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Never Wave at a WAC

Never Wave at a WAC(1953)

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teaser Never Wave at a WAC (1953)

Rosalind Russell was never one to shirk from a pratfall, and she had plenty of them in Never Wave at a WAC (1951), a rambunctious service comedy made at the time of America's military engagement in Korea. Russell's busy acting career at the time included work in movies and on radio programs, along with frequent stage appearances. In addition, in the early 1950s the nascent era of live television began to afford opportunities for established film stars to get their feet wet in the new medium. Rosalind's husband Frederick Brisson, a movie producer, naturally always had his wife's career interests in mind when he scouted for material. After coming across a comedy property called "The Private Wore Skirts," a fish-out-of-water tale with a lead character who seemed perfect for Russell, Brisson decided that they might be able to accomplish two goals at once.

Rosalind, unlike other stars of the time, hadn't yet made her television debut, and Brisson wanted to see if "The Private Wore Skirts" had any comedic crossover potential for TV and film. He arranged for Russell to star in an hour-long version of the re-named Never Wave at a WAC on Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, the newest big-name showcase for movie stars dipping their toes into TV (it had only debuted two weeks before). The show was broadcast live on Friday, October 19, 1951, with Russell starring, and Brisson liked what he saw enough to decide to put it into production as a full-length motion picture, and the first independent comedy from the husband-and-wife team.

Brisson engaged actor/writers Frederick Kohner and Fred Brady as screenwriters (along with Ken Englund to finish the screenplay) -- both Freds had appeared as actors in the Never Wave at a WAC television broadcast along with Russell -- to fully flesh out the story of the big-time Washington D.C. hostess, daughter of a Senator, who decides to join the Women's Army Corps with the romantic notion of following her Army boyfriend to Paris. Russell had already perfected playing strong-willed females throughout her entire career, and this project also promised lots of opportunities for broad physical comedy which, though not her only specialty, was certainly within her range of talents which audiences had come to expect and love.

Certainly there was nothing new in the notion of a service comedy, but there was still something a little novel about women in the Army, even after their brave service during World War II. The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps First was created in 1942 but without official military status; in 1943 the name was changed to the Women's Army Corp -- WAC -- and during the War nearly one hundred thousand women served. After the war the numbers went down to about 6,500 in 1948, but as America entered the Korean conflict and needed their services again, many reservists and former officers returned to duty. The primary training center was at Camp Lee -- later Fort Lee -- Virginia, which opened in July of 1948. Frederick Brisson and the cast and crew of Never Wave at a WAC were given permission by the Department of Defense, Department of the Army, and the WAC contingent at Camp Lee to do location filming at the actual training base.

Key to the plot of Never Wave at a WAC were the rigors of basic training which Russell's character Jo McBain assumed she'd skip over due to her Senator father's influence, but the fix wasn't in and she was just another recruit. Played to the hilt by Russell, whose character almost prefigured her immortal portrayal of Auntie Mame (1958) a few years later as a hostess extraordinaire at home in her Washington digs, the actress was in her comedic element enduring the by-the-book procedures and less-than-glamorous environs of the WAC center.

Co-starring with Russell was the blonde bombshell Marie Wilson, who'd shot to stardom several years before as the title character in My Friend Irma (1949) in movies and later on a TV series. Able to play both sweet and sensuous, Wilson would always be pegged as the beautiful but dumb blonde, a typecasting which dismayed her and kept her from tackling more ambitious roles. Nevertheless, she was always a delight onscreen and never more so than in Never Wave at a WAC, where she plays former exotic dancer Danger O'Dowd -- real name Clara -- who's tired of being pursued by a long line of male admirers. She pals up with Jo as they make their way through basic. Imagine Jo's shock when the recruiting process hits a snag as her demands to be given her commission are met with silence, and she learns her father decided to make her work this one out on her own. The diva dies hard, though, and Jo is in constant conflict with her superiors and Army life in general.

Playing Jo's ex-husband, who is working with the Army in some equipment trials, is Paul Douglas, the source of much of the wild slapstick comedy in Never Wave at a WAC. The actor had recently enjoyed a huge success on Broadway playing the crude businessman in Born Yesterday. He'd also had a solid movie career, becoming an audience favorite for two baseball-themed comedies, It Happens Every Spring (1949) and Angels in the Outfield (1951). As comfortable in drama -- A Letter to Three Wives (1949) -- as comedy, he was a formidable leading man and a tremendous match to Rosalind Russell's onscreen strength.

On the distaff side, the comely Hillary Brooke was set to play a rival for Sky's affections. Brooke was a statuesque beauty who had put in a lot of time in comedy with Abbott and Costello, but was equally adept in dramatic roles, and of course roles which required her to do nothing but look her naturally gorgeous self.

To direct Never Wave at a WAC, producer Brisson brought in Norman Z. McLeod, a veteran comedy specialist who honed his craft as an animator in silent film cartoons but soon graduated to live-action comedy in Horse Feathers (1932) for the Marx Brothers, It's a Gift (1934) with W. C. Fields, and many other major comic successes.

The generous participation of the Army and military staff added a welcome touch of realism to Never Wave at a WAC. The celebrated 14th Army Band, the all-female marching band created in 1942, made an appearance in the movie. Brisson was even able to persuade the then General of the Army Omar Bradley, the celebrated war hero from WW II, to make a cameo. It was quite a coup; post-WW II Bradley continued to serve in the military as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as the first head of NATO, and later distinguished himself in civilian life as well.

Never Wave at a WAC received generally favorable reviews. The NY Times allowed that it supplied "a generous consignment of laughs" and ultimately concluded that although the movie " never hilarious it does put a comic slant on the regimented ladies." Time Magazine noted its "wacky comedy" -- who could avoid using the pun -- and all agreed that Rosalind Russell sure knew how to get a laugh.

Though Never Wave at a WAC is undoubtedly a product of its time -- and no doubt might have re-opened a few women's minds to the idea of a career in the Army (which badly needed them) -- it's hard to quibble when you've got the tremendous energy and charisma of Rosalind Russell up on the screen. Audiences would follow her anywhere, and that's the real charm of the movie. When Rosalind Russell recruited laughs from you, she got them.

Producers: Frederick Brisson, Gordon S. Griffith
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Screenplay: Ken Englund; Frederick Kohner, Fred Brady (story)
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Art Direction: William Flannery
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Film Editing: Stanley Johnson
Cast: Rosalind Russell (Jo McBain), Paul Douglas (Andrew McBain), Marie Wilson (Clara Schneiderman/Danger O'Dowd), William Ching (Lt. Col. Schuyler 'Sky' Fairchild), Arleen Whelan (Sgt. Toni Wayne), Leif Erickson (Sgt. Norbert 'Noisy' Jackson), Hillary Brooke (First Lt. Phyllis Turnbull), Charles Dingle (Sen. Tom Reynolds).

by Lisa Mateas

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