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I personally joined the unofficial Frank Tashlin Appreciation Club late, not because of any great revelation in taste but because I wasn't paying attention. I once ignored most Jerry Lewis movies and when I saw the marvelous The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? in college I wasn't paying attention and thought they were by George Axelrod. I didn't get a handle on the inventive, entertaining Tashlin until the 1980s, when all of a sudden Bachelor Flat stopped looking stupid and began to seem inspired in a totally roundabout way... utterly cool in its utter square-ness. I finally did collide with a Tashlin/Lewis picture that made me laugh (Geisha Boy), and the contract was signed with Tashlin's dazzling Susan Slept Here. In his own way Frank Tashlin's '50s films were as 'political' as those of Robert Aldrich or Douglas Sirk -- they seem to define major trends of the decade.
Tashlin scores a high "B" with The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, a 1956 sex farce from 20th Fox. The story is a straight farce; as in Susan Slept Here the protagonist is a Hollywood screenwriter. Gregory Whitcomb (Tom Ewell) began his writing career with a memoir of his experience as an honored flier in WW2. He lives an ideal existence with his attractive wife Katy (Sheree North). He writes from home and his agent Hank Gaxton (Les Tremayne) carries his work to the studio. The Whitcombs often entertain, which is why Hank invites Korean jet ace Barney Sloan (Rick Jason) to one of their parties, to convince Greg to write his life story. The wolfish Barney treats Greg like an old man and cozies up to Katy. She's not buying but the jealous Barney feels his marriage is in danger. The Greg's life turns into "I Was a Male War Bride": Called back into the Air Force reserves, Greg goes overboard with patriotism and sells the house before he finds out that he can't pass the physical. But Katy was herself a Lieutenant in the Air Force and has already re-enlisted to be near him. She's whisked away to duty in Hawaii. 1 While staying in Hank's bachelor apartment in Hollywood, Greg becomes convinced that he's losing Katy to somebody in uniform. He flies to Honolulu to find a way of getting her discharged or thrown out of the service.
For his first Fox assignment under the successful producer Buddy Adler, Tashlin re-wrote and directed an earlier script by Albert Beich -- that had already been tagged by the Production Code Administration as too sexually suggestive. In other words, it's perfect Tashlin material. His marching orders were to create something as sexy as the previous year's monster hit The Seven Year Itch. That movie was released in June of 1955, and Lieutenant was before the cameras by the last week of August.
Tom Ewell had almost twenty years of solid Broadway experience both comedic and dramatic before finally striking it big in films. His movie breakthrough in Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin's Adam's Rib casts him as a clueless, abusive husband. His Broadway hit The Seven Year Itch cemented his typing as a terminally confused male.
It is often suggested that actress Sheree North was groomed to replace Marilyn Monroe as a sex star. This of course ignores the fact that even starlets have individual personalities, and Ms. North had little in common with MM. She projects intelligence and practicality on-screen, and rarely comes off as dependent on the adoration of men. Although the advertising suggested North as a fill-in for Marilyn ("He's got that "itch" again -- this time it's for Sheree!"), in the movie North's Katy Whitcomb isn't even the focus of most of the sexual attention.
Billy Wilder adapted the racy Broadway play The Seven Year Itch by removing its adulterous content and keeping its peek-a-boo temptations and teases. Given the same talented star and a story invented to advertise the Air Force, Frank Tashlin repositions Lieutenant as a traveling girly show. But Sheree North is the comedy's 'straight man', as her Katy just wants a sensible marriage. Top banana Tom Ewell plays neurotic, gets drunk and commits all kinds of embarrassing acts. In an attempt to trick Katy into a Section Eight discharge, Greg acts like a benign version of Charles Boyer in Gaslight and tries to convince her that she's crazy.
Katy does some funny dance gyrations to tease her nervous hubby, but more screen time is devoted showing off a dozen glamorous actresses. In the first party we have future notable Leslie Parrish, from Li'l Abner (and visible on the right in the first image above). Stunning Jacqueline Fontaine is given the less than respectful cast listing as "Buxom blonde at party". Another actress by the name of Sylvia Lewis is un-credited yet has a much bigger part as 'Henrietta Hipslider', a stripper that Greg hires in an effort to make Katy jealous. Greg eventually moves into Air Base housing, only to cause more trouble when the airmen think he's carousing with their wives while they're at work.
Getting the plum part is Rita Moreno as Sandra, Hank's upstairs neighbor. She's actually the film's Marilyn Monroe surrogate. In a parody of "The Girl" in George Axelrod's Itch, Sandra climbs down to sun herself on Greg's balcony. She tempts him from his typewriter by requesting an application of suntan oil. With typical Tashlin 'innocent' suggestiveness, Greg splurts the liquid all over her. Sandra is just one of the dazzling babes that Hollywood agent Hank attracts, even though he looks older than Greg does. Moreno is of course captivating as a completely artificial playmate. But this role was a step up after several movies in which she played cantina girls or Indian 'squaws'. In one film her Indian maiden's given name is "Honey Bear".
The business with older non-handsome men and younger beauties is of course a carryover from Burlesque, and provides a comedy damper for the sex content -- if it's just a farce, the MPA will go easy. A few interesting one-liners do slip through, but overall we see The Lieutenant Wore Skirts as another expression of Tashlin's one-man comedy battle for the sexual liberation of over-aged American males. Greg is mortified when the younger Jet Ace assumes he can appropriate his wife, and has no faith in Katy's fidelity, even though she's completely dedicated to him. Greg's exaggerated reaction is what causes them to be separated, and what threatens to make her give up on him altogether. Much of the 'funny stuff' that Greg engages in is painful -- running around like a ninny and pulling off lame schemes that Lucy Ricardo wouldn't try.
I think Tashlin envisioned the '50s with its Playboy magazine and atomic-age Hollywood cuties as evidence of some kind of male nervous breakdown. Could men of his generation handle all the sexual stimulation? Neither the story's setup, its development or solution will appeal to feminists -- you'll have to see for yourself how Greg manages (inadvertently) to get Katy discharged from the service.
Tom Ewell is always funny, with that hangdog look that telegraphs a shaky self-esteem even when he's playing an overpaid writer. Ms. North can certainly waggle her fanny as neatly as Henrietta Hipslider, but she would eventually find her calling in better parts in dramas. Edward Platt is a shrink, while Jean Willes is a neighbor and Gregory Walcott (of Plan 9 from Outer Space fame) her Air Force husband who suspects Greg of hanky-panky.
The production has 20th-Fox gloss but is really on the cheap side - the production design isn't as agreeably garish as some of Tashlin's other efforts,. The studio lot's gates and buildings represent various air bases, and one shot of Kate and some other WAFs sunning themselves on Waikiki is framed by beach umbrellas to allow a swimming pool to substitute for the Pacific Ocean. A row of studio buildings (including, I think, the old editorial department where I picked up screening prints to show at UCLA) is the setting for a tearful Air Base farewell.
The sexy starlets, however, look absolutely real.
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD-R of The Lieutenant Wore Skirts is a very good enhanced widescreen DVD of this CinemaScope & color show from 1956. The aspect ratio is a full 2.35:1, -- Amazon's present listing is incorrect. I hastened to review the show to let readers know that the disc looks quite good -- Sheree North uses the whole width of the screen when she does her hip-swinging seductive dance for Tom Ewell. Likewise, the Honolulu stripper looks great in both her scarlet dress and her 'beach babe' outfit when serving drinks on the beach.
I only wish that Fox had done the same for its previous DVD-R of Tashlin's Bachelor Flat which came out in an older flat letterboxed transfer. Whenever a worthwhile Cinema Archives classic pops up, I'll try to review it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Lieutenant Wore Skirts rates:
1. Which I guess means Hickam AFB next to Pearl Harbor, where I moved two years later at age six.
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T'was Ever Thus.