and Lewis met in 1946, after years of struggling in showbiz that the duo found their real niche as a team, and became one of the most successful pairings in show business history.
Director: Hal Walker
Producer: Fred Finklehoffe
Screenplay: Fred Finklehoffe based on the play by James B. Allardice
Cinematography: Stuart Thompson
Production Design: George Jenkins
Music: Mack David and Jerry Livingston
Cast: Dean Martin (Sgt. Puccinelli), Jerry Lewis (Pfc. Corwin), Mike Kellin (Sgt. McVey), Jimmie Dundee (Eddie), Polly Bergen (Helen), Jean Ruth (Millie).
By Felicia Feaster