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Which Way to the Front? (DVD Review)

31 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBShop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Rated ‘G.’
Stars Jerry Lewis, Jan Murray, Steve Franken, John Wood.

There are two things I remember vividly from the Telluride Film Festival in 1980, the only year I ever made it there. One is Robert Altman sitting on a panel devoted to home entertainment and voicing skepticism that movies on tape would ever make it because people wouldn’t to buy a movie they’d only watch once (oh, you mean like hardback books?). The other was a film screening (one of many that were directly competing with alternatives) billed as, “Jean-Luc Godard dares Telluride audiences to experience Jerry Lewis’s Which Way to the Front? ”   

I didn’t go because the competition was an original 130-minute print of All Quiet on the Western Front (with lead Lew Ayres in attendance) back when severely cut prints (103 or so) had been the only ones available for years. But Godard’s point was well taken, and, for perverse reasons, I would have liked making the Which Way screening to check out what must have been a rather specialized viewing demographic.

In the movie that tanked his Hollywood career for 10 years, here’s director/lead Lewis’s answer to The Dirty Dozen — though its fancifully skewed view of World War II history probably makes it close to Quentin Tarantino’s version of Inglourious Basterds. A band of 4-F’s, played by predominantly but not exclusively Jewish actors, invades Italy to take on the Germans. This gives Lewis, sporting a distinctive mustache/beard combo, the opportunity to impersonate a lookalike general in the German high command.

On a perverse level, this one has it all, starting with a brassy big-band score with an anachronistic arrangement (with occasional bongo tinges) even though the story takes place in 1943. We also get former L.A. Dodgers center fielder Willis Davis rating an “Introducing” screen credit (his mild Afro is another nice ’43 touch); comic/game show host Jan Murray as another of these vigilantes; Gary Crosby and ventriloquist Paul Winchell as Nazis; transparently Jewish Sidney Miller as Hitler (good joke); Kaye Ballard as the wife of a local Italian mayor (not so good); and garish costumes that look like something out of an episode of “Thunderbirds” or maybe informal 1970 relax-o-ware for Peter Lawford when trying to look young enough to hit on 18-year-olds.

Released the summer after January’s MASH smash  (which, at the time, looked like the hippest comedy ever made), Which Way apparently did impressive business overseas, and especially in Germany, where a purge-inclined new generation probably dug seeing Miller lament that “Eva bugs me” and griping that she always wants to join him in the bunker. But over here, there were only so many drive-ins. Like everybody else, Hollywood was so screwed up by Vietnam that it had no idea what American moviegoers wanted to see and what they didn’t. I remember one summer day in 1970 when I went to morning/afternoon pre-release screenings of two other movies Warner Bros. released around the same time: John Wayne and Forrest Tucker in Chisum, followed by Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg in the druggy Performance. It was a real mind-melter — though come to think, isn’t this a lot more fun than the homogenization of today’s mainstream fare?

So in the chutzpah Olympics, give Front a 9.8 or 9.9 from the judges — plus a 9.9-decibel reading when faux Germanic Jer screams at the top of his lungs. And don’t forget the climactic sight of these same draft rejects donning buck teeth and Japanese makeup to invade Japan after they’ve taken care of the Germans. As for the sight of African-American Davis sporting these same stereotypical cosmetics … don’t even think about it.

But I dare you to watch.


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