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You'd have to be really optimistic to expect great things from a movie thatcontains a derivation of the word "wacky" in its title. And The WackiestShip in the Army (1960) isn't one of the great masterworks in cinema history,but it's a surprisingly enjoyable service comedy that features Jack Lemmonin full Ensign Pulver mode. Perhaps the strangest thing about thisunassuming little picture is that it was shot in CinemaScope. The Bridgeon the River Kwai (1957) makes sense in Scope. But The Wackiest Shipin the Army?!
Hollywood has always had a thing for war comedies featuring rickety ships and oddball characters with names like "Cookie" who try to keep them afloat - andthis one, which is based on a true story, is no exception. Lt. Rip Crandall(Lemmon) is given command of the USS Echo, a dilapidated hunk of metal andrivets. Crandall and his government-issue crew of rookies and wash-outs areassigned the mission of transporting an Australian spy to a Japanese-heldisland. Crandall disguises the Echo as a native vessel, and - with the helpof his untested second in command, Ensign Tommy Hanson (Ricky Nelson) -tries to quietly creep past the Japanese fleet.
During their journey, the crew experiences dramatic confrontations with theenemy...and, yes, wackiness sometimes occurs. Let's just say that you getto see a group of grown men dress in coconut bras and grass skirts. It'slike something out of a Bob Hope luau special, which is only fitting.The Wackiest Ship in the Army was later turned into a TV show,although it was blown out of the water by a more successful series, McHale's Navy.
By this point in his career, Lemmon had already won an Oscar for MisterRoberts (1955), and had appeared in such classics as Billy Wilder'sSome Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960.) So it's alittle odd to see him in such an assembly-line type of comedy.Nevertheless, he brings his usual hyper-tense sense of focus and humor tothe role. Wilder once said of him, "Jack is different from 90% of theactors in the business, whose first thought is 'Whats in it for me,' whospend months discussing a movie deal in terms of fringe benefit Cadillacs totake them back and forth to the studio. Jack is interested in finding thebest possible part and doing the best possible job."
Nelson, who was trying to break away from his fresh-scrubbed image as theyoungest son on TV's Ozzie and Harriet, is a little out of his depthwith such a brilliant performer at his side, but that was also the case whenhe appeared in Rio Bravo (1959) with John Wayne. However, he does get to perform a spirited rendition of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" (a song first introduced by Billie Holiday in the film, New Orleans, 1947). Nevertheless, it wasn't longbefore he dropped acting altogether and focused solely on his music. Hefared much better in that area, and was posthumously inducted into The Rockand Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Producer: Fred KohlmarDirected by: Richard Murphy
Screenplay: Richard Murphy
Editor: Charles Nelson
Music: George Duning
Art Direction: Carl Anderson
Principal Cast: Jack Lemmon (Lt. Rip Crandall), Ricky Nelson (Ensign TommyHanson), John Lund (Commander Vandewater), Chips Rafferty (Patterson), TomTully (Capt. McClung), Warren Berlinger (Sparks.)
by Paul Tatara