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Twelve years before Imitation General (1958) was released, the prevailing attitude towards World War II was best reflected in serious films like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). With the Korean War over and Vietnam yet to come, the 1950s and early 1960s saw a steady stream of film comedies set in World War II. It is said that "humor = tragedy + time" and enough time seemed to have passed in order for the war to be funny.
Director George Marshall and actor Glenn Ford must have enjoyed making comedies together. During the years 1958 and 1959, they collaborated on no less than four films, two of which, It Started with a Kiss (1959) and Imitation General, were military-themed.
Based on William Chamberlain's short story Imitation General, which appeared in the November 17, 1956 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, the film centers on the exploits of a World War II sergeant (Ford) who must masquerade as his commanding general (Kent Smith) when the general is killed in action. The sergeant must use this disguise to keep up the morale of the men and rally them to counter-attack the Nazi forces in France.
Film critic Bosley Crowther, who was never one to pull his punches when it came to reviewing films, wrote in his August 21, 1958 evaluation of Imitation General, "The situation is preposterous and the tactics the impostor contrives are so vague and helter-skelter that it's hard to tell what's going on, except that our side is winning and lots of Germans are being killed...The thing about this sort of humor is it has to be right to sound true, it has to have the ring of authenticity in concept as well as in the words. And this calls for more than accurate writing; it calls for accurate delivery, too. There are few things more depressing than soldier humor that is badly forced or fake. Fortunately, the dialogue in this romp is pretty genuine, after allowance is made for the omission of the inevitable scattering of naughty words. William Bowers has concocted a screenplay from a story by William Chamberlain that is salted with soldier skepticism and wisecracks of sharp and icy mirth. And George Marshall has conned their delivery in lively and flavorsome style by Red Buttons, Tige Andrews, John Wilder, Dean Jones and even Glenn Ford. This is fortunate, we say, because the story of Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Bowers is a plainly contrived piece of play-stuff that tends to get badly confused. Furthermore, the authors and director bandy weapons and killings tastelessly in the midst of what has the nature and the attitude of farce. It is not nice to see fleeing soldiers cut down by machine-gun fire or caught in tanks that are blithely exploded, all in the way of fun."
Imitation General was to have made its television debut in November 1963, but after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the network pulled the film. It was the wrong kind of humor for that time of tragedy.
Producer: William B. Hawks
Director: George Marshall
Screenplay: William Bowers, William Chamberlain (story)
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Film Editing: Harold F. Kress
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, William A. Horning
Cast: Glenn Ford (MSgt. Murphy Savage), Red Buttons (Cpl. Chan Derby), Taina Elg (Simone), Dean Jones (Cpl. Terry Sellers), Kent Smith (Brig. Gen. Charles Lane), Tige Andrews (Pvt. Orville Hutchmeyer).
BW-89m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Lorraine LoBianco
The Internet Movie Database
"That Funny War; G.I. Humor Prevails in 'Imitation General'" by Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, August 21, 1958