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The Sad Sack

The Sad Sack(1957)

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teaser The Sad Sack (1957)

When Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis officially broke up their successful partnership after the release of Hollywood or Bust in 1956, the entertainment press speculated endlessly about the futures of both entertainers. But, the breakup had been in the works for at least a year, so the transition to going solo was not as abrupt as it may have seemed. Lewis stayed with producer Hal Wallis and Paramount, and preparations were made to turn properties originally purchased for the team into vehicles for the comedian. The first comedy, The Delicate Delinquent, was released in June 1957, just six months after Hollywood or Bust, and the second, The Sad Sack, followed in November. Both films proved to be successful at the box office.

The Sad Sack had a ready-made, built-in audience, because it was based on a popular cartoon and comic-book character. Sad Sack was introduced in 1941 in a single-panel cartoon published in Life magazine. The artist, Sergeant George Baker, had been employed at Disney drawing backgrounds for their animated shorts and features before joining the Marines in World War II. He had sent his Sad Sack idea to several major newspapers, but no one showed any interest until Life published it as part of an amateur cartoon contest. The editor of Yank, the Army Weekly saw the cartoon and was impressed enough to hire Baker to turn the exploits of Sad Sack into a regular feature. The character was intended as a commentary on life in the army for the common soldier, who was sometimes frustrated by the monotony, harsh treatment by officers, and relentless KP duties. A hapless stumblebum, poor Sad Sack always seemed to be in trouble with his superiors despite his honorable intentions.

The cartoon was so popular with soldiers that Simon & Schuster published two hard-cover collections of the strips in 1944. After the war, the Bell Syndicate picked up the strip, and it was distributed through regular newspapers until the late 1950s. The character's most lasting success came in comic-book form. Sad Sack was turned into a comic-book character by Harvey Comics in 1949, and the first issue was published in September. Like his creator George Baker, Sad Sack had re-entered the work force after the war, but in 1952, Harvey Comics decided to return him to the army, because the bumbling, unlucky nature of the character worked better in a military environment. Whereas the original comic strip was read by young men, the comic book appealed to children and adolescents, and Baker had difficulties writing for the younger audience. In 1954, Harvey brought in Fred Rhoads, a young but experienced comic-book writer and artist, to handle the storylines, while Baker stayed on to draw the covers. Rhoads introduced several characters that became part of Sad Sack's circle, including General Rockjaw, Muttsy the G.I. Pooch, and Sadie Sack. Baker continued with this arrangement until his death in 1975. Rhoads left two years later in a dispute with Harvey Comics regarding royalties and payment. The last issue of Sad Sack was published in October 1982.

By the time Hal Wallis purchased the film rights to the character, the term "sad sack" was in common usage to refer to any inept person who is full of good intentions but incapable of completing a task without difficulties. Given this description, Lewis's comic persona seemed a good fit with the Sad Sack character. Lewis originated his persona in the late 1940s when he teamed with handsome crooner Dean Martin to play the nightclub circuit. He referred to their act as "the Playboy and the Putz," because it featured Martin as an onstage Casanova-like singer who is heckled from the audience by a juvenile-acting Lewis. In the late 1940s, it became chic among show-business elite to attend a Martin and Lewis show. Lewis fine-tuned the act as the pair began to play to larger audiences in better venues. Their largely unscripted antics represented a kind-of controlled chaos that was exciting to watch and almost subversive in nature. Martin's relaxed demeanor and quiet authority made him the perfect straight man for Lewis's adolescent destructiveness. The act depended on an intentional friction as the energetic comedian relentlessly annoyed the laid-back singer with his constant disruptions, manic physical gags, and purposefully irritating voice.

When the pair signed with Hal Wallis, who produced films for Paramount, Lewis tweaked his image to suit the silver screen. The Kid, as the comedian began to call his screen persona, evoked the mental age of a pre-teen--someone who was aware of girls but more interested in boyish pursuits. The Kid is an ungainly, clumsy character that allowed Lewis to exploit his high-pitched voice, gangly movements, pratfalls, and mugging. His film characters were tailored to this persona, and they were often saddled with names such as Harvey, Myron, or Seymour to emphasize their awkwardness.

After the breakup of Martin and Lewis, the comedian continued to play roles that were variations of the Kid. In The Sad Sack, the title character is a nave and gullible young man christened Private Meredith Bixby, a name that echoes previous Lewis roles. On his way to Camp Calhoun, Private Bixby befriends Corporal Larry Dolan and Private Stan Wenaslawsky. Once in camp, the fates of the three are intertwined, much to the chagrin of Dolan and Wenaslawsky who discover that Bixby tends to attract trouble. Dolan is assigned to tutor Bixby on the finer points of being a soldier by Major Shelton, a beautiful WAC who is also a psychiatrist. Major Shelton wants Bixby to be a better soldier, because she is confident that the army can make use of Bixby's best talent, which is his photographic memory. Like the Sad Sack of the comic book and strip, Bixby is a well-intentioned friend and a hard-working soldier, but he can't seem to keep from losing tanks, destroying jeeps, or shooting his friend in the foot. Bixby, Dolan, and Wenaslawsky are shipped to Morocco, where Meredith gets entangled with Zita, a beautiful spy who works for a group of arms dealers stealing from the U.S. military. (In a nearly silent role, Peter Lorre appears as Abdul, one of the Moroccan villains.) When the hapless Bixby is lured into their plan to procure and assemble the army's latest secret weapon, he is rescued by Dolan and Wenaslawsky, who realize they are more attached to Bixby than they care to admit.

In addition to being a worthy interpretation of the Sad Sack character, the role of Meredith Bixby is typical Jerry Lewis. It allows the comedian ample opportunity to display his talent for physical comedy. Dolan and Wenaslawsky take Meredith to a local bar for some rest and relaxation, but the pitiful private falls prey to the wrong woman. During a raucous bar fight over the girl, Lewis fends off a trio of muscle-bound, ill-tempered barflies with a carefully choreographed comic display of judo that includes an amazing pratfall on the hard floor. Even small-scale physical gags are performed with precision and immaculate timing. A running joke finds Bixby constantly trying to help his superiors by noting that their ties or shirts have a loose thread, and he is only too happy to pull it for them. With a dainty tug, Bixby extracts the tiny thread, causing the article of clothing to unravel until it is merely a rag. Most dialogue scenes feature Lewis mugging his way through the conversation, with exaggerated expressions that exploit his huge mouth and incredibly flexible facial muscles.

Despite the suitable fit with Lewis's comic persona, The Sad Sack was still early in his solo career. Wallis and scriptwriters Edmund Beloin and Nate Monaster felt the need to craft a character to serve as a foil for Meredith Bixby--in other words, a Dean Martin-like role. Corporal Larry Dolan, played by David Wayne, is Bixby's long-suffering father figure, friend, teacher, and straight man, much like Martin's characters in the films the two made together. Though Dolan really cares about Bixby, he is exasperated, frustrated, and annoyed by Meredith throughout most of the film, so the pair's comic interactions are based on the friction between two mismatched characters, which also emulates the Martin and Lewis onscreen relationship. Though the boyish Bixby has a crush on sexy Zita, who reciprocates his affection, it is Dolan who is the romantic lead, ardently wooing shapely Major Shelton in the manner of Dean Martin.

The Sad Sack is a solid example of the first phase of Lewis's solo career, before he began directing his own material. During this era, which lasts from about 1957 to 1960, he made six films and honed his skills as a promising director, learning a great deal from mentor Frank Tashlin. A former cartoon director for Warner Bros., Tashlin helmed two Martin and Lewis comedies and six of the comedian's solo efforts. Unfortunately, The Sad Sack was not one of them. Director George Marshall lacked Tashlin's penchant for crisp pacing, cartoon-like gags propelled by energy and exaggeration, and broad satire. Despite its weaknesses, the comedy deserves a place in pop culture history not only because it marks an important turning point in the career of Jerry Lewis but also because it preserves a version of Sad Sack, a popular character type during America's postwar era.

Producers: Hal B. Wallis and Paul Nathan
Director: George Marshall
Screenplay: Edmund Beloin and Nate Monaster based on the comic-strip character Sad Sack
Cinematography: Loyal Griggs
Editor: Archie Marshek
Art Directors: John B. Goodman and Hal Pereira
Music: Walter Scharf
Costume Designer: Edith Head
Cast: Private Meredith Bixby (Jerry Lewis), Corporal Larry Dolan (David Wayne), Major Shelton (Phyllis Kirk), Private Stan Wenaslawsky (Joe Mantell), Abdul (Peter Lorre), Sergeant Major Elmer Pulley (Gene Evans), Ali Mustapha (George Dolenz), Zita (Liliane Montevecchi), Moki (Michael Ansara, uncredited).

by Susan Doll

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