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Financially overextended on big pictures that didn't make money, and bearing the overhead of a movie factory filmed fewer and fewer pictures each year, MGM continued to make its mid-range films the old way, with aging talent and equipment that hadn't changed much since the 1930s. In 1962 it had recently started shutting down development departments. The "class of 1959", a group of youngsters that included Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton, were still on the payroll. Much of the product initiated by the company was old-fashioned, formulaic and forgettable.
One of the brighter spots in the 1960 season had been Where the Boys Are, a bouncy comedy crammed with "clean-cut" kids chosen to offset the delinquents and rebels found in independently made teen movies of the day. Filmed partly in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it made the first stab at a new definition of the "youth market", observing for the first time the Spring Break vacation rituals of college kids on the leading edge of the post-war Baby Boom. An amusing young pair of actors from WTBA, Paula Prentiss and Jim Hutton, enjoyed one of the last surges of studio-promoted star popularity. Fans wrongly assumed from the start that the actors were an item in real life. They had originally been paired because Hutton was the only actor taller than the lanky, funny Prentiss. MGM more or less repeated the same chemistry for a series of follow-ups. Charming and attractive, Hutton and Prentiss pretty much shone through smaller parts in The Honeymoon Machine and Bachelor in Paradise. Their final co-starring film, The Horizontal Lieutenant, at least allows them real star status.
A book adaptation with a screenplay by MGM's in-house semi-anonymous comedy veteran George Wells, The Horizontal Lieutenant plays as a variation on The Teahouse of the August Moon that seems to have gone through an overhaul by an unimaginative committee. Near the end of WW2, Naval Intelligence officer Lt. Merle Wye (Hutton) wants to fight the Japanese but is assigned to meaningless duties like playing on a baseball team. His efforts to make out with nurse Molly Blue (Prentiss) are scotched by the fact that, with American women so scarce in the South Seas, she can get dates with higher-ranking officers every night. Sent to a meaningless backwater so that his superior can trade for a better ball player, Wye tries but fails to convince Molly that he's leaving on a suicide mission. On the new island, the better ball player Lt. Billy Monk (Jack Carter) is eager to show Wye the ropes and return to the land of nurses, but word comes down that they both must stay on the job to capture Kobayashi (Yuki Shimoda) a Japanese holdout who persists in stealing Navy supplies. To Wye's delight, Molly is transferred to the island as well. Unfortunately, his immediate superior Col. Korotny (Charles McGraw) moves in first. Wye, Monk and their Nisei translators and helpers must somehow gain the trust of the Japanese civilians, to capture the crafty Kobayashi.
The Horizontal Lieutenant is a weak farce made from second-hand ideas and glued together with more witless slapstick comedy than a TV show with a laugh track. Merle Wye dreams of secret agent exploits (cute), gets beaned with a baseball (funny!) and crashes a jeep into the office of his new commanding officer (I can't stop laughing). There are endless translation jokes and outdated "replacement" jokes 1 and dimwitted Officer jokes. Wye's Nisei assistants (played by Japanese-American actors, a plus) are either cowards or too shrewd to be fooled by plans that put them at risk, at least until one of them finds that his secret information-gathering mission has the side benefit of a romantic relationship with a spirited local woman. Just a couple of years before, the rather brutal war drama Hell to Eternity had recounted the difficult clash between hard-bitten G.I.s and last-ditch Japanese troops on Okinawa. This movie seems to be a peaceful take on the same situation. But when we see the island's cliffs (really Palos Verdes by Los Angeles) we're reminded of the traumatic vintage newreel footage of Japanese civilians committing suicide instead of surrendering to the "American devils".
This becomes all the more pointless when the dreaded Kobayashi turns out (spoiler) to be a non-hostile ex-circus performer who steals food and provisions for his pregnant wife. Although Wye loses a judo match to Kobayashi, the man is a happy fellow who just wants to do his tightrope act: he's somehow saved his professional equipment in his cliff-side cave hideout. A lot of screen time is expended on the Kobayashi problem, with little reward. Behind its veneer of casual irrelevance, The Horizontal Lieutenant turns out to be truly irrelevant. Its appeal for this reviewer is as a curiosity item -- as a fairly un-cool teenager I thought it was screamingly funny.
Compared to Prentiss and Hutton's earlier movies, the romantic angle is shallow indeed. The two don't have all that much time together, and when they do it's the same story -- he's trying to make out and and she's too busy with offers from other officers. Wye doesn't even seem to be trying to bed Molly -- the hottest the film gets is when he tries to kiss the nurse on her collarbone. She's furious, even though she has already consented to lay down with him in a secluded tropical love spot. After seeing the adult comedy in MGM's The Americanization of Emily, both actors must have felt marooned in a infantile play pen.
The movie throws in plenty of likeable comedians -- Jack Carter, Marty Ingels, Jim Backus -- but nothing particularly funny happens. Some of the blame must be leveled at director Richard Thorpe, who was 66 at the time and on the last gasp of a major career that spanned 44 years, some good pictures (Ivanhoe) and heaps of mediocrity. Thorpe is perhaps the most uninspiring director in MGM's history; he must have had a knack for showing up on time, staying under budget and not causing trouble in the front office. His direction going into the late 50s is terminally flat and impersonal.
That lack of spark (combined with the cookie-cutter policies of MGM's editorial czar Margaret Booth) combine to make The Horizontal Lieutenant look more like a factory product than pictures from the '40s. It's all filmed on the MGM ranch or what was left of the back lot; the biggest military item is a jeep and some trucks. That Palos Verdes cliff view is combined with a stagebound cliff set via poor traveling matte work. The potentially interesting scenes with the Japanese community come to very little. Oscar-winner Miyoshi Umeki is wasted as yet another pixie-like "native". The film's silly angle on things Japanese becomes more pointed when one realizes that at the time, huge anti-American protest riots were breaking out in Japan. The controversy was big news all over the world but underreported here. America's view of Japan came through in pictures like The Horizontal Lieutenant, with cute little peasant islanders playing mischievous games on the U.S. Navy.
Paula Prentiss reappeared in leading parts in better comedy material, like Man's Favorite Sport?, The World of Henry Orient and What's New, Pussycat? and starred in a critically-acclaimed TV series, He and She. Jim Hutton moved sideways into semi-comic parts in escapist action films, worked with John Wayne and made TV series of his own. The Horizontal Lieutenant was considered good light entertainment for its day and the fact that films like it were never embraced by revisionist film critics doesn't mean that the actors aren't charming. Prentiss and Hutton could have easily carried any picture with a good comedy idea. Just the same, I don't envision any groundswell of enthusiasm for revivals of their final co-starring feature.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Horizontal Lieutenant is an excellent enhanced widescreen transfer of the CinemaScope picture. Except for TCM, most broadcasts have been of miserable Pan-scanned prints. The Diamonds sing the wince-inducing title tune that plays out over an animated credits sequence. In the weak stage show that finishes the film, Miyoshi Umeki sings Lane & Freed's How About You? in two languages. I'm sure the cute-as-a-button Umeki was applauded in 1962.
The disc includes an original trailer that emphasizes bonks on the head, pratfalls and dialogue punch lines, and promises a steamy service romance that never really happens. Prentiss and Hutton caught the last major-studio star development bus, but arrived a bit too early to flourish in the anything-goes '70s.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Horizontal Lieutenant rates:
1. "Replacement" joke, explained: Soldiers stuck in miserable field assignments often had to wait months beyond their duty period to be relieved by a new
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