Breening Thursday: 14. “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” from 1960


Today is Thursday, so it is time for the next breening article! I hope that my readers have been enjoying my Breening Thursday articles every week. My last two topics have been Rating System Era films. I breened my first post-Code film on November 1, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from 1968, when I restarted the Breening Thursday series. Since then, I have featured several Rating System Era films to expand that category. This week, I decided to breen a film from a different era. My film choice for today is a Shurlock Era film from 1960, The Wackiest Ship in the Army. Last week’s topic was very complex and involved, since I practically rewrote the latter half of an R-rated slasher film, American Gothic from 1987. In contrast, this week’s topic is a fairly tame film for its year. Because of that, this article will be a shorter one.

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This film is an adventure comedy set in the South Pacific during World War II. This movie stars Jack Lemmon and Ricky Nelson. It was released by Columbia Pictures and was directed by Richard Murphy. This was the film that introduced me to Jack Lemmon in April of 2014. Watching this picture made Rebekah and me develop a strong interest in and admiration of Jack Lemmon’s acting; he was our first favorite actor. This interest in him ultimately led to my learning of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, which would eventually lead to our founding of PEPS. Thus, this is a very poignant film in our growth process as movie-lovers. During the height of our Jack Lemmon phase, which was before we knew about the Breen and Shurlock Eras, this was one of our favorite films. We watched it so much that I can breen it from memory. I know the story and the problems by heart even though I haven’t watched this movie in over a year. This is a very memorable movie.

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When the film begins, Lieutenant Rip Crandall (Jack Lemmon) has just received his first commission as a commander of a ship, and he is so excited. However, his enthusiasm wanes when he sees the vessel to which he has been assigned, the U. S. S. Echo. The decrepit vessel is a shallow-water sailing ship with a temperamental engine and an inexperienced ragtag crew. The junior officer, Ensign Tommy Hansen (Ricky Nelson), is the only man aboard who knows naval procedure. He is a very eager young man who knows Lieutenant Crandall’s pre-war sailing record and greatly admires him for it. He is eager to work under Lieutenant Crandall, but Rip is determined to get out of this assignment. When he learns that he was chosen for the job by an old acquaintance of his, he hurries to his office. Commander Wilbur Vandewater (John Lund) insists that he chose Rip because he is the only man whom he knows with the sailing experience, but Rip is convinced that he just chose him out of spite because Rip beat him in many races before the war. Rip is terrified by the idea of sailing across 4000 miles of open sea filled with enemy planes and subs in “a Chinese junk masquerading as a Navy vessel” with “a crew of cherry-pickers.” Despite Wilbur’s protests, Rip insists that he doesn’t have to accept the ship because of its unsuitability. He storms out, but Vandewater tells Tommy to follow him and get him to sign the papers at all costs. Rip goes to the officer’s club to have a drink. Little does he know that the bartender and his innocent companion, Tommy, are conspiring against him. The bartender keeps filling his glass with whisky, camouflaging sabotage with good service. Rip is suspicious, but he quickly loses track of how much he is drinking. Before he realizes what has happened, he has become quite intoxicated. When Tommy suggests that they go back to the ship, Rip thinks that he has caught onto the scheme to “shanghai” him. Tommy protests that he doesn’t have any other place to stay. Rip says that he will stay at the bachelor officer’s quarters, and Tommy leaves, looking rather hurt. However, no sooner has he left than Vandewater’s attractive secretary, Maggy (Patricia Driscoll), walks in. She caught Rip’s eye when they met in the office that afternoon, so now, much friendlier because of the whisky, he invites her to sit with him. She tells him that she is looking for Ensign Hansen to have him sign the command papers for the Echo. Rip’s conscience won’t let him allow Tommy to take command of the motley ship on the dangerous mission, so he reluctantly signs the papers. Once sober, Rip realizes that Vandewater tricked him into taking the ship, but he tackles his assignment confidently. He whips the crew into shape as best he can, and they leave the dock on their mission. During their journey, they endure many trials, tribulations, and triumphs. The novice sailors soon become expert seamen under Rip’s leadership. Finally, they reach the harbor where they are supposed to dock, only to realize by Morse Code signals at the last moment that the harbor is a mine area! Rip and the crew expertly navigate around the mines and make it safely to the dock. At last it is the time for which Rip has been waiting, when he may turn the ship over to another officer for the next part of its mission. However, when Rip meets the pompous, sarcastic lieutenant who is supposed to replace him, Dennis Foster (Richard Anderson), he is reluctant to leave his friends in the crew under his command. Breaking regulations, he takes the ship out himself to go on the next part of the mission, which may be deadly. Rip, Tommy, and the rest of the crew must face the greatest peril they have known yet to accomplish their mission. The only things that can get them through are bravery, trust, and teamwork. I would say that that is all you need to know about the story. Now, let the breening begin!

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The credits of this film are accompanied by caricatures of ships, the ocean, and Japanese soldiers. The Japanese soldiers are comically drawn with overly-slanted eyes and buck teeth. These are common offensive stereotypes which were made about the Japanese. Despite the fact that they were our enemies during World War II, the Production Code Administration tried to keep racial slurs against the Germans and the Japanese to a minimum. However, even during the Code years, credits often featured drawings, cartoons, or images which were slightly questionable. This was because the PCA did not review credits, a fact of which many filmmakers took advantage. Despite this, we are trying to make this film completely Code-compliant from start to finish. The opening cartoons may show ships and aquatic pictures but no Japanese soldiers.

When Rip goes to Vandewater’s office, he quotes a section from the book of Navy regulations which states that a commanding officer does not have to accept a ship if he finds it to be in an unsuitable condition. Vandewater curtly says, “You sure turned out to be a sea lawyer in a – of a hurry.” The dash symbolizes a swear word. He should just say, “You sure turned out to be a sea lawyer in one big hurry.”

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When the Echo comes into the port where Rip is supposed to release control of the ship, his successor, Lieutenant Foster, is standing on the dock. Before they have even laid anchor, Foster starts making rude and sarcastic cracks about the ship’s unusual appearance and inexperienced crew. Tommy tries to be polite as he defends the ship and its crew. However, Foster doesn’t back down. Rip is standing on the other side of the ship, and he hears Foster’s rude remarks. He has been under a lot of stress, since they just finished a nerve-wracking journey through a minefield. Foster’s smart-aleck behavior is too much for him. Storming over to him, Rip yells, “Who the – do you think you’re talking to?! This is my ship!” He gives a very intense speech which puts Foster in his place. However, the first comment has a forbidden word in it. Rip should say, “Who on earth do you think you’re talking to?” or just, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” Jack Lemmon was such an intense actor that he could make a line very pointed and dramatic without using profanity.

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During the next part of its journey, the Echo must get past enemy air surveillance by masquerading as a native trading ship. Several members of the crew dress like natives. Two men dress like island girls, wearing grass skirts and coconut tops. They are seen by two Japanese soldiers in an airplane. After waving at the “girls,” one pilot speaks to the other in Japanese as English subtitles appear on the screen. The subtitles read, “Did you see that? Young native girls!” As the words young native girls appear, he actually says, “Broads,” instead of a Japanese word. The other pilot replies in Japanese, as the following subtitles appear on the screen: “You’ve been out here too long. Very unattractive.” As the second sentence is on the screen, he actually says, “Dogs.” This whole sequence is in poor taste. Firstly, the depiction of the two Japanese pilots is rather offensive. Less leniency was given in such depictions after the war, and racial slurs were discouraged even during World War II. Secondly, it is insulting for men to refer to women as broads and dogs. Personally, I think the film would be just as good if the exchange between the two Japanese pilots were eliminated. However, if it did remain, the pilots would have to actually say the Japanese words which mean young native girls and very unattractive.

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The Echo’s destination in this dangerous mission is a secluded island in enemy territory. It is their duty to bring an Australian man, Patterson, to be a lookout on that island. The man who was reporting on enemy activity from that island went off the air a while ago, so it is their duty to look for him as well as to bring his replacement. Rip and most of the crew remain on the ship while Tommy and a few other men bring Patterson and his Aborigine companion to his designated location. As they are traveling through the dense jungle, they come upon the hut where the former lookout was stationed. There, they find his unfortunate remains. Although his whole corpse is not shown, his leg is shown. It looks barely decayed, and flies are seen buzzing around. This is unnecessarily graphic and grotesque. Instead, the men’s reaction to finding his body could just be shown.

After Tommy, Patterson, and the others have moved on, two Japanese soldiers enter the hut. They start to radio information about Patterson’s arrival back to their headquarters. The Aborigine sneaks up on them and silently strangles them both with his bare hands. He is actually shown strangling the first soldier. This is unnecessarily violent. He could just be shown approaching and starting to grab the first soldier from behind.

When Tommy and the crew return to the ship, they find that it has been captured by Japanese soldiers. After Rip and Tommy overcome their captors, a battle ensues. In this battle, a little too much violence is shown. The fight scene could be briefer, with less actual combat being depicted.

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After the Americans have recaptured the ship, the two primary Japanese officers are still aboard in custody. The sailors think that the general is unconscious in the cabin, but he has revived. He grabs a sword and sneaks on deck. He creeps up on Lieutenant Crandall and stabs him in his torso just as Rip turns to face him. You see the sword supposedly penetrate Rip’s torso, but it obviously goes under his left arm. It can be seen sticking out behind his body. Not only is it violent to show Rip actually get stabbed, it is quite unrealistic. It would be better to just show the general come after him but not show the actual assault. Then, Rip asks Tommy to pull the sword out of him. The sword should not be stuck in his body. The general should just stab him and continue holding the sword as he gets shot himself.

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Those are the only problems in the film. Other than that, it is a very entertaining, funny, and exciting movie. If these problems were removed, there would be nothing to offend even the most sensitive individuals. However, it would be just as amusing and dramatic. I encourage you to buy this film on Amazon through the link I provided below and see for yourself! It is a wonderful picture in its current form, but some violence and offensive characterizations could have been removed. I encourage you to watch this film and consider whether or not the picture would have been better without these elements. Some Shurlock Era films like this one have relatively few problems. However, these problems, such as the two four-letter words in this film’s dialogue, make movies less enjoyable than they could have been. With the Code, these problems wouldn’t have been there.

Come back next week for the next Breening Thursday article!

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