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No Time for Sergeants (DVD Review)

10 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$14.97 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Andy Griffith, Myron McCormick, Nick Adams, Murray Hamilton, Don Knotts.

How many generations have there been by now that didn’t grow up with service comedies? What once seemed like an endless string of them got curtailed by Vietnam — when military life quit being funny (especially to prospective draftees), and the movie version of MASH co-opted, with disdain, what had always been an irreverent but basically respectful genre. The latter then spawned the popular TV series, which so watered down the original for a final service comedy gasp that the movie’s director (Robert Altman, previously a World War II Air Force pilot) had little use for it.

But in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s, examples were ubiquitous — not quite so much as Westerns and creature features, but always around. Double incarnations are one thing, but Andy Griffith’s star-maker had an even more complex genesis. First, it was a Mac Hyman novel whose paperback I bought and read sometime in elementary school, then a 1955 U.S. Steel Hour special with Griffith (available on Criterion’s The Golden Age of Television), then a hit Broadway play that ran almost 800 performances and got Griffith a Tony nomination — and then this movie version, which my dad took me to see in summer 1958, around the time “Yakity-Yak” by the Coasters was popular. Much later, it was a TV series without Griffith (who was off in Mayberry doing other things), but by this time the well had run dry.

The Griffith versions traded on his initial splash as a rube comic specializing in monologues (he then went by “Deacon Andy Griffith”) when “What It Was, Was Football” and “Romeo and Juliet” charted very strongly for novelty recordings. Unappreciated a little later was his standout dramatic performance as a TV-celebrity heel in Elia Kazan’s now chillingly prescient A Face in the Crowd — which, like other 1957 masterpieces (Paths of Glory, 12 Angry Men, Sweet Smell of Success) played to empty houses, just to show you how little the game of tracking weekly box office tallies really matters in the long run.

Watching Sergeants today, you have to think that it must have in some ways influenced “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” in that its rural innocent is drafted into the Air Force, whereby he turns his superiors into basket cases. But Griffith’s Will Stockdale character (is it a coincidence his name suggests “stockade”?) is smarter than Gomer. He’s such a friendly sort that he doesn’t immediately grasp when someone is trying to pull something over on him. But after a few seconds’ delay, the light bulb usually goes on.

I don’t know what the Broadway version’s running time was, but the movie takes a one-hour teleplay (less, when you factor in time for commercials) and expands it to two. And we feel it. This screen version’s first hour is much funnier than I remembered, despite “name” veteran director Mervyn Leroy’s career having lost virtually all of its oomph in the early 1940s after Johnny Eager and Random Harvest (even though he worked a quarter of a century longer). But when the air goes out of Sergeants at the midway point (as in a labored scene at a serviceman’s nightspot), it’s as if someone has cut a six-inch hole in an inter-tube. BIG whoosh.

Up to this fatal point, Griffith has good comic foils wherever he turns: Dub Taylor (with some of his Bonnie and Clyde malevolence) as the government rep who thinks his Georgia prey is a draft-dodger; co-star Nick Adams, in uncharacteristic glasses and rather endearing as Griffith’s insecure best friend; Murray Hamilton as a wise-guy college type, in perennial shades, whose swollen head is at least partially due to having taken ROTC; and as a sergeant as beleaguered as the title portends, Myron McCormick (who was in the stage, but not TV, version). The sarge makes Griffith “Permanent Latrine Orderly” – or, and this is intriguing, “the PLO.”

One of the funniest scenes in the movie involves a staff psychiatrist who futilely keeps insulting the state of Georgia as a way to expose any underlying Griffith animosity. Another is a howler involving Don Knotts (his screen debut) as a corporal enslaved by military protocol. Griffith and Knotts met and became friends while doing the play, and the rest is law enforcement history.

Oddly for this kind of movie, there’s basically no time for women. The one female role of note goes to one of my favorite ‘B’-actresses of the era: Jean Willes, who usually played chippies but was also a pod victim in the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Here, she’s a WAF captain who takes one look at Griffith and Adams and wants to know if they’re being employed as Air Force targets.

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