After half an hour, Judge George Hatch had a sinking feeling, but he never thought he'd end up sleeping with the fishes.
"Sending out an S.O.S.—sending out an S.O.S."—The Police, "Message in a Bottle"
I thought: How could I go wrong? The Wackiest Ship in the Army looked like a nutty nautical comedy full of maritime madness. It starred Jack Lemmon (Some Like It Hot) and 1960s teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson, who, the year before, had earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo.
And the storyline sounded intriguing. During WWII, Lt. Rip Crandall (Lemmon) is assigned to helm an old schooner, the newly monickered U.S.S. Echo, to a port in Australia as part of a secret mission he has yet to learn about. As expected, Crandall's crew is a handful of bumbling gobs, and not one of them knows a winch from a foresail. Crandall balks when he sees the ship; but, fortunately, Ensign Tommy J. Hanson (Nelson) is also on board, fresh out of the Naval Academy and eager to acquire his sea legs. Hanson sweet-talks Crandall, and even fiddles with some official transfer paperwork to ensure Crandall remains their captain. Then he takes charge of turning these tapped-out tars into "blue water sailors in less than three days."
After too many slapstick-and-shtick routines that had been retired a decade earlier, the Echo finally sets sail for Australia. But director Richard Murphy steers the film on an entirely different course. Lt. Crandall tries to maintain control of his ship during a fierce at-sea hurricane, then maneuvers it through a deadly minefield, using only the schooner's sails because the engine has (once again) failed. No "big laffs" here. When Crandall reaches port, he learns that he is to be replaced by Lt. Foster (Richard Anderson, The Long Hot Summer); and that the Echo's secret mission is to deliver an Australian coast-watcher to a strategic surveillance point at Cape Gloucester, dead center in enemy territory. By this time, Crandall has become so attached to his motley crew, he decides to risk court-martial and carry out the assignment.
Having exhausted the comedy angle in the first half-hour, director Murphy opted for some lame suspense and a few near-dramatic personal confrontations. He then turned the last third into a war film, complete with genuine military footage. The Wackiest Ship in the Army was Murphy's second and last film. I happened to catch his first, Three Stripes in the Sun (1955), only because it starred Aldo Ray (The Marrying Kind)—it, too, was a stinker. As a screenwriter, however, Richard Murphy earned two Oscar nominations, for Elia Kazan's Boomerang! (1947) and Robert Wise's The Desert Rats (1953). Murphy also did a spectacular job of single-handedly adapting Meyer Levin's novel about the "crime-of-the-century" Leopold and Loeb murder case for Richard Fleischer's Compulsion (1959).
Here, Murphy is credited as one of three writers who "developed" the script for Wackiest Ship from an original story by Herbert Carlson—a story that is, purportedly, based on fact. Occasionally, the combination of comedy, drama, and war works. Stalag 17 and Mr. Roberts are perfect examples of the approach, because all of these elements are smoothly blended together throughout each film. They aren't divided into three separate parts, as is the case here.
The screenplay for Wackiest Ship is overloaded with Navy lingo. More technical terms are tossed about than you will hear in any three classic war films combined. I was in the Navy and can verify that everything mentioned is accurate, but it's going to bore the hell out of the average viewer. Even I became frustrated when Ensign Hanson whispers commands to the Chief Petty Officer, only to have him shout the same instructions to the crew, ad nauseum. It just ain't funny; it's monotonous. This apparent attempt at realism quickly loses steam and smacks of padding out an already weak and inherently misguided script.
Jack Lemmon gets to act funny and frustrated, blustery and benign. He earned an Oscar nod for The Apartment, which was made the same year, but this performance in Wackiest Ship belongs on the poop deck. Ricky Nelson looks stiff as a surfboard while he croons "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" Nelson should have stayed behind a guitar, or donned his Colorado Ryan cowboy clothes for a Rio Bravo sequel. Richard Anderson has one of those familiar faces that everyone recognizes. He's a solid supporting actor, but his role is too short to make an impression. I've always liked the fresh-faced Warren Berlinger (Platinum High School), who plays radioman A.J. Sparks. Sparks is supposed to be a comic relief character, but he can't save the running gag about the ship's engine always conking out.
Columbia TriStar's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer nicely displays the film's only asset, thanks to the beautiful, on-location cinematography by Charles Lawton, Jr. (The Gene Krupa Story). The only extra content is a selection of trailers.
In 1965, The Wackiest Ship in the Army was made into an hour-long TV series that lasted 29 episodes. If you watched them all back-to-back, I'll bet it would still feel shorter than this 99-minute maritime mess.
Guilty! Deep-six this movie—hook, line, and stinker!
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