The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, July 2, 2012

Don't Go Near the Water

This is going to sound a little odd when you consider that Glenn Ford was in over 80 movies. I've always been a fan of his, but that was without actually having seen many of his movies. As I check some more off his list, I came to a somewhat surprising revelation. I'm liking him as an actor, movie star and presence more and more. Add 1957's Don't Go Near the Water to the list. And no, this is not a Jaws prequel.

On the small South Pacific island of Tulura, the fighting in WWII seems a long way off. At a small navy base, the Navy Public Relations department is run by the stupidly gung-ho and generally clueless Lt. Commander Nash (Fred Clark), an officer who's never had a sea command, much less been on the water at all. Among his motley crew of officers who would rather be anywhere else is Lt. Max Siegel (Ford), a Harvard grad who does his best to keep his commander in check and his fellow officers from losing their minds. But even out at this remote post in the South Pacific, all sorts of loony characters and odd situations come up, all of them requiring Siegel to work his magic in one way or another.

For all the hard-hitting war movies with a message that were released following WWII, another sub-genre popped up, that of the service comedy. These were stories that focused on the day-to-day life of soldiers across the different branches, leaving the fighting and killing to the darker, more realistic stories. Saying that these movies and TV shows (McHale's Navy, Sergeant Bilko) minimized the war isn't right, and saying a "war comedy" doesn't sound correct at all, but these are fun, enjoyable movies. You look past them as anything profound, checking that sentiment at the door. Sit back and enjoy them, especially this 1957 service comedy from director Charles Walters.

Based off a 1956 novel, I don't think it's fair to say 'Water' has much of a plot. That's not a bad thing though, the easy-going story flowing nicely from vignette to vignette. None linger too long or overstay their welcome, staying around long enough to make an impression and then moving on. Once you figure out the rhythm, hopefully you enjoy the movie as much as I did. Ford's Lt. Siegel is the unifying link among all the subplots, some more interesting than others. The ones that work? One has Ensign Garrett (Earl Holliman) madly in love with a nurse, Lt. Tomlen (Anne Francis), but they can't as much as talk because she's an officer, Siegel intervening as needed. Another has Siegel teaming with Lt. Tyson (Russ Tamblyn) to blackmail a blustering war correspondent (Keenan Wynn, who better?) rather than deal with his daily blowhard complaints.

Maybe because he was steady throughout his career more than a huge breakout star, but Ford never received huge acclaim for his roles. I mostly knew him from his tough guys roles (3:10 to Yuma, The Big Heat among others), but where I've become a fan is in his parts that show off his comedic ability. He usually lets those around him show off while he plays the straight man, but he is sublimely perfect at it, especially here. One vignette has him giving the My Fair Lady treatment to a foul-mouthed soldier (Mickey Shaughnessy), and his facial expressions and physical reactions are worth the price of admission alone. More than just an action star or a comedic presence, he also gets the girl, a Tuluran beauty and schoolteacher named Melora (Gia Scala). Not a great part, but a memorable one, and another positive from the Ford filmography.

With Ford leading the way, the ensemble around him fills in all the holes as needed. What holds it all together is that this group -- no huge names, just recognizable, very capable actors/actresses -- has a ton of chemistry together. I thought Holliman and Tamblyn especially stood out as two young sailors who look to Siegel for help. Wynn is at his blustery best, a condescending know-it-all who plays everyone around him as needed. As the clueless Lt. Commander, Clark is a more obvious funny from his office headquarters. Also look for Eva Gabor as Deborah Aldrich, a war correspondent who causes a stir just by arriving with a low-cut shirt, and Jeff Richards as Lt. Pendleton, the ladies man on the island who Holliman's Garrett has to fight for Francis' Alice. All solid parts that alone don't do much, but together end up carrying the movie.

Not too much analysis needed here. Good, old-fashioned and entertaining WWII service comedy. Well worth seeking out.

Don't Go Near the Water <---TCM trailer (1957): ***/****

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