A pet project for its star, Steve McQueen, this peacetime service comedy has running gags that wheeze & misfire and a melancholy edge to its coming-of-age story. McQueen worked up a Southern twang for his hustling supply sergeant, an all too transparent con-man who pitches cockeyed money-making schemes at his idol, Jackie Gleason’s Master Sergeant. But they both seem to know they’re stuck for good in the petty shenanigans of this man’s army. Director Ralph Nelson can’t work up a rhythm on the Blake Edwards/Maurice Richlin script, but they all seem to have picked up traces of Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN in the William Goldman source novel. (Edwards was originally set to direct which probably accounts for the Henry Mancini score & Philip Lathrop lensing.) These mismatched buds (slow-thinker & quick wit) dream of taking off for the good life, with McQueen begging Gleason to tell him one more time about the rabbits. Well, it’s actually perky breasts on native beauties, but the parallels aren’t too hard to figure out. The film threatens to come to life every time it drops the Sgt. Bilko routine, and Nelson seems a lot happier when the plot takes a tragic turn, saving his best for the big fight scene right at the end. But just when they start to get the tone right, things wrap up. Maybe they should have shot the whole film in strict reverse order.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Apparently, McQueen was unhappy with Gleason. Too much goofing around on the golf course. But Gleason’s the reason to watch the pic. Not so much for the comedy, but for the unexpected power in his ‘straight’ acting. It was Orson Welles who dubbed Gleason ‘The Great One,’ but not for making us laugh. Here’s Welles, speaking to Peter Bogdanovich in THIS IS ORSON WELLES, about wanting Gleason for THE TRIAL//’62. ‘I think he’s a marvelous actor. I don’t much like him as a comic, but he’s a superb serious actor, and I think he would have been marvelous in it.’ I’m not so sure about Gleason playing in Kafka, but what a Hickey he’d have made in O’Neill’s THE ICEMAN COMETH. And not such a stretch. After all, Gleason got his Tony Award as Uncle Sid, a sort of Hickey-lite, in a musical taken from O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS! (Check out his proto-Hickey in PAPA’S DELICATE CONDITION/’63 which largely repeats his Uncle Sid characterization.) Still looking for that traditional service comedy you thought you were getting here? Try Blake Edwards' fine and funny OPERATION PETTICOAT/'59.