Dire sea-faring sex comedy caper; an ignominious end to Kovacs' already lackluster movie career. Sony Pictures' Choice Collection of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Sail a Crooked Ship, the 1961 so-called "comedy" from Columbia Pictures starring Robert Wagner, Dolores Hart, Carolyn Jones, Frankie Avalon, Ernie Kovacs, Frank Gorshin, Jesse White, and Harvey Lembeck. Based on the book by Nathaniel Benchley, and directed by one-time Marx Bros. collaborator Irving Brecher, Sail a Crooked Ship is a stunningly unfunny Grade C heist flick, ineptly shot on the cheap in black and white on a few crappy studio sets, with a cast of performers who either don't get it at all (that would be Wagner), or who try real hard to no avail (that would be Hart and Avalon), or who know they're on a sinking ship and therefore don't give a sh*t how they come off (that would be everyone else). No extras for this okay anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer.
World-class screw-up and disgraced former Navy officer Lieutenant JG Gilbert Barrows (Robert Wagner) is engaged to prim and proper Elinor Harrison (Dolores Hart)...who isn't giving up anything prior to their marriage vows. Hoping to be a success in business, Gilbert tries to convince his boss, Elinor's father, Simon J. Harrison (Wilton Graff), that the rusted-out "Victory ships" Harrison's company owns could be more profitably utilized as retrofitted cargo carriers...rather than being "melted down into 10 million bobby pins." Harrison, looking to make a deadline for a sizeable tax write-off, angrily vetoes the idea, but Gilbert decides to prove his point, on the sly, by fixing up just one boat. That night, looking in the Yellow Pages, Gilbert calls Atlantic Marine Ship Fitters, where he reaches Bugsy G. Foglemeyer (Ernie Kovacs). Foglemeyer politely accepts Gilbert's offer to fix the ship...and then promptly abandons the office safe he was trying to crack when he picked up Atlantic's phone. Gathering together his gang, which includes eager nephew Rodney J. Foglemeyer (Frankie Avalon), engineer McDonald (Jesse White), and henchmen Nickels (Harvey Lembeck), Sammy (Sid Tomack), Helmut (Guy Raymond), and Finster (Buck Kartalian), Foglemeyer also reaches out to "The Brain," George M. Wilson (Frank Gorshin) to help formulate his plan to steal Gilbert's ship, sail to Boston, rob a bank, and escape via the sea. One night, Gilbert, trying yet again to break down Elinor's resistance, takes her on the boat...where they're promptly kidnapped by Foglemeyer. Press-ganged into sailing the ship, Gilbert has to figure out how to thwart the thieves...while saving them all from an on-coming hurricane.
Jesus Christ does Sail a Crooked Ship stink. Anyone who has read even a few of my past reviews (you know you need help...) knows that I'm very forgiving of minor studio efforts from this time period. If you tell me I'm going to watch a movie with Ernie Kovacs and Frankie Avalon in it...I'm already sold. I'm going to find something entertaining in it, regardless (or maybe even because of) what other critics might write off. Add in the delicious Dolores Hart (it's okay to say that about a future nun?) and sexy Carolyn Jones, and top-notch supporting comedy players like Gorshin and White and Lembeck, and have it be based on a Nathaniel Benchley book and directed by a pro scripter like Irving Brecher? How the hell can that movie go wrong? And even if for some reason it turns out to be bad, it might be so bad it's good in the end, yes? With that talent, at the very least, right?
Wrong. Getting right down to it, I laughed, out loud, once in Sail a Crooked Ship. Once. No exaggeration. No other guffaw, chuckle, giggle, or even titter. Nothing. And I'll laugh at anything, even Ish Kabible or (god forbid) Ruth Buzzi. It can be high-class or low-brow. It can be cerebral and surreal, or baggy pants and seltzer. It can be Noel Coward or The Three Stooges, I don't care. Even if it's only mildly amusing, or even amiable, for god's sake, I'll give you a laugh. All you have to do is try and I'll probably give you at the least an appreciative snort. But not here, despite all the belabored huffing and puffing from the (mostly) talented cast. So...what prompted the solitary laugh in Sail a Crooked Ship? 38 interminable minutes into the movie, Ernie Kovacs does a funny hep-cat dance with Carolyn Jones, and it's a scream for about 20 seconds...but even that minuscule moment of levity is partly ruined by the director when he has the beautifully, hilariously expressive Kovacs crammed into a corner of the widescreen frame, and largely obstructed in the foreground (you simply can't win in this dog). Scripted by Ruth Brooks Flippen (Gidget Goes Hawaiian, Gidget Goes to Rome, and lots of episodic TV) and future Mission: Impossible creator Bruce Geller (yep), Sail a Crooked Ship immediately has that unmistakable air of a misfire when it flounders with its chintzy animated opening credits, followed by a cobbled-together backstory sequence, complete with a god-awful, unfunny narration, that appears to be a combination of excised footage and future clips from the movie (when describing Wagner's less-than-stellar Navy career, we're shown a puzzling shot of him swept away in a waterlogged ship's gangway; we wonder why he's not in uniform...until later in the movie we realize the shot was lifted from the hurricane sequence). It's a distressingly awkward way to begin a comedy...and it's only downhill from there (an example of the one-liners here? During the hurricane, the narrator intones, "In the immortal words of Paul Revere, 'The raincoats are coming off!'" Someone please hold my hair back as I get sick with laughter).
Attempting to mix a slapstick heist movie with a "modern" Doris Day-like sex comedy, Sail a Crooked Ship manages to thoroughly botch both elements. Wagner's scenes with Hart, where he's either trying to bed her or assuring her he's not trying to bed her, are painfully stiff (Hart, shoehorned most unattractively into a prudish, grating character, looks frequently embarrassed by the smarmy dialogue thrown at her), while Jones offers the movie's only bit of true sexiness with her funny turn as a good-time girl who knows the score (Jones looks good in that bikini, and she's playfully erotic when turning on cold fish Wagner in that lifeboat). It's just too bad the sex comedy focus was on Wagner and Hart, instead of hedonists Jones and boyfriend Kovacs (the only time sleepy Kovacs perks up in Sail a Crooked Ship is when Jones is around). The heist elements are frankly worse, with the initial set-up never making any sense, anyhow; Wagner hires them to retrofit the boat...but he never meets them? And they got the boat sailing how? The bank robbery finale, is, to put it kindly, lamely anticlimactic (they're dressed as pilgrims with turkeys running all around--har dee har har), preceded by some shockingly flat sight gags during the sea voyage to Boston (why on earth do they endlessly repeat that gag of Avalon and then Kovacs spinning on the steering wheel? It doesn't work the first time...or the tenth). Whatever inspiration director Irving Brecher (The Life of Riley) derived from working with those supreme physical comedians the Marx Bros. in the 30s and 40s, was apparently long gone by this point.
As for the cast...there's no getting around the fact that smooth, blank Wagner is disastrously miscast here. We might buy Wagner as an oily cheat or con (two years later he'd score big-time with just such a supporting role in The Pink Panther), but as a clueless cross between Pat Boone and Jerry Lewis? No way, Dino. Hart, lovely and mortified, tries, but she's no fun playing a prude, and she's no good at truly letting loose and playing drunk (she looks like she wants to crawl into a hole when the movie asks her to pantomime taking off her bra, for the finale's pitifully unsatisfying wrap-up). Quirky, erotic Jones, on the other hand, walks off with the scenes she has...which ain't exactly hard to do here. Avalon is a tad too sincere in playing "game," but at least he's putting in an effort (check out Kovacs' not-too-hard-to-read face when Frankie sings Opposites Attract), while Gorshin goes too hard at his unlikable character, leaving behind any potential laughs (Lembeck and White have almost nothing to do here). As for Kovacs...what can one say, except he's clearly picking up a check already spent by the IRS (as I've written before about Kovacs, his money woes with the government--god bless him--necessitated his signing onto subpar projects like Sail a Crooked Ship). Kovacs was killed in a single car accident on January 13, 1962, right when Sail a Crooked Ship was being rolled out into cities across the country, making it his last big-screen appearance. Hollywood never knew what to do with Kovacs, so it shouldn't surprise us that he's visibly bored and detached here, showing up to play in a project he wouldn't have touched if he didn't desperately need the scratch. Still...it's quite sad (and even a little bit morbid) to see such a brilliant, gifted performer appearing for the last time in worthless junk like Sail a Crooked Ship--the only dubious claim to fame for this sinker.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.