Music and comedy led the way to recovery after World War II. First came “South Pacific,” based on a collection of James Michener stories and turned into a popular Broadway musical by Joshua Logan in 1949, and, nine years later, a film. “Mister Roberts” (1955) paved the way in Hollywood, virtually guaranteed success because it was based on another Logan play, directed by the legendary John Ford, and pulled off by three equally legendary actors—Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and Jack Lemmon. This story of an officer on a cargo ship who yearned to get into the big fight was followed by “Operation Petticoat” (1959), which teamed Cary Grant and Tony Curtis as officers on a submarine whose efforts to get their leaky ship back in the war are complicated when they have to take on five nurses. “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” (1960), the third in a coincidental trilogy of mostly non-combat war comedies about officers in the South Pacific wanting to see more action, took the leaky boat gags one step further.
This amiable comedy cast Jack Lemmon as Naval officer Rip Crandall, who travels to Australia to take commission of a vessel that turns out to be a beat-up two-masted schooner—and the laughing stock of the fleet. It turns out that he was recruited because in civilian times he was a trophy-winning yachtsman, and the only one in the Navy with any kind of sailing background. His eager First Officer is Tommy Hanson, played by rock ‘n’ roll heartthrob Ricky Nelson at the height of his popularity, and while the baby-faced Nelson was still starring in his family’s popular TV show, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” And it turns out that Hanson requested this assignment because he wanted a second chance to serve under the famous Crandall, reminding the captain that he was a lad that fouled the rigging once and was booted off the yachting crew by Crandall. The pair doesn’t have the chemistry that Fonda and Lemmon or Grant and Curtis had, partly because Lemmon as Crandall isn’t as cantankerous as you’d expect him to be, and partly because the manic element is missing. In the case of the Fonda/Lemmon and Grant/Curtis pairings, the elder officer was always just a bit more exasperated or crusty, while the first officer was a borderline nut case and energetic flim-flammer who was always scheming. All that Hanson schemes is to get Crandall to accept the commission in the first place, and the first act is basically an in-harbor account of the chicanery that he and others employ in order to basically shanghai the reluctant commander. Maybe Lemmon would have felt more at home playing the young officer, as he did in “Mister Roberts,” and was finding his way as the elder officer. You can almost see shades of Fonda in his straight-backed, straight-faced performance as he tries to be the only sane man on a boat full of crazies.
There are the usual crew shenanigans, complicated by the fact that none of them knows any of the nautical terms or has ever been on a sailing vessel before, but the action picks up when we learn that their top-secret mission has been authorized by none other than Gen. MacArthur. It turns out that they’re the only way to drop an Australian coast watcher onto a hot spot where the Japanese fleet is suspected to pass. And naturally, things get hot for the captain and crew before the film’s end.
Once director Richard Murphy navigates past the goofy opening music and voiceover narration that sets this up as an obvious comedy, he actually manages to avoid slapstick and easy gags in favor of a humor that’s integrated into the plot or which is generated by character interaction. Yes, there’s the usual quota of clichés—the radio man named Sparks, the mechanic tinkering with a cantankerous engine, the cook who makes bad coffee, and the snotty rival and onlookers who inspire the men to do their best—but they’re handled in such a quiet and matter-of-fact way that they seem natural. In other words, “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” is an easygoing comedy that sails smoothly along on an even-keeled pace.
“The Wackiest Ship in the Army” was filmed in glorious color Cinemascope with Panavision, which showcased the beauty of the South Pacific for military personnel and their families who had only come to think of it as a faraway place of danger and devastation. There are plenty of panoramic shots and the colors are as vivid as can be. There’s a slight graininess, which is typical of color films from this time period, but because the film was remastered in High Definition the film seems to be as sharp as I remember it being on the big screen. It’s presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and appears to have been enhanced for 16×9 televisions as it measures out to be a slightly larger picture than that.
Nothing fancy here—Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0—so don’t expect your living room to vibrate with the sound of anti-aircraft guns and Japanese zeroes zooming overhead. But the sound quality is decent, with no hollowness or flatness. The soundtrack is in English, with English and French subtitles.
Unfortunately, as is the case with so many of the older releases, there are no extras. But fans will be grateful for the release.
“The Wackiest Ship in the Army” isn’t as funny as “Mister Roberts” or “Operation Petticoat,” but the film’s major dramatic moment is far more original and suspenseful than either of those military comedies could muster. Because of that successful comedy-drama balance, “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” whetted the public’s appetite for similar shows, and no doubt led to the 1962 debut of the popular “McHale’s Navy” and another round of lighthearted Pacific Theater big-screen romps (“Father Goose,” “Ensign Pulver,” and “The Incredible Mr. Limpet”). It’s a likeable comedy-drama that showcases the South Pacific and a rag-tag crew of misfits more than it does the talents of Jack Lemmon.