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Operation Mad Ball

Operation Mad Ball(1957)


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teaser Operation Mad Ball (1957)

Billy Wilder may have helped shape the career and persona of Jack Lemmon by casting him back-to-back in Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960), but it was director Richard Quine who guided the actor through most of his post-Mister Roberts (1955) roles of the 1950s. At Columbia Pictures, where both were under contract, Quine and Lemmon worked on the musical My Sister Eileen (1955), the service comedy Operation Mad Ball (1957), Bell Book and Candle (1958) starring James Stewart and Kim Novak, and It Happened to Jane (1959), costarring Doris Day. Of these, Operation Mad Ball is the one that best features the quintessential brash-but-likeable Lemmon persona; in fact it was a viewing of this film that convinced Wilder to cast him as the bass-playing, cross-dressing "Daphne" of Some Like It Hot.

Operation Mad Ball is sometimes called a precursor to Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970), but the medical unit setting is about the only common thread. The satiric black comedy M*A*S*H shows medical officers rebelling in wartime; Operation Mad Ball is among those service comedies that play it safe by having the high jinks occur in peacetime. In this case, boredom has set in amongst the GIs at the 1066th General Hospital base in France shortly after the close of World War II. The many nurses on base have been given officer ranking, which puts them out-of-reach for the enlisted men. Private Hogan (Jack Lemmon), a natural "fixer" and the most decorated soldier in the outfit, decides that what the men need is a big blow-out party to let off steam and dance uninhibited with the nursing staff. The greatest barrier in Hogan's way is Captain Paul Lock (Ernie Kovacs in his first big film role), a by-the-book, cigar-chomping blowhard. Hogan works to put the elements in place - he finds a suitable venue in a local shell-worn tavern owned by Madame LaFour (Jeanne Manet), and enlists Master Sergeant Yancy Skibo (Mickey Rooney) to procure a band and suitable party favors. At the same time, Hogan attempts to romance pretty dietetic nurse Lt. Betty Bixby (Kathryn Grant); when the usual methods fail, Hogan steals a general's X-ray and pretends to suffer from an ulcer, which has the dietician nurse at his side with sympathetic remedies. Hogan is helped in his plans by others on the base including Lock's assistant, Corporal Bohun (Dick York), but his plan may be further thwarted when the kindly base commander, Colonel Rousch (Arthur O'Connell), decides to throw a party for his newly-promoted brother Joe on the same night as Hogan's "Mad Ball."

From the opening credits, under which blasts the sprightly theme "Mad Ball" sung by Sammy Davis, Jr. (and cowritten by Fred Karger and Richard Quine) to the not-unexpected fade on a mass of writhing, dancing bodies, Operation Mad Ball delivers as a satisfying screwball romp. The goals of the film (based on an unproduced play by Arthur Carter) are modest, but the cast strikes a near-perfect tone, effortlessly gliding through the silliness without a hint of the desperation that mars many a latter-day screwball comedy. There are several standout bits, but an extended mid-film sequence - in which Hogan must produce a cadaver in the mortuary during one of Lock's snap inspections of the base - is inspired.

In the New York Times, reviewer A. H. Weiler called the film "a light-hearted and enjoyable entertainment" and, of the plot, wrote that "it's all as improbable as, say, stealing the Eiffel Tower and the story is tissue thin and obvious. But this freewheeling charade is full of good cheer, if not the truth, and the laughs and high jinks come across with excellent effects." This critic gives great kudos to Kovacs, saying "...the dark-haired, mustachioed, cigar-smoking clown of television makes the most of his first big opportunity in films... Credit his grimacing, pompous and clumsy attempts as the film's top individual comic portrait." The reviewer for Time Magazine also singles out the newcomer, saying "In his first movie role, Comic Kovacs is approximately terrific, the funniest new funnyface that has been seen on the screen in years. His sneeringly ingratiating personality has all the morbid fascination of a mentholated cigar." This reviewer's overall opinion is that the film is a "routine regimental farce, but fast and snafurious."

The third-listed writer on the screenplay credit for Operation Mad Ball was a young Blake Edwards. The former actor had begun his writing career in 1948 and had just recently turned to directing, having helmed two Frankie Laine musicals at Columbia, Bring Your Smile Along (1955) and He Laughed Last (1956). Edwards cowrote the screenplay of the former with Richard Quine, the same year the duo also adapted Quine's screen version of the play My Sister Eileen, which featured another early role for Jack Lemmon. Edwards, of course, would go on to create the Peter Gunn TV series (1958-1961), and the Pink Panther series of films starring Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. He also directed Jack Lemmon in two of that actor's most important films of the 1960s, Days of Wine and Roses (1962) and The Great Race (1965).

Young actress Kathryn Grant displays a fine comedic flair in Operation Mad Ball; the film offers one of the most substantial parts of her short career. The uncommonly stunning brunette from Texas entered films in 1953 and soon scored unbilled walk-ons in big budget movies such as Rear Window and Living It Up (both 1954). She was seen to better advantage in supporting parts in low-budget crime films like The Phenix City Story and Cell 2455 Death Row (both 1955). Grant is particularly memorable in the latter, as a Bad Girl influence on leading character Whit Whittier (William Campbell), who was based on real-life killer Caryl Chessman.

Columbia Pictures was clearly grooming Grant for stardom, and following Operation Mad Ball she appeared as Princess Parisa in their classic fantasy The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), in the process becoming an early crush for legions of matinee-attending boys. In 1959 Grant landed an important supporting part in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, but shortly after she retired from films (she had married crooner Bing Crosby, although 30 years his junior, the year before). Throughout the 1960s up until Bing's death in 1977 she could be seen as part of the Crosby Clan in numerous Christmas specials and orange juice commercials on television.

Producer: Jed Harris
Director: Richard Quine
Screenplay: Arthur Carter, Jed Harris, Blake Edwards, from the play by Arthur Carter
Music: George Duning
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Film Editing: Charles Nelson
Art Direction: Robert Boyle
Cast: Jack Lemmon (Pvt. Hogan), Ernie Kovacs (Capt. Paul Lock), Kathryn Grant (Lt. Betty Bixby), Arthur O'Connell (Col. Rousch), Mickey Rooney (MSgt. Yancy Skibo), Dick York (Cpl. Bohun), James Darren (Pvt. Widowskas), Roger Smith (Cpl. Berryman), William Leslie (Pvt. Grimes), L. Q. Jones (Ozark).

by John M. Miller

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