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What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?
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What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?

Blake Edwards' What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966) came about when his young son Geoffrey literally asked him that question. While Edwards' memories of his time in the United States Coast Guard during the Second World War didn't evoke much in the way of high comedy, the query did renew a desire on his part to make a service farce in the vein of his earlier Operation Petticoat (1959), albeit this time set during the US invasion of Sicily in 1943.

After banging out a treatment with his Pink Panther (1963) scenarist Maurice Richlin, Edwards left the task of scripting to William Peter Blatty, with whom he had adapted Harry Kurnitz's murder mystery spoof A Shot in the Dark (the Broadway hit was itself based on Marcel Achard's 1962 stage play L'idiot) as The Pink Panther's 1964 sequel. The back-to-back successes of those two "Inspector Clouseau" had afforded Edwards a considerable amount of latitude in Hollywood but industry credibility had been a long time coming. Born William Blake McEdwards in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1922, Edwards was a third generation filmmaker, whose grandfather was silent movie director J. Gordon Edwards and his father studio production manager Jack McEdwards. Edwards had begun in movies as an actor, mostly unbilled (as in The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946), before switching to screenwriting in 1948. It was in radio that Edwards enjoyed his first real success and on television that he became a household name, thanks to the popularity of his series Peter Gunn (1958-1960) and Mr. Lucky (1959-1960).

Returning to films as a director-to-watch, Edwards scored with the bittersweet Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), the steely Experiment in Terror (1962) and the sober-sided Days of Wine and Roses (1962). He shot his next three films abroad but, after the exhausting The Great Race (1965), whose box office returns had not entirely justified the expense, Edwards elected to helm What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? closer to home. (Between productions, the director was briefly attached, according to the trade papers of the day, to 20th Century Fox's Planet of the Apes, which would go unmade for three more years before Franklin J. Schaffner brought the property to the big screen in 1968.)

Captaining a large speaking cast and hundreds of extras, Edwards set up camp for What Did You Do... at Lake Sherwood Ranch in Thousand Hills, forty miles northwest of Hollywood. In what had been a cow pasture, designer Fernando Carrere fabricated a storybook Sicilian village, a perfect replica down to the minutest detail, which added $800,000 to the production's already elevated $5.5 million budget. Where Edwards planned to save money was in casting and so he populated his fictional "Valerno" with jobbing actors, few of whom at the time enjoyed name recognition. Star James Coburn had previously contributed alternatively gritty and charming support to such films as The Magnificent Seven (1960), Charade (1963) and Major Dundee (1965) but was only then breaking ahead with lead roles; Dick Shawn was a well-regarded stage comic with only a few films roles (among them, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, 1963) to his credit while Aldo Ray had hit career doldrums after the early promise of Pat and Mike (1952), Battle Cry (1955) and The Naked and the Dead (1958). In the trades, Edwards defended his "non-star studded picture," claiming that Blatty's script was so exceptional that name actors weren't necessary.

Although the characteristically arch New Yorker gave What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? an unparalleled rave and Film Daily proclaimed it "a rollicking good time," the critical consensus was that Edwards' service farce was a "one-joke comedy" in questionable taste. While The Mirisch Corporation had high hopes and booked the film into Grauman's Chinese for a two-month run in the summer of 1966, box office receipts were disappointing. In its July 26, 1966 edition, Variety called the producers on some creative bookkeeping, noting that actual returns were well below those reported. Slated to run through August, the film was bumped prior to its final week to make way for Fox's inner space sci-fi spectacle Fantastic Voyage (1966).

Blake Edwards' career suffered a subsequent decade-long slump, which he was finally able to turn around by making a second sequel to The Pink Panther, The Return of the Pink Panther (1975). The filmmaker went from strength to strength through the mid-80s with such box office winners as 10 (1979), S.O.B. (1981) and the war-time cross-dressing comedy Victor/Victoria (1982), starring his second wife, Julie Andrews. The popularity of that film led to a Broadway reinterpretation in 1995, again starring Andrews and directed by Edwards, which ran for two years at the Marquis Theater. As for the mostly forgotten What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, the film found a belated champion in critic Dave Kehr, who heralded it as a "mordant little marvel" at the time of its 2008 DVD debut.

Producer: Blake Edwards
Director: Blake Edwards
Screenplay: William Peter Blatty; Blake Edwards, Maurice Richlin (story)
Cinematography: Philip Lathrop
Art Direction: Fernando Carrere
Music: Henry Mancini
Film Editing: Ralph E. Winters
Cast: James Coburn (Lieutenant Christian), Dick Shawn (Captain Lionel Cash), Sergio Fantoni (Captain Oppo), Giovanna Ralli (Gina Romano), Aldo Ray (Sergeant Rizzo), Harry Morgan (Major Pott), Carroll O'Connor (General Bolt), Leon Askin (Colonel Kastorp), Henry Rico Cattani (Benedetto), Jay Novello (Mayor Romano), Vito Scotti (Frederico).

by Richard Harland Smith

What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? production notes
What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? film program
Film Daily
The New Yorker
The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz



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