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The Horizontal Lieutenant

Jim Hutton and Paula Prentiss were one of the most popular romantic screen duos of the early 1960s, his awkward, lanky charm matched with her sexy-goofy beauty to great comic effect. Even though they made only four films together, they were consecutive pictures in which the two connected so well that for many years people thought they were married in real life. In fact, she and actor-director Richard Benjamin have been married since 1961, and Hutton was married to his first wife (and mother of their son, actor Timothy Hutton) during the Hutton-Prentiss co-starring years. There was something about them on screen, however, that seemed so right, it's easy to see how they might be mistaken for a real-life couple, although Prentiss claimed their height--he at 6'5" and she at 5'10"--was the real reason they were put together in the first place.

The Horizontal Lieutenant was their final film, after Where the Boys Are (1960), The Honeymoon Machine (1961), and Bachelor in Paradise (1961). It was considered something of a letdown after the success of the first three. In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther supposed that MGM was trying to make a comedy team of the two, "something remotely on the order of the standard comedy couples in the old days," but he found this production too desperately straining for laughs to make that plan work. Obviously, the studio thought so as well.

Based on the 1959 novel The Bottletop Affair by Gordon Cotler, Hutton plays an accident-prone junior Army officer stationed in Hawaii involved in bumbling attempts to find a supply thief and court a reluctant nurse (Prentiss). Both tasks occasion misunderstandings and slapstick. You'd be forgiven if, judging purely from the styles and sensibility of the characters, you missed that the story is set in the 1940s.

The film probably suffers some from the fact that Paula Prentiss, not being the title character, does not have as much screen time with Hutton as their previous ventures, so the chemical balance is a little off. Nevertheless, Hutton is supported by some top-notch comic players, including Jim Backus, Jack Carter, and Marty Ingels. Academy Award-winning Japanese actress Miyoshi Umeki (Sayonara, 1957) is also on hand, along with Yoshio Yoda, who appeared frequently in the McHale's Navy military sitcom on television and in two of its spin-off feature films. Viewers will no doubt also recognize character actor Charles McGraw (Col. Korotny), veteran of several notable film noir titles of the 40s and a number of television shows through the 1960s and 1970s.

The picture was directed by Richard Thorpe, who had been under contract at MGM for nearly 30 years at this point (and in pictures a good decade longer), a feat of longevity that may be attributed to his reputation for efficiency. Not known for a particular style or vision in his work, Thorpe kept his bosses happy by bringing numerous productions in on time and under budget, ranging from adventure programmers (a handful of Weissmuller Tarzan movies), musicals (Three Little Words, 1950; Jailhouse Rock, 1957), costume dramas (Ivanhoe and The Prisoner of Zenda, both 1952), and romantic comedies (Her Highness and the Bellboy, 1945; That Funny Feeling, 1965). Thorpe continued working at the studio up through his last picture, the aptly named Western The Last Challenge (1967), made when he was 71. He lived until age 95.

Cotler's novel was adapted for the screen by George Wells, Academy Award winner for the script of his romantic comedy Designing Woman (1957), starring Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck. Wells was another longtime MGM stalwart and author of three of the four Hutton-Prentiss films.

The two stars went their separate ways after this project. Prentiss continued to be a popular actress for the next several years, appearing in such comedies as The World of Henry Orient (1964) and What's New Pussycat (1965), both starring Peter Sellers, and dramatic turns in The Parallax View (1974) and The Stepford Wives (1975). She still works from time to time, but her acting career has been sporadic. Hutton stayed busy with mostly comic parts that made use of his gangly, fumbling earnestness (leading some critics to suspect MGM was grooming him as the next James Stewart) and occasional dramatic roles. He worked with such major stars as Jane Fonda (Period of Adjustment, 1962), Charlton Heston (Major Dundee, 1965), Cary Grant (Walk, Don't Run, 1966), and John Wayne (The Green Berets, 1968). His film career waned by the late 60s, but he had some success in television, notably as the title role in the Ellery Queen mystery series in the mid-70s. His life was cut short by liver cancer at the age of 45 in 1979, the year before his son Timothy broke through to much acclaim with his Oscar-winning role in Ordinary People (1980).

Director: Richard Thorpe
Producer: Joe Pasternak
Screenplay: George Wells, based on the novel The Bottletop Affair by Gordon Cotler
Cinematography: Robert J. Bronner
Editing: Richard W. Farrell
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Merrill Pye
Original Music: George Stoll
Cast: Jim Hutton (Lt. Merle Wye), Paula Prentiss (Molly Blue), Jack Carter (Billy Monk), Jim Backus (Cmdr. Hammerslag), Miyoshi Umeki (Akiko)

By Rob Nixon



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