Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It's pretty easy to guess why Fox would release You're in the Navy Now, an almost completely forgettable service comedy noted as perhaps Gary Cooper's worst film -- it has the first screen appearances by both Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin. Bronson has a small but notable part while Marvin might be missed entirely if we weren't looking for him. This story of an obscure Naval research "mission" has plenty of military cooperation but mostly makes the service look like an incompetent bureaucracy. Cooper is surrounded by capable actors and the show isn't an unpleasant viewing experience, yet even with his old friend Henry Hathaway directing it mainly just sits there.
"90 Day Wonder" naval officer Lt. John Harkness (Gary Cooper) can't believe he's been assigned to active duty on a small vessel powered by an experimental steam engine. He leaves his wife Ellie (Jane Greer) at the dock and checks aboard to find that none of his officers really knows how to run a ship either. His crew do the best they can but make embarrassing mistakes that damage the ship; when it does get it going the steam engine malfunctions. With leaves cancelled and morale at an all-time low, Harkness is ready to do anything to get his crew and his ship -- disparagingly dubbed the "S.S. Teakettle" -- in good working order.
Gary Cooper had made the rousing, patriotic Navy film Task Force just two years before. You're in the Navy Now is clearly an attempt at a lighter view of the imperfect Navy that real sailors were familiar with. In addition to filling their combat needs, the top brass have dozens of special projects that require staffing, and it was not at all unusual for a man with almost no sea experience to find himself in charge of the crew of a ship. Cooper's "90 Day Wonder" -- a qualified college graduate with a crash course in Navy procedures -- is also an engineer, so he's a logical choice to spearhead a project with an experimental supercharged steam engine.
Beyond that, we have a hard time accepting the initial premise of the Richard Murphy script, which plays like an extended anecdote that might fill five pages in Reader's Digest. It would seem obvious that even the Navy would have the engineers who built the prototype steam engine in charge of its tests and trial runs, in which case Cooper's Harkness character would simply facilitate their efforts. No, we instead see the spectacle of a bunch of diesel-trained machinist's mates struggling with a power plant that looks less stable than a nuclear reactor with a cracked core. The movie never finds the right tone to make the situation funny -- tons of superheated steam could blast through the engine room at any time, scalding all of the men to a horrible death. Funn-nee.
Cooper is miscast; he seems far too old to be puttering around getting lost, knocking his head in doorways and playing his cute act. Even Mr. Deeds or John Doe would be tiresome if they persisted in acting cluelessly innocent as they approached retirement age, and Harkness just comes off as an ineffectual fool. Even his wife, now the secretary for his landlubber superior, is by contrast a model of efficiency and self-confidence. We wait patiently for somebody to hand Coop a can of spinach, but he keeps fumbling and apologizing to people all through the picture.
The antics of the supporting cast aren't much but they do point the way to the standard anarchic service comedies that would take full form in Operation Mad Ball a few years later. The crew of the Teakettle is a collection of dimwitted lieutenants and harried, sarcastic enlisted men directed to play in a comedic spirit that Hathaway never pays off. Eddie Albert is an ineffectual loudmouth and Millard Mitchell is never at a loss for a derisive comment. Jack Webb has a bright, empty smile and Harvey Lembeck is a born slacker. Ed Begley, John McIntire, Ray Collins and Harry von Zell are superior officers variously hostile and helpful.
The story splits between the problematic engine trials -- the idea is to produce a steam engine that can recycle its water supply -- and the SS Teakettle's morale problem. For this it falls back on the old "Spig Wead" clich&e; of the Big Boxing Championship. Jack Webb takes the place of Charles Buchinsky (Bronson) after the latter breaks his ribs in an accident (Chuck? No way). The impersonation leads to more trouble when Webb is asked to fight again ... even though officers aren't not allowed in the tournament. It's the film's only real subplot and it doesn't pay off.
Lee Marvin looks capable as a machinist but neither he nor Bronson make a huge impression. In only a couple of years Marvin would be a solid main supporting actor (The Big Heat) while Charlie was forced to play Indians and thugs until his TV work got him bigger parts.
Savant confesses that he asked for You're in the Navy Now because it had Jane Greer, a woman worth sinking ships to catch another glimpse of. She's on screen for maybe eight minutes and has little to do.
Fox's DVD of You're in the Navy Now is a fine presentation of a B&W film that probably hasn't been out of the vault much in the past half a century. A trailer is included and the film's track has (presumably) been reprocessed for two-channel stereo. It's pretty amazing that Fox will put out this drip of a picture, when their CinemaScope stereophonic Cooper western epic Garden of Evil is still nowhere to be seen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
You're In the Navy Now rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 25, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson