Don't Give Up the Ship (Blu-ray Review)8 May, 2017 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Jerry Lewis, Dina Merrill, Diana Spencer, Mickey Shaughnessy.
Jerry Lewis plays a World War II vet and seaman officer in Don’t Give Up the Ship, a Paramount black-and-whiter that some might regard as a semi-outlier in his career. I base this on the supposition that Lewis is in standard navy garb instead of Sy Devore belts or white socks with black shoes — and also the fact that the character Lewis is playing has something of a normal sex drive, except for the times when we see him mugging over the prospect of his imminent wedding night in trademark goon-ish fashion. To somewhat pervy effect, one might add.
This said, I still have some residue affection for the picture, which was the only Lewis comedy released in 1959 when his usual fashion (post-Dean Martin breakup) was to launch two salvos a year — one for summer and one for Christmas. I even had the Dell tie-in comic book of Ship, which, whatever its limitations as formative-years reading material, my mother and teachers preferred to my going into the Tremont Library “adult section” for the millionth time with my oldest pal Jim Freeman to pull Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury off the “adult section” shelf. It really wasn’t a fair fight: Jury’s indelible last pages boasted a slattern in panties taking a bullet to the midsection, whereas Ship (at least on screen) could only compete with Gale Gordon.
The picture rated an official Washington, D.C., premiere in middle June, and one can just imagine what the secretary of the Navy (if he even showed up for official remarks) said. Otherwise, this was a July 4 opener — one of my own downtown movie palaces billed it over Fred MacMurray in Face of a Fugitive — and getting the call to direct was (again) Norman Taurog. As much as an aged “seasoned veteran” as then future baseball pitcher Jesse Orosco would seem to be (Orosco always looked older to me than Methuselah’s babysitter), Taurog had won an Oscar at age 33 or so for the Jackie Cooper Skippy but spent his twilight career slogging through Lewis farces and Elvis Presley musicals. A couple of his Martin & Lewis pictures had actually ranked with the team’s best, but you could see the downward trajectory Taurog’s career taken for far too long via. He did another Navy comedy (with Pat Boone and Buddy Hackett) not long after Ship, and the director’s 1968 swan song Live a Live a Little, Love a Little was an Elvis pic that managed to include both Rudy Vallee and Sterling Holloway — which helps explain why the King needed that classic TV special a mere five weeks later to get him back to the cutting edge.
Even by ’59, Taurog was at the “how’d all these people get in the room?” chapter of his career when he walked onto a soundstage, and in retrospect, we can now sense that Lewis was rabid to start directing himself. (Exactly a year later, he’d have The Bellboy, which strikes me as better than ever these days, in release). So if this is the background, what do we get on screen? Well, Gordon plays a hack Congressman and straw-man buffoon looking for an excuse to deny the U.S. Navy its appropriations — only to receive a gift when newly uncovered circumstantial evidence suggests that Lewis’s “John Paul Steckler VII” (for an historical footnote, Robert Stack’s John Paul Jones opened at exactly the same time in U.S. theaters) somehow “lost” a destroyer escort at war’s end more than a dozen years earlier. The Navy brass (and here, Robert Middleton’s appearance as an admiral is as inevitable as Gordon’s) orders adamantly bewildered and denier Steckler to find it — caring little that the poor guy is on his honeymoon. Playing the negligee-bedecked bride (with caviar, back in the hotel room) is Diana Spencer — another of those actresses who had major roles in Lewis comedies and never seemed to be in much else.
Fortunately, Dina Merrill plays the ensign assigned to help with Steckler/Lewis’s defense, and if ever there was an actress who looked hot in non-nonsense officer’s garb, Merrill (with her real-life regal bearing as a rich heiress) was it. This said, her character seems to crack up at everything Steckler does when a normal person would be looking around for the steel balls he must be rolling half the time (actually, there is a Captain Queeq joke here). The duo’s exoneration attempts set up a long flashback in which Steckler lands in a Japanese camp with enemy soldiers who don’t know the war has just ended (hey, pally, you’d better not tell them how) — also a contemporary-to-’59 set piece where our defendant ends up at ringside of a pro wrestling match where Mickey Shaughnessy plays one of the participants. There’s also a role for Claude Akins, if you want to touch all the SAG-card file cases.
If this all sounds a little snide, the result is almost as affable as it is labored — and there are some funny bits early on, as when Steckler’s superiors sit completely stoned-faced (in intentional staging) while he mugs and flails, a gag akin to something you’d see in the movies Lewis would soon direct himself. Regretfully, the print here doesn’t have the benefit of VistaVision because Paramount had sadly scrapped it not long before — but Kino’s publicity says it’s been given a 4K scan, and certainly the result looks crisp and pleasingly clean to the eye. I almost made a boo-boo here and claimed that Ship (which, until now, has never even gotten a DVD release) further managed to miss the VHS era. But it turns out that in the Cro-Magnon days of videocassettes, it got a Magnetic Video release (ebay was listing one for $103.50 not that long ago).
Though Lewis-directed comedies would soon dominate the Jer screen agenda for half a decade or more, one more Taurog was in the works for 1960 release after Lewis starred in a poorly received NBC-TV disinterment of The Jazz Singer in the fall of ’59. This final collaboration (and the next Lewis feature) was Visit to a Small Planet, which turned Gore Vidal’s satirical play into a kind of Mork and Mindy precursor with Lewis playing an extraterrestrial. High on the list of places I’d liked to have been in my life was in the screening room as the lights went up and Vidal was presumably helped out of the building. With two attendants, a supply of oxygen and a walker.
Gale Gordon was in it, too.