Release Date(s)1950 (March 24, 2015)
Studio(s)Paramount (Kino Lorber)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: C+
- Extras Grade: N/A
It’s telling that, when Jerry Lewis published Dean and Me, a memoir of his 10-year partnership with Dean Martin, he subtitled the book A Love Story. Though their relationship was at times a rocky one, both of these supremely talented men had a deep affection and respect for the other’s gifts that was evident in their joint projects. After serendipity brought them together onstage on a July day in 1946 at Atlantic City, New Jersey’s 500 Club, Martin and Lewis ascended the entertainment ranks to become the highest-paid entertainers in the country. With their roles well established – Dean, the suave crooner, and Jerry, the bumbling goofball – it was only natural that the stage, radio and television performers would find their way to the big screen, as well. After appearing in supporting roles in My Friend Irma (1949) and its sequel My Friend Irma Goes West (1950), Martin and Lewis headlined their first motion picture. At War with the Army was made outside of their contract with Paramount Pictures, resulting from a deal that the duo could make one film per year for their own production company. (Paramount distributed.) Upon its release in December 1950, legal troubles ensued over their contract and the film’s profits. In 1977, the movie fell into the public domain, and as a result, it’s appeared numerous times over the years on home video. Kino Lorber has recently brought At War with the Army to Blu-ray in an edition billed as “newly re-mastered in HD!”
Based on James B. Allardice’s 1949 stage play, which ran for 150 performances at Broadway’s Booth Theatre, the film starred Martin as 1st Sgt. Vic Puccinelli and Lewis as Pfc. Alvin Korwin. Set in a U.S. Army training camp during World War II, it follows Puccinelli and his old friend Korwin through an episodic series of comic travails and mishaps, some embellished with songs by the “Que Sera Sera” team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. (Though At War with the Army has numerous musical sequences, it’s not quite a full-fledged musical. Characters do occasionally break out in song, but there are long stretches with no music at all.) Naturally, Martin’s Puccinelli is the embodiment of cool, and a smooth operator; Lewis’ Korwin is a hapless bungler. The film, written by Fred F. Finklehoffe and directed in workmanlike fashion by Hal Walker, allows both men to do what they did best. The threadbare plot doesn’t get in the way of their fun. Lewis mugs at every chance he gets, making full use of his repertoire of elastic faces and comic voices, and relishes each opportunity for physical comedy. He even throws in an Al Jolson impersonation and dons drag! Martin effortlessly tosses off quips, pursues “dames,” and serenades the lovely Polly Bergen (who gets an “Introducing Polly Bergen” credit here) with a silky croon.
Some of the humor in Finklehoffe’s largely stagebound script hasn’t aged well, such as Pfc. Korwin’s observation of the training camp that “a concentration camp’s gotta be better than this!” But, for the most part, the movie genially spoofs military life. It most comes to vivid life when Martin and Lewis get an opportunity to recreate their well-honed stage act for an army talent show, including a late-in-the-film sequence in which they uncannily spoof Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way! Crosby was always a tremendous influence on Martin’s laid-back vocals; Dino’s “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” is, naturally, spot-on. Lewis has his share of solo spotlights, too, such as a scene in which he fights with a soda machine, and another extended set piece as he bungles his way through an obstacle course.
Of the supporting cast, veteran stage and screen actor Mike Kellin notably reprises his Broadway role of Pfc. Korwin’s nemesis, Sergeant McVey, and Polly Bergen is radiant as Helen Palmer, the object of Puccinelli’s affection. The camera savors every one of her features while Martin sings “You and Your Beautiful Eyes” to her in a snug Record-Your-Own-Voice booth. Jean Ruth and Angela Greene get a comical sequence with Bergen thanks to some mistaken identity complications. But by and large, the film’s most memorable moments are all courtesy Messrs. Martin and Lewis.
Unfortunately, Kino Lorber’s 1:37:1, 1080p presentation of At War with the Army is far from ideal. There are scratches and damage from the opening titles onward, and the fluctuating video quality throughout seems to indicate multiple sources. At its best, the image is reasonably sharp with good detail and black-and-white contrast, and better than comparable public domain releases, but deterioration nonetheless abounds. Audio quality is similar; it troubles from the very first score cue accompanying the titles. Much like the video, the 2.0 DTS-MA audio improves after the opening, but audible damage – including substantial hiss – remains. Additionally, there are no bonus features included. Subtitles are not offered.
The altogether amiable At War with the Army isn’t a high point for Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis or the team of Martin and Lewis. The now-legendary duo would go on to make another thirteen comedies before breaking up in 1956, ten years to the day of their first onstage appearance. Both men’s stellar subsequent careers, too, would arguably eclipse their phenomenal successes together. But At War with the Army captures Dino and Jerry in youthful mode, playfully enjoying the ride and playing off one another with fondness and zest. This Blu-ray isn’t a superlative one, but will make a worthwhile addition to any Martin and Lewis collection.
- Joe Marchese