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Steve McQueen made comedies, and several of his early action hero films certainly took advantage of his comic charm, but his only flat-out Hollywood farce is the 1961 service comedy The Honeymoon Machine, a film off the MGM "youth picture" assembly line. McQueen is said to have hated himself in this movie, and soon shifted to heavy-duty action and drama, keeping semi-comic roles as a minor elective. He's actually very good as a fast-talking Lieutenant with a clever plan to loot a Venetian casino. Perhaps McQueen decided that the industry already had enough handsome, sharp-talking guys like James Garner who did comedy better. Or, he may have disliked sharing the screen with so many good actors fighting for attention.
McQueen is funny on his own and an acceptable fit with MGM's new preppy stars Paula Prentiss and Jim Hutton. The movie's real pleasures are an amiably antic script and several choice supporting performances. It ain't art, but The Honeymoon Machine is both funny and entertaining.
The USS Elmira drops anchor off Italy's Venice after a successful test of the Magnetic Analyzer Computing Synchrotron (MACS), a super computer that allows the pinpoint targeting of intercontinental missiles. The always-conniving Lt. "Fergie" Howard (McQueen) talks civilian computer whiz Jason Eldridge (Jim Hutton) into a scheme to break the bank of a Venetian gambling casino, using the calculating brain of MACS to predict winners at a roulette wheel. They install themselves in a deluxe hotel suite with an eye-line view for communicating with the ship, and go forward with their wild plan. Complications arise immediately. Jason bumps into the nearsighted Pam Dunstan (Paula Prentiss), an old sweetheart that he dropped because she's rich and "all scientists are poor, it's the law." Pam's engaged to a puffed-up climber in the State Department, but likes Jason better. While signaling to the ship with a large Morse code "blinker", Fergie meets the lovely and unattached Julie Fitch. Romance blooms, but Julie recognizes a Navy man when she sees one, even in civilian clothes ... her father is Admiral Fitch (Dean Jagger), a humorless martinet otherwise known as "Old Foghorn." The Admiral's suite is just below Fergie's, and when Old Foghorn sees the signal flashes from the computer deck of the Elmira, he alerts NATO security. Some kind of espionage seems to be afoot, perhaps instigated by those sneaky Russian diplomats hanging around the casino!
The Honeymoon Machine is a thoroughly square service comedy, but it's cleverly written and reasonably well-played. It was adapted from The Golden Fleecing, a middling stage comedy by Lorenzo Semple Jr.. Tom Poston played McQueen's role on stage; most critics say that the film is an improvement. Since Jim Hutton's character is named Jason it's altogether possible that the emphasis on his role was switched with McQueen's. The story could be mistaken for a screwball comedy from the late 1930s, if one were to substitute a mathematical genius for the super-computer, under arrest in the ship's brig to necessitate the ship-to-shore communications.
Writer George Wells seems to have been MGM's go-to guy for light romantic comedies at this time. His adaptation of Glendon Swarthout's Where the Boys Are was a huge hit the year before, and its new stars Hutton and Paula Prentiss were quickly shoehorned into a series of romantic comedies. Although they mostly hold up the mechanical end of the story, their presence is always a plus; they were such an attractive couple that fans assumed they were romantically involved after work hours. Wells doesn't find enough for them to do, and recycles a running gag from Where the Boys Are: instead of comedian Frank Gorshin stumbling around like a disoriented "Mr. Magoo", we have Ms. Prentiss bumbling into people and talking to statues. She makes this mild slapstick seem inspired.
McQueen gets the fast talking dialogue and all the best stage business as he juggles various hot potatoes, including the delectable Julie. The only really forced comedy are their romantic clinches on the sofa, where McQueen's legs stick straight up in the air like something out of a suggestive Tex Avery cartoon. If these romantic leads generated more chemistry, the movie would have all cylinders working. The Honeymoon Machine is a very good picture for the aging Dean Jagger, who plays all the anxiety over the mounting "international incident" perfectly straight, and keeps the subplot about the Navy - State Department boondoggle from becoming an annoyance. The Admiral also puts paid to Pam's jerk of a fiancé (William Lanteau), straightening out that romantic triangle.
As another Navy conspirator, Jack Mullaney is given mostly sitcom duty -- he reacts to people kissing (that's the erotic limit of this squeaky-clean Honeymoon) by dropping a large box of delicate Venetian glass... twice. But for compensation we're given Jack Weston in what must be the comic's finest hour, as a shore patrolman who gets thoroughly juiced and goes wildly off mission, even climbing out onto a narrow ledge for great slapstick comedy laughs. Perhaps McQueen remembered this excellent playing when it came time to make The Thomas Crown Affair: Weston's not only terrific, he doesn't upstage the star.
1961 was a hot year for the Cold War, and The Honeymoon Machine is soaked in references, what with those Russians skulking around the periphery. Everybody's convinced that the Russkies are trying to crack into the secrets of the MACS computer; and a Soviet Consul (Ben Astar) throws Nikita Krushchev-like fits of temper. In one nice bit both the NATO and Soviet codebreakers are told to shut up when they suggest that the mystery signals could be related to roulette. Paula Prentiss is given the most telling ideological put-down line: when somebody asks her how she earned sixty million dollars, she replies, "The capitalistic way."
The Honeymoon Machine with Steve McQueen is better than its reputation, even as it represents the last gasp of the MGM factory system. Director Richard Thorpe puts the 'scope images together in his utterly impersonal, unexciting style, leaving the actors to do all the work. In this case the results aren't half bad. I have fond memories of George Wells' comedy Ask Any Girl with Shirley MacLaine, even if almost every scene will now probably look like an affront to PC sensibilities. I hope that the Warner Archive Collection gets to that title sooner than later, as I've never seen it in 'scope.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Honeymoon Machine is a bright and colorful enhanced transfer of this CinemaScope production. If the animated titles with the corny computer that looks like a popcorn popper doesn't tell you exactly what you're getting into, the title song Love is Crazy will. The film's special effects (hint: nobody went to Venice) and the escapade on the hotel balcony come off much better in the full wide screen with good color than they did in old pan-scan transfers. Warner Archive includes a peppy original trailer, which appears to use alternate takes for some dialogue lines.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Honeymoon Machine rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.