My wife wants me to go easy on At War With the Army. I don’t like the film. It’s based on a stage play, and its roots show too well. Almost all action happens exclusively on one set, and other than a few scenes shot outside the commanding officer’s inner and outer office, it’s a very claustrophobic affair.
My wife and I both had a good share of rum before watching At War With the Army, and I believe that’s what caused us a few chuckles; but she wants me to be kind, and so, since I don’t want any domestic disputes, I’ll do my best.
Martin and Lewis were already the talk of the town, household names and inked for a slew of films to make by 1950. Their debut film, My Friend Irma, was supposed to feature the team in supporting roles, but their successful improvisation on set combined with the PR/Marketing team at Paramount (and their high visibility on TV shows like Ed Sullivan) already had audiences salivating for their films, so additional scenes were filmed and added, exploiting their rising tide of success.
My Friend Irma was a smash hit, and the sequel was already in the works, when Martin and Lewis made a quick film, away from Paramount. When the team signed their contract with Paramount, a stipulation they fought hard for allowed them to make one film a year through their own company, York Productions. At War With the Army was the first film.
But their producer at Paramount, Hal Wallis, was a shrewd and savvy businessman, and he was able to keep the film out of circulation until My Friend Irma Goes West was filmed and released. It didn’t matter, though, because the public couldn’t get enough of Martin & Lewis, and At War with the Army was one of the biggest grossing films of 1950. However, due to a long, drawn out legal dispute, Martin & Lewis gave up ownership rights, and the film has since reverted back to the public domain.
At War With the Army is a soft critique on the Army’s bureaucracy, with officers discussing policy based on mind numbing numbers, ineffectual Captains and Colonels giving inane orders and a hapless, simple-minded Private outsmarting them all. You can see how the “insider jokes” would be a hit with enlisted audiences of the time, but today, the film feels like one of the team’s lesser efforts. As always, there are contrived opportunities for the team to do several song and dance numbers, and when Lewis is allowed to clown, show off his amazing timing and dancer-like coordination. As creaky a scenario is that has Lewis dressing in drag and getting seduced by a very drunk sergeant, he is able to rise above the material and make the routine seem fresh and funny.
Story-wise, this is an extremely light weight affair, with sub plots of Martin and Lewis supposedly needing to record a song they wrote for their agent going nowhere, and a half-boiled plan by Martin to blame Lewis for a girlfriend who is in a “family way” get too easily wrapped up.
But we don’t watch Martin and Lewis films for the plot, and as claustrophobic as most of the movie is, there are enough diversions to keep the viewer interested through its brief 91 minutes.
Film Chest has released several public domain films on DVD, and they offer up better prints than can generally be seen when streamed or downloaded for free online. For the lover of Martin & Lewis, this is a mediocre but necessary addition to their canon. Now let’s hope I went easy enough on the film so I don’t spend the night on the couch.