Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

What Did You Do in the war, Daddy?


Between 1941 and 1945 or ’46, most American males of a certain age were in one branch or another of what my dad always called “the service.” (He was in the Army Air Corps.) For just about all of them, it was the most intense experience of their lives to date, and for most of them, afterwards as well. And whether they were in the nightmare of combat or the endless boredom of the rear areas and stateside, they all shared things in common, that can be summed up as “typical army (or Navy) bullshit.” The expression SNAFU (situation normal; all fucked up) originated in these years.

When the boys came home, Hollywood made a lot of pictures for them. There were plenty of action war movies. I have always wondered who went to them: the veterans, many of whom had seen all the combat they’d ever want to see, or the 4Fs, the agricultural and war plant workers, the ones too old or too young to have served. (My dad got in late, and never saw combat … hooray!)

But the ones I have no doubt the veterans wanted to see were what we call “service comedies.” Sure, these guys knew these light-hearted japes were bullshit … and yet, in a way, they weren’t. They usually focused on the rear area, movies like Mister Roberts, Operation Petticoat, You’re in the Navy Now, and Don’t Go Near the Water. (For some reason, most of them I can easily recall were in the Navy. Even The Wackiest Ship in the Army was on a boat!) Cary Grant was in a lot of them, and Jack Lemmon, and Glen Ford. I did find some Army examples: I Was a Male War Bride, The Horizontal Lieutenant, Never Wave at a WAC, The Perfect Furlough. There was a sub-genre of musical service comedies. I think Gene Kelly was in most of them, in movies like Anchors Aweigh, On the Town, It’s Always Fair Weather, Thousands Cheer, and even in part of {{Invitation to the Dance}. What was real about them was that they understood the bureaucracy of military life, and told amusing stories of how to get around it, which might even result in keeping you alive. Nobody had made movies like this before, comedies about war, so far as I know. I mean, I can find examples (Buster Keaton’s comic Civil War masterpiece, The General and Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms), but not a genre.

This movie was pretty much the last gasp of the straight service comedy. “War comedies” after this were largely much harder-edged. For the Korean War there was M*A*S*H. The only one I can think of for the war in Southeast Asia is Good Morning, Vietnam. There was a very hard-edged service comedy set in the Gulf War, Three Kings. And of course Stanley Kubrick made a sort of service comedy about World War III, Dr. Strangelove.

Okay, so what about this one? Not bad, I’d say, though of course it’s way beyond unlikely. Blake Edwards directed, James Coburn and Dick Shawn star. Shawn managed to portray an uptight by-the-book lieutenant for about ten minutes, after which he gets drunk and the fun begins. The plot involves … oh, who cares? It’s very silly, and mostly funny, and it has music by Henry Mancini. How bad could it be?