Red Buttons, I think of movies. Yes, he was also a Broadway performer and stand-up comedian, but I'm most aware of him for his film roles, like in The Longest Day, Hatari!, and The Poseidon Adventure. Not given many leading roles, Buttons was a great second banana, typically playing a partner or sidekick, like 1958's Imitation General, an underrated WWII comedy.
It's 1944 in France following the successful D-Day invasion, but the fighting rages on. After a bloody battle between German and American forces, an American officer, Brigadier General Charles Lane (Kent Smith) is traveling across the battlefield in a jeep with his two longtime aides, Master Sgt. Murphy Savage (Glenn Ford) and Corporal Chan Derby (Buttons). Remnants of American forces are still in the area, but they're cut off and surrounded by German forces. Lane wants to organize the men, hoping that the sight of a general on the front lines energizes them and brings them together. It is a solid plan, Murphy and Derby going along with it, but Lane is killed saving Murphy from a German machine gun. What to do? The Germans are on all sides and prepping for a counterattack. Murphy does the only thing he can think of....and poses as General Lane, hoping to do exactly what the general had hoped, organizing the men to avoid a horrific, bloody route.
Here we go down this route again. Reading up on this generally forgotten WWII comedy when it appeared on TCM's schedule, I was skeptical of the movie. The Leonard Maltin review called it "a tepid, occasionally tasteless" comedy that "defeats its game cast." Ringing endorsement, huh? I'd never heard of it though prior to it popping up on TCM, and I wanted to give it a fair shot. Well, Mr. Maltin was wrong on this one if you ask me. From director George Marshall, 'Imitation' not surprisingly doesn't rewrite the genre. It's a WWII comedy after all. Any war movie that's a comedy -- and not a dark comedy like MASH or Catch-22 -- has to tread that fine line. War isn't naturally funny so playing it for goofy, physical laughs can be iffy. The premise here did sound pretty goofy, but I stuck with it and was rewarded in the end. It's good stuff, and I'm glad I gave it a fair shot.
A few days since I reviewed 1956's Ransom!, here comes a complete 180 from star Glenn Ford. An underrated actor in general, Ford was home in just about any role he ever did, action, drama or comedy. For me though, I watch him and like him best when he gets to show off some of his comedic chops, like he does here. It's not the laughs a comic would get, but laughs from a really underplayed line delivery. He has an ease about him in parts like this that makes him very likable. His Master Sgt. Murphy has genuinely good intentions here when he dons the general's stars and puts on the dead officer's helmet. It isn't glory he's after, just trying to prevent a battlefield route of an already beaten down army. There's just enough drama to pull it off, Ford's Murphy questioning if he's made the right decision. Oh, and he gets to woo a pretty French woman, Simone (Taina Elg), so that's nice. Those scenes are the movie's weakest points.
Playing almost like a buddy flick, 'Imitation' is at its deadpan funniest when Ford and Buttons are on-screen together. Their Murphy and Derby have been friends and fellow soldiers across North Africa into Sicily and finally into France. In other words, they know each other well, trust each other and have a genuine friendship. They show that friendship through a non-stop running dialogue that revolves around insults and in-jokes, the duo's lightning-quick delivery back and forth playing well. I liked both Ford and Buttons a lot here. In a too short appearance, Smith is very good too as General Lane. As for some of the other men bottled up in the Allied pocket of resistance are Cpl. Sellers (Dean Jones), a shell-shocked bookworm of a soldier, Pvt. Orville Hutchmeyer (Tige Andrews), an adversary of Murphy's and the only man around who can identify him as a fraud, and Lt. Clayton (John Wilder), a young NCO always putting his foot in his mouth around Murphy.
When the story focuses on Murphy and Simone at her bombed-out farmhouse, the story in an 88-minute long movie begins to drag a little bit. It's at its best when 'Imitation' heads out into the field. With the hills around Hollywood standing in for France, the big Cinemascope look plays well, especially filming in black and white. The action scenes are on a small scale, but that smallish scale doesn't hurt a thing. It's actually the better for it. As well, the scenes with Murphy frantically trying to hide from Hutchmeyer provide some genuine laughs too amidst all the chaos. The whole movie succeeds on that smaller scale. No cast and crew of thousands, no bigger picture of what's going on. Instead, we get an enjoyable WWII comedy that isn't obnoxiously stupid or at the other end of the spectrum, ridiculously dark and cynical. It's just a good old-fashioned comedy that I liked a lot.
Imitation General (1958): ***/****