Steve McQueen earned himself the nickname 'the King of Cool.' Some of his best roles are those where he is the anti-establishment loner, the guy who does what he wants and isn't always popular for it, but he refuses to be tied down. That's why I love his movies from The Great Escape to Bullitt and everything else in between and after. So imagine my surprise several years back when I was reading his filmography and found out he had done...wait for it...a zany 1960s romantic comedy! More surprising? 1961's The Honeymoon Machine is actually pretty good.
The humor is fairly typical of the comedies studios were producing in the 1950s and 1960s before America got all cynical. The stories are ridiculous, the humor often pretty obvious, and they typically remind of some crazy scheme that Lucy and Ethel would have gotten into on I Love Lucy. There is an innocence to these type of movies that just wouldn't have worked 10 years before or after their initial release, and that's part of the appeal. They're sugary sweet and about as harmless as a comedy can be. Starting off, a theme titled "Love Is Crazy." It's so awful, I defy you to not have it stuck in your head, and I do apologize for introducing it.
On board a Navy destroyer outfitted with a highly intelligent, analytical computer named 'Max,' Lt. Fergie Howard (McQueen) and Ensign Beau Gilliam (Jack Mullaney) have concocted a plan that could net them more riches than they ever planned with the help of Max's scientist keeper, Jason Eldridge (Jim Hutton). The Navy headed to Venice, Fergie and Co. hope to input data from a roulette wheel in a casino and let Max figure out a formula where they can deduce where the roulette ball will drop every turn. It's a plan that seems perfect, but nothing goes smoothly from the start. Fergie meets Julie Fitch (Brigid Bazlen), the daughter of Adrmiral Fitch (Dean Jagger), and in trying to cover up their plan actually ends up explaining the whole thing. But that's just the start as the money starts to flow in, and Admiral Fitch begins to suspect something fishy going on, including a possible martian invasion of Venice.
Ridiculous enough for you? It sure sounds stupid. A sucker for heist movies like I am, I was drawn in by the early premise of using a computer to analyze a roulette wheel and make millions. Handled seriously, it could have been a doozy of a caper movie, but any element of seriousness is thrown out the window early here. Director Richard Thorpe specialized in these type of romantic comedies and handles this one very well. It's just 87 minutes long and doesn't waste any time getting where it wants to go. Fergie's perfect plan deteriorates thanks to a drunken watchmen (a cringe-worthy Jack Weston), some Russian interference with the Russkies believing the U.S. is trying to bankrupt Italy, a possible martian invasion, and so much more. But remember, it's madcap comedy so nothing ever gets to serious. Were they really going to court martial Steve McQueen? I think not.
Frank Bullitt. Henrie Charriere. Virgil Hilts. Pvt. Reese. Vin. I could name a lot of McQueen's characters who are some of my favorites. Fergie Howard? Like no one he ever played. For one thing, McQueen was a talented actor no matter the criticisms he's taken, and more than that he is an impressive physical actor. He handles himself so well that he looks incredibly natural in his parts. Throw all those elements into a comedic part, and you're going to have a lot of fun. His mannerisms, his pronunciation of certain words, an inspired English accent, it all made me think McQueen should have done more comedy. It's almost like watching a different actor, but enjoy it. Even a year or two later, I'm not sure he would have done this part. Just sit back and watch the King of Cool in a part unlike any other he did.
McQueen is the scene-stealer in 'Honeymoon,' but that's not to say the rest of the cast disappoints. If the story is as ridiculous as this one, every one has to commit to the badness. Just embrace the goofiness and go along for a ride. Hutton is the straight man to McQueen's antics, and gets a romance with Paula Prentiss, who he would team with in a handful of other MGM comedies in the early 1960s. Hutton and Prentiss have a good chemistry together, and Prentiss gets a lot of laughs as a heiress who insists on not wearing glasses even though she's blind without them. Bazlen was just 17 years old when she made and is a good counter to McQueen. She only made 3 movies in her career, a real shame because she's got a lot of ability. Jagger too gets his fair share of laughs just because of the sheer lunacy of what's happening. All in all a really solid cast.
Not much more to say about this one. If you're wary about giving this one a try, I wouldn't be. It's typical of a 1960s comedy that never takes itself too seriously but in the end is a polished, surprisingly funny finished product. If nothing else, McQueen fans should see it just to see something different. He always had great timing in his dramatic roles, and he doesn't disappoint in a comedy. A change of pace for sure and a good one at that.
The Honeymoon Machine <---TCM trailer (1961): ***/****