Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In the Navy (Universal, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was In the Navy, Abbott and Costello’s third film for Universal (third film, period) and the immediate follow-up to Buck Privates (years later Martin and Lewis would follow the same pattern, doing At War with the Army and then following it up almost immediately with Sailor Beware), though given the huge success of Buck Privates Universal upped the budget on this one and gave cinematographer Joseph Valentine a chance to create some lovely atmospherics on a studio-set “exterior” representing a tropical environment (a set Universal used again and again and again, including a later Abbott and Costello vehicle, Pardon My Sarong). They also hired a more prestigious romantic lead than the one from Buck Privates (Lee Bowman, who more commonly played villains): Dick Powell, cast as “Russ Raymond, Radio’s Singing Heart Throb,” who’s tired of celebrity life in general and being mobbed by his fans in particular. So he decides to enlist in the Navy under his real name, Tommy Halstead, and spend the next six years of his life (the length of his pre-war hitch) as just another sailor. Only reporter Dorothy Roberts (Claire Dodd, usually cast as a home-wrecking villainess but getting a chance to play a spunky comic role here) is bound and determined to get photos of Russ Raymond, sailor, so she follows him through the entire film, posing as a chambermaid at the “Conquistador Hotel” in San Diego where he stays before he reports for training (the scenes were shot at the Naval Training Center in San Diego and, though you only get a brief glimpse of its exterior, the “Conquistador Hotel” is pretty obviously the U.S. Grant) and going so far as to dress herself in (male) sailor drag and stow away on the battleship U.S.S. Alabama when he ships out to Hawai’i.

Abbott and Costello play Smokey Adams and Pomeroy Watson, Navy cooks (Pomeroy has survived a typically Costellan series of comic screw-ups because a high-ranking admiral especially likes his cream puffs) who end up on the Alabama with the rest of the principals (including the Andrews Sisters, once again playing themselves and serving as a kind of all-around portable morale booster — though Patty Andrews is also cast as Lou Costello’s unrequited love interest: he’s written her that he’s tall, handsome and an admiral, and when she finds out the truth she dumps him). It’s not as highly regarded as Buck Privates, and the songs by Don Raye and Gene DePaul aren’t as good as the ones from the earlier film (there’s a hot number called “Gimme Some Skin” that the Andrews Sisters perform — given that it’s a song about Harlem they could have done it in blackface, but they didn’t, more’s the pity — but no swing or boogie songs comparable to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” or “Bounce Me, Brother, with a Solid Four”), but otherwise this is a definite improvement. The director was Arthur Lubin (again) and the writing credits go to Arthur T. Horman for the basic story and “book” portions and John Grant for the hilarious Abbott and Costello special material (including an exercise in New Math in which Costello “proves” that seven times 13 is 28) — and later in 1941 life imitated art when superstar bandleader Artie Shaw suddenly walked out on his career and joined the Navy. (The real-life Navy pressed Shaw into service as a bandleader, essentially making him what Glenn Miller was with the Army Air Force — but while Miller’s service band played mostly at bases in Allied countries and got to make Armed Forces Radio broadcasts and V-Disc records, Shaw’s actually played in combat zones and is frustratingly undocumented on record.)

Ironically, before In the Navy Abbott and Costello had actually filmed a horror-comedy called Hold That Ghost, but Universal production head Cliff Work decided to put that production on hold and rush a second service comedy out to capitalize on the success of Buck Privates — and after In the Navy was finished Hold That Ghost was revamped to include a romantic subplot and songs by the Andrews Sisters (making that their third Abbott and Costello movie in a row) and Ted Lewis’s band. Universal made In the Navy so quickly that it was already scheduled to be released on May 30, 1941 even before Lubin started shooting it on April 7 — a relentless schedule that got complicated by the fact that the Navy had been given approval rights on the film and it couldn’t be released without the O.K. of one Commander Bolton (Thomas Schatz’ book The Genius of the System tells this story but doesn’t give Bolton’s first name), who didn’t like the first draft of the script and sent Universal a note that the film must be “kept in the spirit of good, clean fun … it is a lampoon from start to finish and must be kept in that spirit.” He specifically targeted the elaborate brawl at a dance hall and asked that it be either shortened or removed (it was kept in, heavily edited, but the original trailer included some of the outtakes).

The biggest problem with the Navy was the final scene, in which Costello’s character accidentally gives the Alabama’s captain a sleep-inducing drug, impersonates the captain (in a ridiculous uniform that makes him look like Napoleon) and leads the ship on an hilariously bungled set of maneuvers. This required a complicated mix of live footage, stock shots and model work, all lined up by Universal effects whiz John P. Fulton (the man who’d figured out how to make Claude Rains, Vincent Price and Jon Hall invisible) and requiring extensive post-production work on optical effects, which meant more time than usual between the completion of shooting and the assembly of the shots into a releasable sequence. The shoot was delayed by weather and then further delayed by Commander Bolton, who saw the final sequence, went ballistic and said that if the scene remained in the film he couldn’t approve it for release. So the producer, Alex Gottlieb, called Horman and Grant back together and they decided to rework the setup for the scene so that, instead of impersonating the drugged captain, Costello took the drug himself and dreamed the sequence. (This actually brought In the Navy even more in line with its model, Buck Privates, in which Costello had dreamed himself to be a captain in a similar, though much less elaborate, scene.) The script was rewritten on May 17, 1941, the retakes were shot on May 18, the re-editing was done May 19 and a print was flown across the country to Washington, D.C. on May 20 for screening to Bolton and other Navy officials. On May 21 director Lubin received a wire from the Navy Department which read, “Your picture passed 100 percent. Have accomplished three weeks’ work in one day. Congratulations.” Later Bolton wrote Work that he found the finished film “delightful,” and added, “The ingenious twist of having Costello drink the sleeping potion eliminated the only possibly objectionable material.”

In the Navy is a fully professional film whose smooth production finish belies the helter-skelter way in which it was made, with Universal getting weird notes not only from the Production Code Administration (which they were used to) but the Navy (which they weren’t), opening with an odd scene in which Russ Raymond, America’s Singing Heart Throb, is broadcasting with a “roo” moustache (which Dick Powell loses early on as part of his just-another-sailor disguise) and an oddly visible growth of beard that makes him look more like the Dick Powell who played Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet three years later than the one who’d been Ruby Keeler’s nice young singing boyfriend in all those Warners musicals in the 1930’s (including a previous Navy-themed film, Shipmates Forever) — Powell was the “on his way down” casting in this film to balance Abbott and Costello, who were clearly on their way up; no one in Hollywood could have guessed that Powell would be able to mount a comeback, or that he’d do so in a genre so different from musicals as film noir! As it stands, it’s a good mix of romance, music and hilarious comedy, both physical and dialogue (later Abbott and Costello would rely less on the great word-play routines John Grant cooked up for them and more on slapstick, at which they weren’t as good) and in some ways a more winning film than Buck Privates, thanks largely to Powell’s presence and also to the finely honed performance by Claire Dodd, who was no doubt relieved to be playing something than the “other woman” for a change!