Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
As a general rule, a movie with 'wacky' in the title is not going to be a laugh classic.
This okay comedy was pleasant enough in 1960 but isn't going to turn any heads now. Jack Lemmon
is only marginally more convincing as a sailing man than he was in the disastrous
Fire Down Below a few seasons before.
Not quite Ensign Pulver but also not a convincing man of action, Lemmon gets the film off to
an uneven start as a tame service comedy (Operation Mad Ball?) and ends up a so-so imitation of
Blake Edwards' Operation Petticoat.
Navy Officer Rip Crandall (Jack Lemmon) ships out on a leaky schooner with a bad
winch motor, after being tricked into the command by old buddy
Lt. Commander Vanderwater (John Lund) with the knowledge
that he's the only one with the needed sailing experience - next best is Tommy Hanson (Ricky Nelson),
a kid with minimal training. They skip northward to Borneo from Australia,
and then find out that the real mission is to drop a spotter-spy (Chips Rafferty) on a remote
island held by the Japanese. Crandall reluctantly elects to continue rather than let his new
crew do the job under an unfriendly officer.
Jack Lemmon used some of his Columbia contract films to try to stretch his screen possibilities,
only to find his only route forward to be in straight comedies, preferably with very good scripts
such as those provided by Billy Wilder.
In 1960 Hollywood serious war dramas were waning while light comedies with a war background were
on the rise. Here we have a UCLA-educated Japanese officer verbally sparring with our Navy heroes
as if preparing
for a basketball match. We're told that the mission of the leaky vessel Echo is a one-way
suicide trip but the whole movie says otherwise, what with slapstick on the decks and broad comedy
everywhere else. The important joke is a low ceiling in the captain's cabin, see, that everyone
knocks their head on. Will the Japanese commander konk himself on the head too, thus giving our
heroes a chance to get the upper hand?
Being fair, The Wackiest Ship in the Army isn't bad, but it doesn't distinguish itself. The
screenplay dawdles for half an hour while Lemmon balks at accepting a command we know he'll eventually
take. There's hardly a hint of romance with perky Australian secretary Patricia Driscoll. There are
some okay cast members, like Jack Mullaney's chief and Tom Tully (The Caine Mutiny) as a
good commander at Port Moresby. Richard Anderson (Forbidden Planet) is the creep officer that
motivates Lemmon's character to steal the boat and do the mission himself.
Throwing a bent wicket into the works is wonderboy Ricky Nelson, Teen idol and canned radio star. In
1958-59 he made a play for film stardom that resulted in one respected film, Rio Bravo. By
any fair measure he's terrible in it. The Wackiest Ship in the Army isn't a dog but
Nelson drags it down the drain with a lack of charisma, personality, or anything to make us want
to see him on screen. He just stares with his cute puppy looks and warbles a song from inside that
acoustic echo chamber that gives him a voice.
That leaves Lemmon to carry the film alone, which he almost does. He's a convincing
sailor, as the rather good water-based scenes show him doing well on deck and in the
rigging of his ship. And it's the only movie where you'll see Lemmon get run through
with a samurai sword, which of course only adds up to a momentary inconvenience.
The production is good, the bad coffee jokes are bad and the scenery is good. The gag of watching
the extendable keel of the boat raise just enough to clear a minefield is used three times too often.
Perhaps the victim of studio politics (Ricky Nelson? I'll take Frankie Avalon ... Fabian ... anybody!),
The Wackiest Ship in the Army is a mixed bag of okay but undistinguished comedy.
The unfunny machinist who can never get the boat's engine to turn over when needed is Warren
Berlinger, a normally engaging actor. I liked him in 1960, but I was 10 and didn't know any better.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of The Wackiest Ship in the Army makes the film look like new.
I remember seeing it on the screen of the Hickam Air Base outdoor theater when I was eight years old,
and this sharp and colorful picture brings the experience back, even the fragrance of flowers in
the air. The enhanced image has good detail.
There are no extras except some unrelated trailers, which Columbia now puts in an anonymous stack.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Wackiest Ship in the Army rates:
Movie: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 2, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson