The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960) ***

A more misleading title would be hard to find – and that goes for the posters too. This is a misfit movie – a bunch of raw recruits knocked into shape by an unwilling captain tasked with sailing a ship into a South Pacific war zone in WWII. Admittedly, Jack Lemmon is in exasperated double-take default in the opening section, but it quickly shifts from comedy to drama as Lemmon shepherds his inexperienced crew into a more compact team. Screenwriter Frank Murphy has an exceptionally good portfolio – Panic in the Streets (1950), The Desert Rats (1953), Broken Lance (1954) and Compulsion (1959) – but brings less to the table as a director, this only his second – and final – outing in that capacity. But given he is directing from his own screenplay, he must take the blame for the incongruous hybrid. Add in an unnecessary tune from Ricky Nelson and the briefest of brief romances and no wonder it’s hard to make head or tail of the movie until it does eventually head out to sea.

Once Lemmon is given more to do than shake or scratch his head the picture movies into more satisfactory territory. Instead of dismissing the crew as idiots, he takes command and shows dramatic chops that are a hint of things to come (Days of Wine and Roses just two pictures away) when he sloughed off comedy for more serious undertakings. Reason for Lemmon being assigned this motorised sailing ship rather than something more obviously U.S. Navy is that he is in the last chance saloon. Once under sail, setting aside some dodgy process work, and it becomes clear they are heading into harm’s way rather than simply delivering the boat to General MacArthur in more harmless waters, the story switches into perilous wartime perilous adventure with decent battle, a couple of twists and some dramatic confrontation.

Lemmon is always watchable and I always thought he could have done with more self-belief when it came to tackling more dramatic parts. When he goes ramrod-stiff and starts barking out orders and has to out-maneuver superiors and enemy, he is entirely convincing, as, too,  safeguarding or rescuing or leading his men in battle. Setting aside the need for Ricky Nelson to register his credentials as a singer, he is not bad either, as an ensign making his way, an ingenue role that suits this ingenue. Veteran John Lund (My Friend Irma) appears as a crusty admiral and Chips Rafferty, the only Australian actor anybody had ever heard of at that point outside of Rod Taylor, has a cameo. Irishwoman Patricia O’Driscoll manages a passable Aussie accent as the brief romance, her role mostly confined to looks of longing while Lemmon is at sea. Raspy-voiced Mike Kellin as an out-of-his-depth chief mate turned up in the television series based on the picture. If ever there was a film of two halves (well, one-third and two-thirds) it’s this, but the second section passes muster.

What the Exhibitor Did

Movie studio publicity teams bombarded exhibitors with gimmicky promotions via the Pressbooks used to publicize movies. Some of the ideas were so outlandish it is easy to imagine that exhibitors’ eyes glazed over at the prospect.

But that would be to misunderstand the character of the cinema manager/owner on the 1960s. They often referred to themselves as “showmen” (ignore the gender slip) because they saw themselves as hustlers of the old school, required to come up with all sorts of schemes to ensure moviegoers were aware of what was showing.

So they weren’t short of coming up with their own ideas.  To promote Billy Wilder comedy The Apartment (1960) with Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine, Loews State in New Orleans set up a replica three-room apartment within the Hurwitz-Minze furniture store in the city. A female model was hired to live there for a week during opening hours. She cooked, washed dishes, watched television and listened to records. “Her daytime routine was complete even to changing her clothes – behind a screen, of course.” The store advertised her presence daily and explained why there was model in the window. The Monteleone Hotel joined in the promotion by providing the model with free accommodation.

Handcuffs were handed out to customers going in to see Psycho (1960) at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, New York, on the basis that it would be advantageous for patrons to handcuff themselves to their seats in case nerves got the better of them and they tried to dash out before the end.

Of course, that was a long way from offering patrons a dead body, raffled off in the intermission between the movies on a midnight horror program, as carried out by the Super 422 Drive-In in Pittsburgh. A dead body was given away – it just turned out to be a turkey.

Exhibitors pushing a horror picture might plant a coffin in the lobby – more effective if there was a hand sticking out – or, as indicative of the terrors that lay ahead, have a white-coated nurse prominently positioned or park an ambulance outside. Certificates of bravery might be issued to attendees.

To promote Macumba Love (1960) – starring Ziva Rodann from The Giants of Thessaly – which featured cannibals and shrunken heads, Loews State in Cleveland put their own shrunken head on display in the lobby behind reducing glass which made it seem even smaller.   

Love takes people the strangest places. Two cycling enthusiasts planning to get married were persuaded by Twentieth Century Fox to travel from New York to Juneau, Alaska, a mere 4,776 miles to promote john Wayne picture North to Alaska (1960).They were paid, of course, and had the honor of being married by the Governor of the state, William Egan. They passed through a hundred towns and cities, stopping off to talk to interested media about their unusual adventure and, in case anyone missed the point, their bikes were plastered with publicity material for the film.

SOURCES: “The Midnight Show,” Box Office, Aug 1, 1960, p64-65; “Girl Keeps House in Window for a Week Prior to Opening of The Apartment,” Box Office, Aug 8, 1960, 118; “Handcuffs Go to Patrons in Advance of Psycho,” Box Office, Oct 3, 1960, 103; “Couple in Bicycle Trip North for To Alaska,” Box Office, Nov 14, 1960, 73.